Breaking The Plane definition

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!


Pattern Into Game exercises

Understanding the atomic structure of patterns can help a group collaboratively build complex and evolving molecules. Devotion to pattern analysis will foster Pavlovian pattern recognition.

Pattern – a sequence that can be repeated / a structure that can be reused

Game – a sequence of actions, related by rules of cause-and-effect, that heightens with repetition

Elevating pattern work into game play, we focus on two aspects. One, we want a relationship between the nodes of the sequence. And, two, we want a progression of subsequent relationships that heightens the sequence in a concentrated direction.

Patterns that facilitate game play can be defined by three “moves.” A “move” is defined as “a single node of a pattern.” The “move” needn’t be “one line” or “one player’s contribution,” and the “moves” of any given pattern may be redefined in retrospect as new contributions are added. Through analysis and practice, a player learns to recognize and define the distinct moves that define a pattern.

Evolution of the pattern –
• 1st move = Offer (anything is an offer)
• 2nd move = Sets the pattern (of the myriad directions available after the offer the set move begins to define a single trajectory)
• 3rd move = Cements the pattern (clarifies the pattern in a direction that can be repeated and heightened.
E.g. Orange (1); Apple (2); Kiwi (3)
E.g. Orange, Peel (1); Melon, Rind (2); Apple, Skin (3)

Suggested Exercises:

WORD ASSOCIATION – Have Player One say any word. Have Player Two say a word inspired by Player One’s word. Have Player Three say a word that, in relating to the 2nd word, heightens the relationship between the first two words.

TO THE ETHER GAMES – Have Player One take stage and make a Self Contained Emotional Statement. Have Player Two come out and change one thing about Player One’s SCES. Have Player Three give a SCES that, in relating to the 2nd SCES, heightens the progression between the first two SCESs.

Lessons (for Word Association and/or To The Ether):
• The Offer is anything. The Set move seeks to establish a relationship with the Offer move. The Cement move seeks to heighten the relationship between the Set and Offer moves through its own relationship with the Set move. The progression of Offer, Set and Cement moves define the rules to the relationship between nodes in the sequence.
Trust simplicity – stick the same language; don’t allow personally-clever A-to-E connections ground the group in confusion
Serve the groupyou don’t have to be funny for the group to be hilarious; be willing to set the pattern for another to spike; the 2nd move will never be as funny as the 1st or 3rd but it is necessary to facilitate the big payoff.
The sooner a pattern is cemented, the sooner everyone can play – when players feel compelled to continue a pattern you know it has been established with a clear progression.

Walk On definition

Walk-ons – we can 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. If there is one tertiary move an improviser knows, it’s the Walk-on.

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 definition

“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.”

Tag Out definition

Tag out – a “tag out” allows the audience to see how a character from a previous scene will react to another character/scenario/etc.  To perform a tag out, a player enters a scene in progress and literally tags the player that he/she will replace on stage.  The player tagging in should work to be clear in his/her initiation as to what aspect of the original scene s/he is looking to heighten with a new set of stakes/characters/location/etc.

Remember that this is a Tertiary Move and, as such, the move serves what has already been established.  The new scene is not about the newest character (though s/he should also strive to be a dynamic and interesting character) but about serving the initial player.  Therefore a “tag out” should be followed by either A) a series of tag outs, each serving to heighten the progression of the established character game, or B) a “tag back in,” returning the scene to the original pairing.

Example Tag-out Videos:

Scene Painting/”We See” definition

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.

Pivot definition

Pivot (Swivel/Barn Door) – Rather than Tag Out and Tag Back In, the Pivot allows two scenes to happen without players having to leave stage.  For example, Player 1 is telling Player 2 all about his success in last night’s date.  Player 3 enters stage on the other side of Player 1 from Player 2 to initiate a look into the actual date.  Player 1 can pivot between scenes from his central position – turning to Player 3 to do the date scene and then turning back to Player 2 to continue exalting his date prowess.  Players 2 and 3 do not have to leave stage when they’re not in play, they just have to remain frozen or neutral.


You can also watch this video to see a Pivot in action: Johnsons’ Antique Sex Toys

Split Screen definition

Split Screen – To heighten a two-person scene, Player Three and Player Four initiate a new scene – on the same stage, but existing in separate physical spaces. For example, a scene about a married couple fretting over money can be heightened by a couple of mice fretting over cheese.

These two (or more) separate scenes can continue at the same time (usually on opposite sides of the stage), sharing focus back and forth.  While they do not exist in the same physical space, information from one scene affects the other as the focus shifts.

Or…    The original players can fade off stage as the second set of players establishes their scene, and this second set can fade off as the third set establishes their scene.  This is especially useful with smaller numbers of players in a group and can allow themes to heighten faster with subsequent iterations.

Split Screen

Mapping definition

Mapping Exploring an idea through the filter of another scenario’s language and objects. For example, player one is a businessman being bothered by player two, a salesman.  If in trying to get the salesman to leave him alone the businessman uses language that we all recognize from a “break-up scenario,” such as “it’s not you it’s me,” the scene will be infinitely more interesting.  If the salesman reacts to this break-up with the same emotion that any boyfriend or girlfriend would, then we really have a scene.

FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman” is a master class in Mapping.  It’s their thing!

Check out this clip where the idea of out-maturing your “bro” friends is mapped over the language and objects of a “surrendering your dog to a shelter” scenario –


Check out this one where the idea of your friend prioritizing a girlfriend is mapped over the language of a “military ritual of giving condolences for the dead” scenario –


Or how about this clip where the idea of making enough money to afford “good beer” is mapped over the language and objects of a “graduation” scenario.


Now, like Seinfeld, this carefully-scripted show gives us aspirations for improvisation but in improvisation we mustn’t hold ourselves to its standard.  Obviously the show’s use of cuts, props and cinematic tropes will always enable film to do mapping with less reliance on the articulation of juxtaposed scenarios.

In “Man Seeking Woman” just about every scene is a mapping scene and each show contains at least three mapped tropes (if not singularly devoted to one trope like the marvelous “Woman Seeking Man” of second season). Good luck to any improv group attempting that feat!

But the clips above provide guidance as to how an improv group – all educated on mapping and with ears tuned for mapping’s flags – can initiate mapping

A character takes on the characteristics of a caricature – as in the “Bro Shelter” clip. A character established as a “bro” starts exhibiting characteristics of a “dog.” And that move inspires the full-on mapping of a “Bro/Dawg Shelter.”  If we are quick to establish a strong character we can add a layer with mapping that strengthens the character and provides direction for heightening.

The caricatures from the mapped reality start talking about the details of another – more relatable – reality – as in the “Negotiator v Texter” clip.  The cops (never before seen on the show / new to the scene) in cop dialogue discuss the potentially explosive situation of a guy on the verge of sending a terrible text message.  If we see a theme we want to heighten, we can bring on new caricatures to approach the established idea from a new angle.

A character’s situation gains more emotional stakes from the weight of a mapped-on scenario – as in the “Graduated to Good Beer” clip. To cap off an episode wherein Josh struggles between pursuing a career and chasing his dreams, he embraces his day job’s paycheck as in what could have been complacence but becomes triumph when mapped onto a graduation ceremony.  If characters are engaged in an activity as benign as buying beer, a host of tertiary characters can endow the activity with more emotional resonance simply by having strong emotional reactions to the activity.

God, I love mapping.

Damn, I miss “Man Seeking Woman.”