Linked By Patterns

The Johnsons‘ performances account for the majority of this site’s videos. Why? I’m their coach. That means A) I love them, B) their work often reflects Improv As Improv Does Best characteristics and C) theirs are the recordings that are the easiest for me to get.genetics

But I have been a bad coach lately and have missed their recent shows.

BUT this past Saturday, 2/23/19, I saw The Johnsons perform with another Coalition house team, Detective. Detective’s coach is Scott Beckett, a Johnson.

And when they closed the show by all playing together, it was immediately clear they spoke the same language of Patterns & Games. Without hesitation they followed each other into organic group games, weaving in Tertiary Moves with varying entrances and exits. And the results were hilarious.

Below are video and commentary from the mash-up portion of the show highlighting commendable group game moves. Each of these videos has been written up individually and posted under the appropriate category on this site’s Video page. So why is this particular post necessary?

Improv groups should:

  1. Practice together generally
  2. Practice Patterns & Games together specifically

The players in the NBA All Star game practice together. They know that, while stars individually, they need to play as greater than just the sum of their parts; they need to play as a team. Uniting behind a shared understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’ll do it is what makes individuals a team. The star Center will still do what make him a star, the star Post will do what makes him a star, etc, etc. But through practicing together the Center knows what to expect from the Post. While accepting that in the moment of play anything can happen, they can anticipate certain moves and react to those moves in ways conducive to the team’s success. And so it is in improvisation.

We can want improv to feel “free.” We don’t want to feel confined in our play. But if we want improv to be more than just “playing with ourselves” then we need to work to establish a “same page” from which we can play together.

Are we looking to draw out relaxed, long scenes? Do we want to play fast and furious? Should we start with everyone on stage or just two people without any tertiary additions? If we start with everyone on stage should we strive for agreement or disparate perspectives? Any answer is acceptable but it behooves a group to make a decision as a group. The audience wants to see us collaborate not just coexist and so a basic understanding of how we’re each going to strive to collaborate is helpful for focusing each individual in service of the group.

Patterns & Games, especially the way I teach them, can feel constrictive to the improviser who just wants to “play.” But if this blog serves no other purpose it is to showcase how improvisers aligned behind a common embrace of Patterns & Games can create something truly organic in-the-moment, connecting with the audience in-the-moment, and making a group of individuals significantly more than the sum of its parts.

Teaching the Coalition’s 301: Patterns & Games class, it’s my greatest joy to watch improvisers come together, following each other’s moves in service of a collective success. It makes me sad to see those same improvisers get through classes and onto a house team and abandon their support of Pattern & Game moves; but I understand. On stage in front of an audience we can tend to focus too hard on getting a reaction to our individual moves. Everyone wants to spike the ball. And Setting the ball isn’t as satisfying, especially if the rest of the team isn’t attuned to expect the Set Move.

But, man oh man, when a team is tuned in to Patterns & Games – when teamS are aligned – then together they truly become more than the sum of their parts.

I’m not saying that the following group games were the best ever, BUT watch how the individuals approach them, move by move. They accept and build on each other to ultimately end up where no one player could have foreseen. Assured that fellow players will follow, they make bold moves and heighten their characters’ consistency. Focused through the established patterns their creativity is enhanced not stagnated. It’s clear each additional player is serving what came before them, not their ego, and the audience awards their collaboration.

Individuals can improvise together. But together improvisers can do Improv As Improv Does Best.

Walk-on/off with Split Screen

In learning Tertiary Moves an improv student is taught that “the first move is trump” (a reference to card games not our shitty president). In practice this means that if the first tertiary move is a Walk-on then the next tertiary move should also be a Walk-on to heighten the game at play.

While there are no mistakes in improv if you do two different tertiary moves that just requires more additional moves to make sense of the larger pattern.

If Player Three does a Walk-on, Player Four does a “We see,” and Player Five does a “Cut to,” while “success” is “possible” you can watch an audience fold its arms and legs, showing they have no faith in what comes next.

