I love Pattern Play. I love the way an ensemble, focused-outward on making each new move in the service of what they individually have seen come before, can make a group look like it has ESP.
I love “the moment.” I love the way an authentic reaction to a moment -that in no way could have been preconceived – can connect with an audience for a big laugh.
And I LOVE when concentrated pattern play incorporates “the moment” to be something uniquely Improv As Improv Does Best, connecting the ensemble and the audience in a previously-unknowable, perfectly-found moment.
“An ensemble of players gets on stage without previously rehearsed lines or blocking and acts out, making up the show as they go along. The audience understands that this show is constructed from nothing before their eyes. In these aspects, improvisational performance differentiates itself from any other performance medium.”– Improv As Improv Does Best
I have three examples from my latest 301 Patterns & Games Showcase show.
Help Desk Convergence
A 301 Patterns & Games class at The Coalition Theater typically attempts a One Person, a To The Ether, a Help Desk and a Hey Everybody game – in that order – before opening up into more organic game play.
The Help Desk group game rubric – illustrating the value of doubling down onto a sequence of dialogue through subsequent iterations – lends itself very well to elevating Transaction Scenes. Transaction Scenes too typically involve characters who don’t know each other, keeping their emotions from one another while negotiating a made up reality. They don’t have to be that way but they often are. Even when they are that limb though, leveraging Help Desk game mechanics can breathe life into the interaction.
In class, the mechanic is introduced with an exercise starting with a character explicitly announcing the transaction they’re presenting. “The Help Desk is open for business.” “Lemonade! Get your lemonade!” “7-11 Graveyard shift sucks.”
In this clip, Hannah sets up a “roses for everyone” shop for “friends, potential lovers, dead people…,” and it lays a beautiful foundation for both concentrated pattern work and a beautiful embrace of The Moment.
The value of that cliched beginning while learning Help Desk game mechanics is emphasizing how the first line said – no matter how banal – can be made to matter if repeated.
First time is random. Second Time is Purposeful. Third Time is Expected.– Improv As Improv Does Best
In this particular instance, the Details of the initiation mattered A LOT through repetition. They establish a reason for each subsequent player to enter, and, with repetition, SET the progression of the game.
AND when Jamie and Drew both walk on stage for the pattern’s third iteration, the audience can feel the “ooooh, factor” – what will happen now with 2 players? AND they can see the player didn’t intend to walk out together… So what’s going to happen?
What’s going to happen? Jamie, attuned to pattern while embracing the moment, indicates that Drew is among the “Potential Dead.”
And literally nothing could have been better.
One Person Divergence and Reconciliation
Well into the Organic Play portion of their showcase, two players (Felipe and Shelby) enter stage to initiate. They confidently engaged in shared mime.
And when Drew joins the mime before words start, it’s clear to the wings there’s a One Person opportunity – and Tim, Jameson and Jo hustle up to join in.
Silly jokes are made – a “long salad” built on a conveyor belt, a run of brand name Family Names – but they are heightened with agreement and built collaboratively. And the audience is agreeing right along with the players – silly fun is being had.
Note what happens at the end. A collaborative pattern had built from disdainful announcements of other families – “The MacIntoshes,” “The Marlboros.” But when the “Granny Smiths” were mentioned, Drew broke from the emotional perspective to recall, “They died in that fire.”
Drew’s moment is noticed but the group has continued following itself to a moment where everyone is loudly lamenting their loss of cucumbers.
And when Drew spins back to the group, acknowledging both his departure and the group’s focus with an authentic reaction – “Oh, yeah, that’s the sad thing” – the audience laughs.
It’s an Improv As Improv Does Best laugh. One built in the expectation of the pattern, the tension of it breaking, and the release of it reconciling.
Meta-Pattern on Meta Base
When we talk about “Meta humor” or “breaking the fourth wall,” we are referring to an art form calling attention to itself as an art form. For example when improvisers call attention to the fact that they’re making things up in the moment or calling attention to a particular improviser’s personal tendencies within a character, those are examples of the fourth wall coming down or “meta jokes.”
The audience loves these moments. They love when they know an improviser is “on the spot” to make a choice. They love watching an improviser “break” into authentic laughter.
Authentic breaking can be hilarious. Tim Conway was hysterical.— Patrick Gantz (@Improyster) May 14, 2019
I feel like Tim’s cast does here when I play with @classicleveski. Wish I was as subsequently funny as Vicki Lawerence. Much love to our #improv elders. #RIPTimConway https://t.co/TamkRWXILO
We have to be careful not to overdo “the meta.” The Moment can be undermined for a laugh, but not consistently (do you feel yourself throwing an elbow in conjunction with that joke? Stop it). We always need to commit to The Moment.
Improvisers in the audience love meta-jokes. Meta-sets at improv festivals succeed in a way that they would never be able to in front of newbies. At one Del Close Marathon, “American Dream” coached by Joe Bill, came out to announce to the audience that they were to perform their “signature game” of “Party Quirks.” It was very funny. At another Del Close marathon, a group of WIT players and I created a long-form around “the post-show conversation,” cutting back to scenes the audience had actually never seen. It went over very well. It would not have worked outside of an improviser-heavy audience.
Improvisers will also laugh when the “good” move they expect to happen doesn’t happen. An improviser in the audience sees potential hilarity in a moment that instead hits dead air? They will laugh into that silence. It may not be “nice” to laugh at those moments, but it happens.
When we’re on stage for those moments, the question becomes how we support it.
What happens here is Best Practice.
Drew as the fourth player on makes his fellow players “look good;” he doesn’t call out the missed Tag Out as bad, he supports it as the right thing. And more players join to make him look good.
AND serendipitously the scene involving “botched” interruptions involved a pivot player who was monopolizing the air. So when Jamie, who had enjoyed 90% of the scene’s dialogue, says to her fellow five players, “I’m talking!” it double kills on a meta level.
Pattern needs the Random. First time it’s random. Second time it’s purposeful. Third time it’s expected.
And Random needs the Pattern. If anything can happen, everything’s surprising. If everything’s surprising, nothing is. Constant chaos either makes us numb or angry.
When expectation is established and tension is taut, The Moment can deliver Improv As Improv Does Best.