When asked for a desired focus for a scheduled coaching session, a Duo sent me the following:
Mainly character stuff, fleshing them out versus building out more plot. Getting better at finding and sticking to the game of the scene.
What follows is some didactic and exercises that filled two hours.
DIDACTIC: How do You think about “Game” in improv?
Acknowledged ad nauseam here on Improv As Improv Does Best, the idea of “Game” gets thrown around a lot in improv.
At its most dumbed down, “Game” is “the funny thing, done more.” Though what the “funny thing” is is subjective.
At once both more sophisticated and more corny, “Game” can focus on the repetition of the cause and effect of actions. Short Form‘s blessing and curse is that its rhythms connect so quickly (helped by being made explicit) – the audience is rigged to react to anticipation but the rigging can be too tight and become stale.
Aiming for an universal answer this site’s materials are predicated on the definition of “Game” as “a sequence of actions related by cause in effect, heightening in a progression through repetition.” Holds true for baseball and Monopoly alike.
Regardless of definition, “Game” needs Emotion.
It’s adults emotionally reacting to imagined stimuli in-the-moment that is objectively funny.
It’s characters’ emotional commitment to the moment that keeps the audience and players engaged.
“If nothing else, emote,” dictates ImprovDoesBest.com.
“Game”‘s gift to Emotion is Pattern. Heightening cause-and-effect emotional reactions establishes patterns of emotional behavior. And these patterns of emotional behavior…
- Become the “funny thing.”
- Make improv more Pavlovian for the player.
- Connect the audience to characters they have come to know.
- Enable sustainable trajectories.
To harness the power of Patterns of Emotional Behavior we…
- Feel something about something
- Commit to feeling more, ideally connecting that feeling to observations of and/or interactions with that something
- Remember how, especially in Two Person Scenes, you have at least one Personal Game and Scenic Game.
- Find a new something to feel differently about or feel differently about something else.
- Oscillate, ideally finding a rhythm between myriad Personal and Scenic Games.
- Expand. React. Repeat.
Patterns of Emotional Behavior exercises
What’s follows are exercises focused on:
* All exercises presuppose that players can access imagined emotions in-the-moment. For those for whom Emotion is a bridge-too-far, I recommend THIS detour.
Personal Game Rhythms
“Feel something about something” or “See something, Feel something,” either way endowing something with the ability to make you feel is a solid base for an Emotional Game.
One player on stage. Think about an object or action you feel comfortable miming. You’re going to mime and I’m going to side coach.
My Side Coaching:
Remember the key elements of Mime: Volume, Weight, and Tension. Important for realism, sure; but being thoughtful about these elements makes us more deliberate in our mime, making our interactions matter more.
Make sure you’re feeling something emotional about your object/interaction outside of the strain/ease/effort of engaging it. Do we love or hate this hard work?
Seek to establish relationships of cause and effect such that as you continue engaging your object/interaction, you feel more or less of what you were feeling. Connect your heightening with moments in your mime.
Feel differently about something else or find a new something to feel differently about. Change your emotion and then connect it to something physical. Or change something physical and connect it to a new emotion.
Heighten the new emotion, again, ideally establishing cause-and-effect relationships so that the emotion is triggered by engagement with the environment.
And…Oscillate. Find a reason to return to the first emotion. The audience will react with a “That’s our guy!” laugh. The rhythm between the two Personal Games establishes a pattern of emotional behavior for the character.
Player is washing dishes.
Player slows down. The dishes take shape in his hands – distinguished as plates, bowls, glasses, etc. There is clear tension in his scrubbing of dishes that take up space. He is more deliberate too about where he picks dishes up and where he puts them down.
Player was always toiling but now it’s clear that he loathes the work he’s doing. His growls and sighs heighten. And watching him care is funny.
Each dish gets heavier in his hand. You can see his loathing grow with each scrub. Each time he turns to the dirty dish pile his shoulders slump further down. The dishes are making him feel.
In this example, relief suddenly spread across the dishwasher’s face – he heard the Quitting Time whistle. In another example, an excited archer reached back into an empty quiver and his face fell.
As he took off his gloves, he grew more relieved. He was visibly lighter as he removed his apron, put on his coat, sent a text (presumably “I’m coming home!”) and headed toward the door.
With a hand on the doorknob, he paused, looked over his shoulder at the remaining dirty dishes, and his shoulders slumped. As he sent another text, took off his coat, put on his apron and his gloves, he grew darker and darker. And his loathing was in full force as he resumed washing the dishes.
This is but one example trajectory. The key is having more than one separated emotional reaction – Be Dynamic! – and finding a rhythm between them.