But experienced/aware improvisers can mix tertiary moves if they own them and their Triggers. So it is in this clip from the Johnsons & Detective mash-up set. Jessi makes the first Tertiary Move, walking on and walking off. Maybe a good way to support Jessi would be for other players to heighten with a Walk-on/off of their own. Instead Angela and Anthony do a Split Screen (man, oh, man, do I love seeing Split Screens on The Coalition’s wide, shallow stage). Jessi then comes through that scene with a callback Walk-on/off. Everything looks patient and purposeful and the audience loves it.


Tag-Out/Pivot Run

Check out this great heightening of Lauren‘s character with a series of heightened catalysts.

It’s a simple game played the “right” way. The set-up is clear: Nicole establishes that they’re at the Grand Canyon and Lauren hates it. She hates that there are no video games and that there are “donkey smells.”

Scott establishes the trajectory of the game by Tagging Nicole out. Notice he keeps the pattern of the game. Just like Nicole did the first time randomly, Scott starts – not by quickly establishing the location – but asserting that wherever they are is “pretty awesome.” And Lauren plays her role in the sequence – “I hate it.” Only then is it made clear they’re in the presence of “the Mona Lisa.” That second move is critical – it Sets up players and the audience for a slam dunk Cement Move.

To nit pick, I wish Angela had given a beat between “awesome, right?” and establishing that they were on the moon to let Lauren express her hate, but it’s a small thing. At this point the audience is keyed in to follow the heightening of “awesome place” and Lauren’s triggered “hate.” Listen to that laugh. It could have been enough to edit on – and you can see Jessi coming in to close it down…

BUT the fun thing about a clearly established pattern is how players are able to continue heightening it. Taylor does give that beat between his first line and clarifying the location/object. And oh man is it fun. Lauren commits to heightening her hate only to learn she’s hating her “baby.” It’s a fun reveal and fun for the audience to see Lauren “forced” into that situation. It’s one of the things that can make Tag-out/Pivot runs fun when we are swapping out the catalysts and heightening the emotional reaction of a character’s personal game. 


Organic Tag-Out Triangle

Yes, when approaching Tag-Outs it can be helpful for the sake of focused heightening to only tag-out one side of the scene – keeping one character consistent and heightening his/her Personal Game. And yes, when choosing between two players to tag-out it is often advantageous if you replace the catalyst and keep the character reacting to that catalyst.

But there are no “rules” in improv, just tools and considerations.

Sometimes what feels “right” in the moment goes against a standard guideline. The game below is one of those times.

Inspired by earlier scenes about inappropriate conduct at work, Jonathan and Taylor start as a child and parent both admitting that they don’t understand the sexual talk they’re overhearing, at school and at work respectively. It’s a funny idea and a solid set-up for a Tag-Out.

Anthony tags Jonathan out and takes Taylor to school where he makes an obscene gesture while asking about Geometry. Funny bit.

Wonderfully, Jonathan tags back in, knowing Anthony’s bit is never going to be funnier than it was initially. And resetting to the parent/child scene is a clear call for Nicole to…tag out Taylor and take Jonathan to work and play the same “obscene movement/ generic conversation” game as Anthony played with Taylor. Funny. And it’s heightening the Scenic Game originally established. Great.

THEN a very fun organic thing happens. Anthony tags out Jonathan and establishes that his character from before is Nicole’s child! And of course there’s an obscene gesture. This heightens those two characters’ shared Personal Games.

All in all a really fun organic progression and a solid reminder that serving the moment is always more important than following any improv “rule.”


Learn patterns. Play patterns. Trust patterns. Use patterns to do anything you feel like.

They help teams make beautiful things together.


The Johnsons are: Scott Beckett, John Hilowitz, Jessi Schmale and Lauren Serpa

Detective is: Sarah Ahmed, Anthony Brazeau, Jesse Hill, Angela Massino, Jonathan Mostowy, Nicole Nielsen and Taylor O’Sullivan

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