Tertiary Moves class

Whiteboard; always whiteboard. Yes, “Whiteboard” is a verb.

Objective: Players entering a scene in progress should always seek to heighten the games already in play.  Heightening those games with concentrated pattern mechanics will increase the impact of those tertiary moves.

The following outlines Tertiary and Polish moves with supporting video of me actually teaching a class those moves:

Want to learn more about these moves and/or lead a class based on these moves?

It all starts with the…

Tertiary Player Good Faith Mantra – I will only enter a scene in progress to serve what has already been established. And I will react to those who enter my scene in progress on the assumption they seek to heighten what has already been established.

What Tertiary Moves can we do?

Walk On. If there is one tertiary move an improviser knows, it is the Walk On. We enter a two player scene in progress as another character, offering a move that contributes to the progression of the game(s) at play. Two high school boys are feeling self conscious in the hallway so Player 3 enters as a mean girl to point out their foibles. Two players are arguing over the value of the movie they just left, so Player 3 enters to agree with one of them and rile the other.

Unfortunately, too few improvisers know to Walk Off. You’re a tertiary character; the scene’s not about you. A Walk-on should only be used to heighten/sharpen a game already at play. An entering character must acquiesce to those already on stage and strive not to be the focus of the scene.


Cut To. When players doing a scene refer to a particular moment (from the past, future, etc.), a player comes onstage and announces “Cut to: that moment” and we see the moment.  A comfortable ensemble can perform the “cut-to” (also called flashbackshow me, etc.) without telegraphing the move by shouting “Cut to.”  As with walk-ons, a “cut to” should be followed by a “cut back.”

And here’s an example from this class’ showcase –


Tag Outs / Pivots / Split Screens. These 3 related moves play into the Improv As Improv Does Best curriculum more than any other tertiary move. In them we use insert a new player or players to heighten a Personal or Scenic Game.

I call the Pivot the “sexy Tag Out,” in that it performs the same function without the “tag.” It just looks clean when a team’s all on the same page, but sometimes which side of the stage a Tertiary Player is joining from can determine whether to go with a Tag Out or Pivot and often in a run makes the moves interchangeable. In either case, the Tag Out & Pivot focus on heightening the emotional reactions of one character (their “personal game”). And when we remember the power of repeating/heightening sequences of dialogue (learned through our friend The Help Desk Game) these moves often hit hardest.

Split Screens, in putting multiple scenes with different locations/characters, on the same stage, facilitate the heightening of Scenic and Thematic Games.  These runs also benefit from leveraging Help Desk mechanics.

As new scenes are added the original scenes can stay on stage or leave – to either come back or make room for a long run of new scenes. And know the scenes in a Split Screen can involve more than 2 players a piece.  (three person ss)


Embodying the Environment.  We can be set pieces. We can be crowds.  We can be animals. We can be inanimate. Bottom line, we can flesh out the stage picture as Tertiary Players without adding to the dialogue. 

Check out this great example of players assuming the role of what other players were seeing on a screen.


Scene Painting/ “We See”.    We can come in from offstage to describe (and physicalize) a previously unseen “visual” aspect of the scene. For example, a pompous character is painted with a monocle, “#1 Boss” button, etc. For another example, a scene with a child bemoaning having to do his/her chores is painted with a window showing a beautiful day outside, an Everest of dishes to clean, etc. This type of move is typically executed by a player entering the scene, not as a character, but, with a verbal aside directed at the audience. “These people are in clown costumes.” “We see this man has a hole through his torso.”

These are Detail moves, but they work best when they are delivered emotionally and when they connect with a character’s emotional behavior. That emotional perspective helps enhance the pattern we’re establishing – we can heighten it with agreement One Person Scene style and/or heighten a progression of emotional perspectives To The Ether style.