In another example, a Player is grading papers. She’s delighted by what she reads. She grows more endeared with each paper in a progression of three. And then with the fourth paper, her face grows dark. Her concern builds as she reads. And then she flips the paper over and. to her surprise, finds reason for delight again. The fifth paper also disturbs her. And this time there’s no relief on page two. In a concerned flurry she rereads it and…oh, now she gets the joke. This Player found oscillating emotions in one physical interaction.
Now what is the “Game” in these examples? “The guy hates washing dishes.” “The guy wants to go home.” “The woman is delighted by her students.” “The woman is disturbed by certain students.”
Yes, in the Improv As Improv Does Best definition of “Game,” each of those stated relationships of cause-and-effect qualifies.
The “Game of the Scene,” – or “the trajectory of individual games strung together” – is one based in Character. “A dutiful dishwasher who hates his job.” “A teacher seeking reasons to be delighted by her students.”
In those descriptions there is Premise, but no Plot. There is Tension, but no Conflict. And being that there’s only one improviser on stage, there’s no negotiating of reality.
Plot, Conflict, and Negotiation often stem from an improviser’s single-mindedness. We’re chasing one want. We’re arguing one point. We’re fixated on smoothing out any differences rather than leveraging their juxtaposition.
It may be easier to be a dynamic character while alone on stage. A critical point in the ensemble-based Patterns & Games class is that “the more people on stage there are, the less stuff there can be.”
We are often drawn to Plot, Conflict, and Negotiation when we have a scene partner. But we can use this notion of having more than one separated emotional reaction and finding a rhythm between them to pull out of those single-minded sand-traps.
Scenic Game Rhythms
A dynamic character can more easily find their way out of Conflict than a single-minded character barreling forward can.
The easiest way out of Conflict is to choose to Lose. Just give up your position. “We’re ready for lift-off!” “I’m too scared.” “Okay, flight’s aborted.” Immediately the choice to lose changes this from a scene about “whether or not to take off” to being about “a character who makes big decisions in an instant.”
But while acquiescing is always a better alternative than fighting, the change in energy doesn’t have to be a full 180 about-face to effectively quell Conflict. Faced with Conflict in one direction we can “feel something about something else” to build Tension without direct opposition.
For players to experience the power of oscillating between Scenic Games to craft sustainable scenes, I prepared three sets of dialogue. Each player was only given their lines (see below). After each has delivered their given two lines they were instructed to continue the scene based on the provided perspectives. To start, players say in chairs facing each other (this is about Scenic not Personal Games) but they were told they weren’t confined to sitting.
Scenic Game Rhythm Dialogue #1
P1: I’m so excited to talk to you about Game of Thrones.
P1: You are a jerk. I’m going to go.
P2: You have terrible tastes.
P2: No. Sorry. I want to get to know you better.
What’s next? More.
Each player feels two different ways about two different aspects of their scene partner. Each player has two aspects they can heighten to evoke reactions from their scene partner. Reset the sequence, heightening all parts.
P1: Well,… I’m a lot like Game of Thrones.
P2: (lips tight) uh, huh.
P1: There’s like all these factions inside me fighting –
P2: Pfft. Okay, now I know you’re kidding.
P1: You’re a jerk. I’mma gonna Uber.
P2: You’re not kidding. You’re not kidding? You got to be kidding me!
P1: Hello, Uber? Yeah. I’m currently on Jerk Street.
P1: Oh, that movie was booorrrringgggg.
P2: (teeth gritted) uh, huh.
… See? Easy peeasy, right?
Wherever players go after the given
lines, the key is feeling the power of
having two separate Scenic Games. It’s not “you have terrible tastes but I’m hoping to see past that,” it’s “oh, you have terrible tastes!” and “please be deeper.” Separated!
Separated, we can maintain two strong emotions. And strong emotions (especially toward stimuli imagined in-the-moment) are funny. Commingled emotions (“I want to ask him out but I’m afraid”) ended up muted, which is great for a slow-burn drama.
Remember that as you read on…
Scenic Game Rhythm Dialogue #2
Imagine you’re P1.
P1: You’re disgusting.
P1: The balls on you.
P2: You’re too kind.
P2: Hey, you have to accept me as I am.
What’s next P1?
When you read your first two lines, did you find separate emotions for each?
By design, P1’s lines are easily read through the same emotional lens: Pissed judgement.
In practice, P1 chose to change from pissed-judgement to astonished-bemusement between line readings. And she chose to follow that astonished-bemusement in reaction to P2’s “…accept me as I am” line.
P1: Just. Wow. You…
P2: I am as God made me.
P1: Ummm… Wow. You’re going to blame God for your BO, boogers –
P2: And BUUUUUURRRRRPPPS
P1: (snaps) Gross.
It was authentic. And the sharp snap
of it back to pissed from bemused was
Just judging the “disgusting” P2 the whole scene would have gotten really tired, very fast. Having separated Scenic Games gives the scene more air to breathe.
