Make a choice the moment you enter stage. Choose to feel. Feel something about something – an imagined object, mimed activity, and/or your scene partner. Allow both you and your scene partner to be dynamic.
Here’s the final scene from a class building out that progression and its value:
And here’s the class’ outline with video of me teaching it.
Objective: All you need to start a scene is one thing: Anything. Make one choice – a posture, an activity, an object, a location, a sound, etc. – and all other choices can flow out of that “anything.” This can be SIMPLE; don’t let starting a scene make you anxious.
The sooner that emotion is on the table though the better, as it is how our characters feel about themselves, their surroundings and each other that will be what our scenes are “about.”
Feel something about something. The most powerful reactions are emotional reactions. Choosing to feel strongly about something made-up-in-the-moment is, well, insane. But it’s fun to watch. Surprise!
A scripted actor’s whole job is to make an audience believe that the emotional reaction they’re rehearsed is real in-the-moment. In improvisation, we have a leg up; we are all experiencing what’s happening for the first time.
So just react. Don’t be in your head thinking about how you should feel or why we should feel. Just react. React without words until the words come. React without why until the why presents itself. If you commit to your reaction, that’s all the “why” an audience needs. If you invest in your emotion, the audience will believe that you have a reason even if you don’t have a motivation in mind.
Just react emotionally. Don’t over-think an easy win. You don’t need a motivation. You just need commitment to the moment.
3.0 Warm-Ups: Build energy, concentrate energy and emphasize the importance of emotion
CRAZY EIGHTS – for shaking out our bodies and connecting our ensemble
ROBERT PAULSON emotion edition – for learning names
21 – for sharing the air
3.1 Emotional Heights and Depths: The audience wants to see improvisers caring about their imagined realities. But, I get, it; we’ve spent a lot of our lives swallowing our reactions. Having a feeling in-the-moment feels daunting. So let’s practice with how easy getting to “feeling” can be.
EMOTIONAL REACTION CIRCLE – Players stand in a circle around the instructor. The instructor is going to shout “an emotion” – use the Circle Of Emotions! – and everyone is going to feel that emotion. The instructor will then shout out a new emotion and everyone will feel that one.
They don’t need words – they can just make an emotional sound. Have them push their emotions to 11. They shouldn’t worry about what they look like; everyone’s doing the same thing!
• Exude the emotion physically – show what you’re feeling by reflecting it with your face and body
• Heightening emotion doesn’t always mean higher volumes – don’t get louder to show you care more, let it affect your body and face more; Note: a lot of screaming improvisers is hard to handle
• Being bored or unaffected is hard to heighten – care
EMOTIONAL CASCADE – Players in a circle. One Player, designated by the Instructor, starts with an emotional reaction, any emotional reaction. It doesn’t need to be verbal. It can have words, but they should be minor. Then the next Player, clockwise, repeats that emotion – at LEAST hitting same level if not heightening it. Then play continues around the circle, with each player heightening the emotional reaction. When it gets back to Player One, s/he also has to heighten her/his emotion. Then Player Two can start a brand new emotion and the cascade goes again.
• Exude the emotion physically – 11 in sadness is rolling on the floor and weeping
• Push it past comfortable – being vulnerable enough to share big emotions can be hard, but we have to trust each other and the safe place to “go big” in practice. Support each other with applause.
• Take on other’s emotions – a simple path to an emotion choice is adopting the emotional choice of your scene partner. And it’s fun!
3.2 Emotional Context: Committed emotion is all the “what” and “why” a scene needs. What’s extra fun is that, when we do have emotion, that emotion can add/change the meaning of our words and heighten the depth of our scenes.
We don’t need to be in our heads thinking about why we’re feeling before we feel it. And we shouldn’t be slogging through composing clever lines of dialogue when how we feel is more important. Feel despite sense. Even nonsense gets power from emotion.
EMOTIONAL NURSERY RHYME – In a circle, have players think in their heads of a short nursery rhyme or classic tune, like Happy Birthday. One at a time, a player recites those few lines through an emotional filter. It can be any emotional filter – in fact encourage them to choose an emotion that has nothing to do with the context of their lines. The next player does their lines through their emotional filter – and it’s okay if emotions double up. And Repeat.
• Song lyrics
• Old salts / sayings
• The Details gain weight with our emotional perspectives – we can say whatever we want as long as we feel about what we’re saying
• Acting is emoting – finding a motivation can be hard and grueling. Committing to an emotion without regard to “sense” is easy and fun.
3.3 Emotional Reactions: If you are to “choose one thing” entering a scene, emotion is always a strong choice. It doesn’t matter what the choice was if you commit. And choosing to decide without deference to “sense” can make for fun unique scenes.
