The first scene of a show starts in a train; the rest of the show exists in that same train.
The first scene of a show starts with Little League players. The next scene focuses on the parents in the stands. The next scene focuses on the players’ siblings hanging out in the parking lot.
The first scene of a show introduces a reality wherein people shield their improper thoughts from heaven with an umbrella. The next scene shows angels using the same umbrellas to shield them from God’s view. And later we see God himself hiding his own self-doubt under an umbrella.
In our efforts to build worlds though we mustn’t lose sight of Improv As Improv Does Best, which relies at its core on heightening established Personal and Scenic Games. So how’s about we build worlds around our patterns of emotional behavior?
Here is a series of exercises I ran to that purpose…
Post Warm-up you’re standing in a circle (you did Crazy Eights, right? “I don’t know if Richmond improvisers know how to improv without doing Crazy Eights first,” said Robert Nickles upon joining The Coalition).
MULTI-DIMENSIONAL JUMP – Everyone’s in a circle. Player One gives a personal Self-Contained Emotional Statement (SCES). Something s/he personally believes, like “I love taking bathroom breaks and getting paid for it,” or “I struggle to want Republicans in my daughter’s life.” Around the circle, Player Two and then Player Three and so on, performs a semblance of that same SCES through the filter of any world they choose to bring to it. For example, Player Two through the filter of a cowboy says, “Nothing’s better than hiding out in the outhouse on the posse’s two bits,” or “I know the war’s over, but I still don’t trust no Confederate to date my daughter.” And Player Three through a child’s filter could say, “Oh, boy, I sure love having to go potty during test time,” or “Yeah, sure, I read above my level, but I don’t trust me no English curriculum that don’t have on it ‘Not Without My Daughter.'”
Player One has to be the last player to heighten that initiating SCES. Then Player Two starts with a brand new SCES. Then repeat.
MULTI-DIMENSIONAL JUMP EXTRA JUMP – What if instead of jumping from cowboys to children, Players One and Two worked to establish a progression? After Player Two’s cowboy filter, if I was Player Three, I’d chose a filter that sought to Cement the progression I saw of “going backward in time.” I might then say, “I attribute my life to the strategic use of availing myself of the chamber pot during The Crusades,” or “Alas, were it not the truth, but ’tis; I shan’t see my daughter off with a Montague.”
Follow the progression as long as possible. What would Player Five as a caveman say?
But when it’s done, it’s done. If the progression can’t be progressed beyond Player Five’s caveman, then Player Six resets with a new SCES to Offer a new progression. And so the progression doesn’t have to go all the way around the circle, and it also can go beyond the end of the circle, multiple times. It’s up to the team to know when to change an when to follow.
Key Lesson: Though the details may change, the key is not losing the emotional reaction at the root of the character that is independent of the details. Too often we focus on the details of the filter and forget the emotion we’re filtering through that filter.
Contrary Key Lesson: Too often, too focused on the emotional reaction we neglect the details of a potential new world and simply repeat the same line through a new voice. The Details – what they are doing, seeing, being – help with selling the authenticity of your character’s reactions.
Balanced Key Lesson: Make a bold choice with emotional stakes in it. The more you can be inspired by others’ contributions the better. The more you can base your emotional reaction on the last choice within the context of all that came before it the better.
Now we’re done with the warm-up circle. But we’re still focused on heightening Personal Games.
PIVOTING BETWEEN TIME AND SPACE – We’re going to focus on heightening one character through showing him or her at various times and places in their life. In transporting the character to different points, we seek to provide additional stimuli to evoke the character’s Personal Game from the initial scene – how the player felt about who s/he is, what s/he has and/or what s/he is doing.
For this exercise focused on a character’s personal game, I like to get a suggestion of “a relationship between two people.”
For example, suggestion is “Divorced couple.” In the initial scene Players One and Two are amicably dividing possessions. While Player One is generous in taking minimal shares, Player Two clearly received the raw end of an emotional breakup. Player Three pivots on Player Two and says, “Because you did 90.5% of the research it only seems right for you to sign our 50/50 partnership papers first.” Player Two knows to heighten being put upon and being amicable. After the scene is allowed to progress, Player Four pivots on Player Two and says, “Aren’t you so proud of our daughter? ‘So proud’ being equal to my pride despite my being, technically, ‘an absentee Mom’?”
I call the Pivot “the sexy Tag-Out.” It’s the same replacement strategy but without the awkward tagging or waving away.
Through the Pivot, we can take the fulcrum character anywhere through time and space. The fulcrum character just needs to trust that wherever s/he is taken, the expectation is that s/he will continue to react through the established patterns of emotional behavior. In class once a scene broke out between the planets Venus and Pluto, and Pluto was very distraught over having been reclassified. Player Three’s Pivot made Pluto an elemental compound that was to be stripped of its covalent bonds; all that mattered was the improviser reacting as The Compound the same way Pluto did.
Now let’s follow our Scenic Games to new worlds…
SPLITTING DIMENSIONS – We’re going to show heightened versions of the same relationship though different worlds. In seeking to heighten an interaction, we leverage our Help Desk Game skills, being mindful of language and pacing, and aiming to establish a progression though the different details.
We’re going to use the Split Screen. We’re going to carve the stage into different areas where different scenes – from different dimensions – are played out.
Players are to initiate focused on their Scenic Games – how they feel about who their scene partner is, what they have and/or what they’re doing.
For this exercise focused on a mapping a relationship onto different worlds, I like to get a suggestion of “an event in people’s lives.”
- Suggestion is “Best Man’s speech”
- Player One (P1): You’re my brother’s wife, but you’re my sister.