P2 can also be a dynamic character; they too just have to bestow each of the given lines with different emotion. Imagine that the “You’re too kind” line was delivered with asshole-pride and the “Hey, you have to accept me as who I am” line carried genuine hurt. However P2 decides to feel, choosing two feelings will ensure they are a dynamic character.
Now as we look at the last of the three Scenic Game Rhythm dialogues, remember, that while choosing to be dynamic is a good way to avoid pitfalls related to Plot, Conflict, and Negotiation, dynamism is also delightful when paired with Agreement.
Scenic Game Rhythm Dialogue #3
P1: You’re amazing.
P1: You’re embarrassing me!
P2: You’re amazing.
P2: You’re embarrassing me!
Yes, both players have been given the same lines of dialogue! And it was fun for me to watch and them to ride the rhythm of shared dynamism!
They oscillated easily between leaning in to complement each other and then withdrawing into blushing. The “Game of the Scene” quickly became about these two characters who unabashedly love one another and are super self-conscious. The arc of the two shared Scenic Games was more interesting than either a pure Love Fest or a scene where one person complemented another self-conscious person could have been.
Whether you’re arguing or agreeing, being dynamic characters helps sustain a scene.
And so if having two Personal Games or having two Scenic Games helps keeps a scene buoyant and focuses attention onto characters over Plot, Conflict, or Negotiation, can you imagine what we can do with dynamic Personal and Scenic Games?
Two Person Scene Rhythms
So let’s play with both dynamic Personal Games and dynamic Scenic Games.
As mentioned, connecting your emotions to different objects or actions can help keep them separated. To facilitate separation in this exercise, players are given prompts that put their Personal Game vectors and Scenic Game vectors at right angles to one another.
- The two players sit side-by-side in chairs.
- They are told they are a couple in bed together at the end of the night or two travelers (who know each other) on a Greyhound bus – some setting that justifies the seating arrangement.
- They are to start engaged with something in front of them – a book, a phone, the view; they will base a Personal Game on that object.
- Then they can turn to look at each other and base a Scenic Game on their scene partner.
- Then they will find the rhythms between what they’ve established and heighten however it evolves.
P1 is looking out at the view passing by the bus.
P2 is thumbing a phone.
P1: Purple mountains majesties alright.
P2: Yeah, baby.
P1: (spins with a frown toward P2) I can’t believe you’re missing this.
P2: (spins with puppy dog eyes toward P1) I’m so happy we’re together.
P1: (softens) Me, too. (spins back to the view) We’re in Arizona!
P2: (returning focus to the phone) Hot, hot, hot!
P1: I’m going to have one of their iced teas!
P2: That’s what I’m talking about.
P1: (spins to P2 softly) Yeah? (snaps into a frown) Hey! I can’t believe you’d rather stare at your phone!
P2: (spins to P1 softly) I like to hear about Arizona through your eyes.
P1: (still frowning) Really? (snaps into a smile) Okay! (spins back to the view) Okay, there’s mountains,…and dirt…
See the angles? From forward-facing phone-based Personal Game, swivel to the left for the saccharine-sweet Scenic Game. From outward-focused view-based Personal Game, swivel right for the indignant and mollified Scenic Games.
The angles are funny. Its why a clown will always draw back dramatically before punching. Say “straight line;” now say “zig-zag;” tell me which is funnier.
The improv audience loves to see us reacting to imagined stimuli. We don’t want P1 to be looking at P2 while describing the view they’re both missing. If P2 delivers saccharine-sweet lines while staring at the phone, we know those lines are contrived, not inspired.
The audience LOVES seeing us snapped back and forth between emotional vectors, triggered by imagined stakes and “stuff.” Separated, dueling emotions can both hit extremes without muting each other.
In addition to reinforcing previous lessons, through this exercise players should feel the value of having separated emotions triggered by different active elements on stage. Ideally players feel they can relax into patterns of emotional behavior. I know I feel more relaxed playing with patterns of emotional behavior as the basis of my improvisation knowing…
- mining the ground I’ve established is easier than constantly creating out of thin air
- continuing to feel more is easier for me than continuing coming up with subsequent plot points
- with dynamic characters I can manage Conflict
- engaging my environment puts less pressure on my words
- when I’m reacting through rather than thinking through a scene both the audience and me seem to enjoy my performances more.
I can appreciate the #improv controversy around “Game.” “Game” will beat a dead horse. “Game” manifests as 11 consecutive shots to the nuts with a rake. “Game” makes eye contact with the audience and wags its elbow as it delivers it’s closing line.
“Game” needs Emotion. Emotion benefits from “Game.”
Patterns of emotional behavior benefit characters, improvisers and audiences.
So try these exercises. Find “Game” by Feel.