EMOTIONAL REACTION CIRCLE – Player One makes a decision of what emotion they will use to react to Player Two through. Then Player Two says anything. And Player One has the previously decided upon emotional reaction to the anything. (“I have a dog” / “Fucking Christ!”)
- A committed emotion will always trump sense – if you just feel you never have to explain how/why you feel what you do.
- Any emotion works – if we try to “understand your motivation” before making a choice about how to feel, you’ll end up in a scene that’s been done a million times before. But, if you make a choice about how to feel before any context is established, then that scene has the potential to be different than any that’s been seen before (“I’m the first Johnson graduating college” / “Ooooh, my god. I’m so scared”).
- Repetition is the only justification you need – Don’t waste your time negotiating which feelings are valid; just heighten the emotion you chose to feel (If you choose to cry when your partner says, “I’m five,” don’t stop crying to explain why; just keep crying.)
3.4 Emotional Decision Making: We don’t need it “all figured out” the moment we step on stage. Make one choice and then build other choices on top of that choice.
We can start with emotion and build the details of our character around that. Or, we can start with a detail and build an emotional character from there. All that’s important is that we make a choice the moment we enter stage. Let’s practice how easy that first choice can be.
ENDOWMENT WALK – students walk around the space as themselves. Teacher gives prompts for them to make choices from (see Progression below). Teacher asks additional questions to flesh out the characters – “If that’s what you’re doing,..where are you?…how does it affect your posture?” (see below for more). What you build to in each iteration is asking, “How does [what you’re doing] make you feel?” Call on students to make an emotional noise and then later to share in character-voiced statements how they’re feeling about what they’re doing. Then the Instructor has students reset, returning to walk around the space as themselves again. And Repeat.
Again, students shouldn’t be worried about what they look like; everyone’s doing the same thing!
Instructors, keep it brisk. You want to build through a bunch of prompts so don’t belabor them. Students don’t have to nail each one as long as everyone walks away comfortable they can make a choice and build from it.
- Have players change elements of their personal walk to see how it affects the way they feel
- Change your rate – speed up, slow down
- Walk with a different body part pushing forward breaking the vertical plane first
- Walk like someone you know
- Make a sound
- Have the class…
- Decide what the atmosphere is around them (ie. Raining, cold, hot) and how they feel about it
- Grab an imagined object from the air, decide what it is, how they feel about it
- Engage in a repeatable action (ie. “chopping wood”); how do they feel about it?
- To start broad and get to emotional feeling, have the class…
- Do a celebrity impression
- Personify an animal
- Take on a caricature (pirate, zombie, cheerleader, etc.)
- Having started them with one of the above directions, the Instructor then asks questions to flesh out the character. Basically “if this, then what”; for example, how do you feel about the action you’re doing, or how does that desire affect your walk? If you started with a noise, how does that noise inform your feeling? If you grabbed an object, where are you? Let your emotion heighten with each time you engage your action.
- After building them to deciding “how they feel about [it],” call out students to make an emotional noise, and then later prompt them to speak in their character’s voice about their emotional states. Call out students individually to contribute.
- Don’t let starting a scene be intimating – all you need to start is one choice; you can find your emotional perspective for the scene by building on / diving into the decisions you have made.
- Seek to establish emotion – as emotion will drive our scenes, we don’t want to stop our character development until we establish that emotional perspective.
- Volume, Weight and Tension are our Mime tools – prompt students to give their imagined objects a physical presence through how it affects their body.
- With Emotion, Caricature becomes Character – You can be a lispy hick, but until you make a choice about how that lispy hick feels you’ll be hard pressed to heighten the stakes of a scene. Don’t just be a pirate; be a pirate who hates the sea.
3.5 No Pressure Initiations: Students shouldn’t be intimidated to start a scene. They don’t need to think of a perfect initiation; they just need to get out there and “choose one thing.”
Players can feel very anxious about initiations. It is important for a teacher to balance emphasizing “strong initiations” and underscoring that “failure” isn’t possible – all you need to start is “anything.”
ANNOYANCE-STYLE SCENE STARTS – Have the class form a line across the back of the stage. Call out one name. That person should immediately take the stage and “take care of themselves” with A choice: grab an object, engage an action, make a sound, assume a posture, “see” something and react to it, etc. The moment you call that name, another improviser should be coming out on stage as well. That person must also “take care of themselves” with A choice. The second player can choose AGREEMENT – it’s both the easiest and most satisfying choice.