- Player Two (P2): You’re drunk.
- P1: Does a bottle of Jager make you drunk?
- P2: Yes. And smelling like licor-ass. Licorice. Liquor-ass. Get it?
- P1: You’re drunk.
- Player Three (P3) establishing Split Screen by addressing an invisible player with his back to Players One and Two: You’re my bastard, but I consider you my son.
- Players One and Two exit stage
- Player Four (P4), entering to inhabit the addressed invisible player: You’re drunk.
- P3: Does being a white male landowner make you drunk?
- P4: Drunk with power. Patrician Power. PP. You’re drunk on PP.
- P3: You’re drunk.
- Player Five (P5) establishing a new Split Screen by pulling Player Six up with her: You’re my rib, but you’re my wife.
- Players Three and Four exit stage
- Player Six (P6): You’re drunk.
- P5: Does being Man, created in God’s image, make you drunk?
- P6: Yes. But I don’t give a damn. A-dam. Get it?
- P5: You’re drunk.
- P6: Serpent makes’em strong. [sips cocktail]
At The Coalition Theater where the stage is long and not deep, Split Screens provide a way to utilize the extremes of the stage, adding more people without adding more clutter.
Note that in the example above I had the joined players leave stage rather than remain as in the stage pictured depicting the Split Screen move. If you’re ever “joined but ignored,” you have two options: Stay or Go. The stakes in the decision are literally the opposite of in The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go;” Going multiples your success, not your trouble. If you and your scene partner stay on stage when another two improvisers enter to do a Split Screen, you have to return to your scene. If you and your scene partner go, you can always come back and return to your scene but you don’t have to; another new set of players can take the stage to follow the Set progression with a new set of characters.
Now, we’ve taken emotional perspectives through dimensions, we’ve taken characters through time and spaces, and we’ve heightened relationships across worlds. What’s next? Let’s put it all together in a…wait for it…
INTER-DIMENSIONAL MONTAGE – Everyone go to one wing as you would to start a show. I’ll introduce you and get your suggestion. Inspired by the Suggestion your Opening will have you each coming “through the curtain,” from up stage center to down stage center, with a Self-Contained Emotional Statement. Like this exercise’s Post-Warm-up activity, the first SCES is personal to the improviser and the subsequent SCESs push that emotional perspective through a filter (time, genre, caricature, etc.). Think about progressions. Feel free to reset if the player before you can’t be heightened any further. Once everyone has come “through the curtain” and is on the wings…
A Two Person Scene…that is built upon through either a Pivot or a Split Screen. I want to see a lot of Pivots and Split Screens. But, damnit, I’d rather you do an un-sexy old Tag-out or Wave-Off if it meant you were playing to heighten characters and relationships across worlds.
And of course, feel free to reset to a new Two Person Scene if the series of Pivots or Split Screens can’t be heightened any further.
My consummate example, The Johnsons, had a run at this Inter-Dimensional Montage…
- Suggestion is “Antique”
- Opening – Through the Curtain:
- Personal Statement: “My body ain’t what it used to be.”
- As an old man, “My body ain’t what it used to be.”
- As a Cougar, “My body ain’t what it used to be.”
- As a cracked voiced teen, “My body ain’t what it used to be.”
- Personal Statement: “I need help understanding things.”
- As an old man, “What the hell’s this supposed to do?”
- As a timid user, “How much am I supposed to do?”
- As a robot, “Tell me what this button does.”
- Two Person Scene
- P1 the student, looking at text book, “What does any of it mean?”
- P2, the tutor, “Test is tomorrow, pal.”
- SPLIT SCREEN
- P3, looking at her elbow, “What the heck is that?”
- P4, “S’pose the doctor’ll be able’ta tell ya after tomorrow’s test.”
- SPLIT SCREEN
- P5, looking down own shirt, “Well, would you look at that?”
- P6, “Test is tomorrow.”
- Two Person Scene
- P1 the doctor, clearly engaged with body on table, “Oh, God, we’re losing him.”
- P2, the nurse, “What can I do, doctor?”
- P1, “Get your hands in here; pump the man’s heart.”
- P2, “Oh, doctor, I neither qualified nor cleaned enough.”
- P3, looking at a cadaver, “This corpse needs a tweaking.”
- P2, “Oh, mortician, what can I do?”
- P3, “Well, how small are your hands?’
- P2 holds up his hands
- P3 steps forward to wriggle P2’s hands through P3’s tight fist
- P4, doing something with her hands, “Sure, Jim Henson’s dead, but his puppets – er, Muppets, need our life.”
- P2, putting hand in puppet with a whole lot of guilty emotional reaction, “Should I be doing this?”
- Two Person Scene
- P1, watching a TV set with dismay, “This? This is Children’s Programming?”
- P2, the nurse, “Hideous, right?”
- Players 3, 4, and 5 walk-on and off as Muppets
- SPLIT SCREEN
- P3, “Oh, my God, this is prison?”
- P4, “Makes you think there but for the grace go I, right?”
- Players 5 and 6 walk-on and off as Muppets
- SPLIT SCREEN
- P7, “This? This is Hell?”
- P8, “Yeah, I thought it’d be worse.”
- Player 9 walks-on and off as a Muppet
- P8, “Kinda funny.”
I think so.
I love World Building. I love The Details.
But Emotion Engagement has to be at Improv As Improv Does Best’s core, and we can neglect establishing and heightening patterns of emotional behavior when focused on The Details of World Building.
I want us to having our subsequent scenes and game moves inspired by those patterns of emotional behavior that define Characters and Relationships.
In doing so we not only build worlds defined by a set of details, but universes defined by shared emotional perspectives.