Sometimes, while contributing his verbal add-on, Player 3 will wave his hand generally over or toward the area of stage he’s referring to; but a better Player 3 will often define what he’s describing in mime as well as words. In conjunction with “We see this man has a beard,” this Player 3 shows how big and bushy the beard is by cupping and fluffing it with his hands before exiting the scene.

Lastly on Scene Painting / “We See,” be aware of the inclination and the effect of painting contrary information. An improviser acts tough and then you paint him with “We see he’s a nerd.” Maybe that’ll be funny. But you’ve definitely sought to undermine your fellow player’s assertion, and that’s something we typically want to avoid. Adults arguing about imagined reality is fun for no one. If this contrast is created by a scene paint, the key for the players on stage is to assume that was the reality the whole time but to stick with their initial perspective. Allow the juxtaposition to exist without commenting on it. The tough talking nerd is funny as long as the improviser still acts tough.  See this scene wherein the improvisers’ location was recast but because the improvisers stuck their initial impression, it worked!


Breaking the Plane Players define where their characters are in relation to each other by choosing where to “look” for that character.

Using this ability, there are so many different cool ways for us to fracture our improv stage – enabling new heights, depths, distances, and other spatial relationships.

For example, in a baseball scene, rather than throwing the ball across the stage to each other, Player A throws the ball toward the audience, as if Player B is in that direction from Player A.  Player B, standing parallel to player A, then receives the ball from the audience.

As mentioned in the video above, Breaking the Plane allow multiple scenes of great expanses to happen side-by-side Split-Screen style to facilitate a Help Desk type game.

Another example is a scene in which a woman looks out her bedroom window and talks to a man on the street below. Rather than trying to convey this physical scenario while looking at each other across the (level) stage, the woman faces out to the audience and looks downward as she talks (as if the man is in a hole in the stage), and the man faces the audience but looks up as he speaks, as if the woman is in the ceiling of the theater. 

Similarly, an improviser can watch his fellow player go up a tall winding staircase by watching the ascent while the ascending player is really standing on the same level stage. We can bang on the ceiling above us to be answered by our stomping on the floor below us.

We can build a whole building with each of us standing side-by-side.

There’s so much we can do!

Climb a building like Adam West’s Batman and Robin did, with players Breaking the Plane to act like people in the building.

Stand side-by-side climbing individual ladders, Breaking the Plane to indicate relative heights.

And of course there’s this old “approaching the bar” chestnut. Never stare directly at each other over a counter for a transaction ever again!

Hey Everybody, come to the bar, to the table, to me (“Got tickets! Who needs tickets?” “Popcorn, get your popcorn!” “Students, attention on me.”)

Rather than be confined to a set-less stage, “breaking the plane” allows improvisers to create a more interesting stage picture. Try something out of this world!


To practice, have students run a series of Two Person Scenes with the rest of the class encourage to try out the various Tertiary Moves.

Here are some additional lessons.

Multiply but beware of mixing – one walk-on likely calls for two more; doing a We-See after another player has introduced walk-ons likely will over-complicate the scene’s pattern.

But, as there are no mistakes in improv, just new moves to work into what we do moving forward, if multiple Tertiary Moves are made, we just need to loop them into the grander pattern.

And don’t forget the sequence between tertiary movesa group excited to do walk-ons can beat them over the head, neglecting to revisit and heighten the scene contributions that led up to the original tertiary move. Remembering our To The Ether, Help Desk, and Hey Everybody rules of progression and sequence is critical when executing Tertiary Moves. Don’t just make the move; make the move at its place in the sequence.

    • Why did Player 3 initiate the [walk on] and/or what was the SOMETHING that occurred before the [walk on]?
    • How did the established players react to the [walk on]?
    • What led to the [walk off] and what happened once it occurred?
    • Then work to reset and restart the game’s pattern and heighten through iterations.

Try a lot of these. You don’t get better at something you don’t try.

And have a lot of fun!

2 thoughts on “Tertiary Moves class

  1. Pingback: Linked By Patterns | Improv As Improv Does Best

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