If time permits additional rounds, allow Players more lines back and forth with the instruction to double down on the choices they’ve already made, with additional detail and heightened reaction. Point out where students heightened the choices they’ve already made, with additional detail and more emotional reaction. Point out where students filtered their descriptions/heightening through emotional perspective. Run through this several times until you are confident everyone will take care of themselves right out of the gate and, eventually if not immediately, get to emotion.
- Commit to a choice the moment you enter stage – a choice – any choice
- Agreement is awesome – Don’t negotiate an imagined reality.
- You don’t need motivation to have a feeling
- Expand on the information you’ve already established instead of scrambling to make up new stuff. Commit to your choices.
- The sooner we can get to emotional perspective the better, but don’t feel any pressure to start there. All you need to start is anything.
- Trust that repetition of an emotion/sound is all the “reason” you have to provide for what/how you feel. Commit, don’t explain.
3.6 Emotional Initiations: You don’t have to initiate with statements. You can start with any choice: A sound, an object, an action, an environment, an atmosphere, etc. But the sooner we get to feeling, and feeling about something active on stage with us the better – because that feeling can be heightened by the player and played to by the player’s teammates. The sooner we can identify how a player feels about a something the better – because that something can be heightened by the player to heighten the player’s emotion and that something can be referenced/heightened by the player’s teammates to force the player into a reaction.
SELF CONTAINED EMOTIONAL STATEMENT CIRCLE – We want to “feel something about something.” Around a circle, everyone makes a Self Contained Emotional Statement. It can be as simple as “I love it here,” “I hate the arts,” or “I’m uncomfortable.” Note: the SCES might seem stiff but damnit it works.
- I love this cat
- I hate pulling weeds
- Des Moines, you’re impressive
- I’m proud of my shoes
- I’m afraid of my face
- I’m sad I have no friends
- It’s self-contained. It’s an “I” statement. It’s a choice you make to take care of yourself neither dictating or deferring to a scene partner.
- It’s a statement. Not a question shifting the responsibility of providing information to your partner. There’s a period. It’s definitive.
- It’s an emotional statement. Emotion is one of our three key tools; let’s get to it.
- It’s establishes an emotional reaction. You need to feel and, for the reaction, you need to give that feeling a direction. Give X the power to make you feel Y.
- It’s active. If I say, “I love cats,” I’m just emoting. If I say, “I love this cat,” I’m emotionally reacting. If we make the object of our emotion active in the scene – actually tangible/ observable/ repeatable on stage – then we have something to react to instead of just talk about.
3.7 Emotional Scene Starts: Player One initiates with a Self Contained Emotional Statement (SCES). How does Player Two join in? However they want to! All they have to do is make a choice for themselves. Change their posture, grab an object, engage an activity, make a sound, come up with a Self Contained Emotional Statement of their own.
Player Two can also choose to Agree with Player One, Heighten Player One’s perspective, and/or React to Player One.
What’s important is that both players make a choice for themselves that can be built up so that both characters feel something about something.
SELF CONTAINED EMOTIONAL STATEMENTS AND JOIN LAY-UPS – Split the group in two and have them form separate lines on either wing of the stage. Designate one line as the Initiation Line. One player from the Initiation Line enters stage with either a Self Contained Emotional Statement. The player at the head of the other line also enters – same time – and makes a choice of their own (to include the ability to Agree With and/or React To Player One.
- Feel something about something – the initiation most conducive to success.
- Agreement to imagined stimuli is funny. Agreement is so satisfying and it doesn’t have to be any harder than that.
- Engage the environment – Don’t let your scene partner be the only other active element on stage. “See” those active elements to evoke deeper details. React to those active elements.
- Don’t know what to do next? Do more of what you did – Boy Scout Motto says, “If you’re ever lost in a wood – hug a tree – hold onto the last place you knew you were.”
- No questions – questions are invitations for information; statements are Get to the information. Instead of asking “What do you do?” say “I’m a lawyer.”
- Just do more of what you’re doing – Don’t worry about where the scene’s going. Don’t force conflict because that’s what you think a scene “should be about.” Just double down on how you feel – reacting to what you “see” and to your scene partner.
- Cause and Effect: First time it’s random, second time it’s expected – While the juxtaposition of any two lines the first time they’re uttered can have no rhyme or reason between them, the second time the 1st of two lines is said, some form of the 2nd line will be expected. Leverage what you’ve already established when moving a scene forward – it’s easier and more impactful to the audience!
And lastly, here’s a video of Lay-up scenes given a little more length. These are being presented as paragons of perfection; just examples of where students might be after this two hour class. Remember, what’s important is that students learn to make ANY choice the moment they get on stage with an eye to ultimately feeling something about something.