“World Building” is a noble pursuit in long form improvisation. It can focus our creativity to try to link our scenes to a single location, time or conceit. The Chicago-based People of Earth, for example, placed all of their scenes on the same train. Horse Apples set an entire long-form in a future where everyone had bionic limbs. The audience adores this organic world building.
It can therefore feel like a gift to receive a suggestion like “Star Wars” from the audience. I mean, c’mon, what improv nerd isn’t itching to do their own Blue Harvest?
But it’s a trap.
While it can be tempting to recreate a well-known property on stage, doing so often has us focused on premises and gimmicks over emotion. Think about the last time you saw an improviser bring a well-known character or actor to stage – Were they emotionally invested and vulnerable to the moment? Too often we’re too focused on our impression to set up the patterns of emotional behavior triggered by active elements that are the core of Improv As Improv Does Best.
But we can expand from a suggestion like “Star Wars” to build a world wholly our own. Want to try it?
STEP 1 – Write down the titles of some well-known TV, Movie or Book properties that depict worlds. Focus on properties where if you cut out the main characters, the background characters would still have lives of their own that were affected by the conceits of the property. Here are some examples I like:
- Toy Story
- The Little Mermaid
- The Jetsons
- The Flinstones
- Wild Wild West
- Band of Brothers
- Honey I Shrunk The Kids
- Once Upon A Time
- Sausage Party
Write the titles on individual strips of paper. Put them in a bowl.
STEP 2 – Player One picks a title from the bowl, reading it but not telling anyone else what was picked. S/he then initiates a scene with Player Two inspired by that title, BUT without referencing any of the property’s proper nouns. They are to create new characters engaged in the world. Note that when you are engaged in your world, you aren’t commenting on it – for example, I don’t say, “I’m typing on my computer in my cube at my job,” I just do it.
Does this emphasis on not commenting on the scene make it likely that Player Two will not know what world Player One is inspired by? Yes, by design. If we enter stage with too much deference to our scene partner – waiting until we know their idea before making a choice ourselves – A) we often look like idiots “just standing there,” and B) We miss the opportunity to build our scene around OUR idea, not just Player One’s idea. So Player Two, I want you to enter stage and confidently make a choice for yourself, whether you “get” what Player One is inspired by or not.
During practice, Lauren Serpa of The Johnsons pulled “The Jetsons” from the bowl. She became a robot, making little beep sounds. Joe Mack, her scene partner, thought she was being a bird; he talked about hating flying though he was made for it. Lauren admitted that she too hated her primary function but acknowledged that she had no recourse. Did it matter that Joe thought he was a bird while Lauren was a robot? Not at all. In fact, by making a choice rather than choosing to defer Joe helped elevate the scene from an issue ever discussed on The Jetsons.
STEP 3 – Player Three, still perhaps not knowing the title that inspired Player One, wipes the first scene and initiates a second scene. S/he bases her/his initiation on however s/he thinks to heighten/expand whatever world s/he saw in the first scene. A Player Four of course joins without hesitation and chooses to make a choice without waiting to defer to Player Three’s idea; after all, Player Four saw the same scene Player Three did and is fully capable of making a choice based on the world s/he saw.
Building off the first scene, Player Three initiates as an incredibly complex machine with artificial intelligence whose sole purpose is to time boiling eggs. Player Four is a genetically-modified hamster who can speak forty languages and who aspires to write the Great American Novel if he wasn’t forever confined to running on his wheel.
STEP 4 – Repeat Step 3 but with Players Five and Six. If in Step 3 we Set the world, in Step 4 we Cement it.
Following what they’ve seen, Players Five and Six are out hunting down a sentient centerpiece that has gone rogue. While designed as a weapon, Player Six was unfortunately not programmed to target centerpieces and so is rendered useless.
What’s the point? Well, I’ve seen hundreds of improv scenes set in the future. I’ve seen tons of scenes revolve around AI that bucks its masters’ intentions. But I’ve only seen one scene centered around a rogue sentient centerpiece.
In World Building we should strive to build new worlds. We shouldn’t content to play in the worlds of others. And we should always remember that a world built collaboratively will have more depth, breadth and nuance than anything created by an individual.