I love World Building in improvisation. With World Building in mind we can bring focus to our Organic Formats.
The first scene of a show starts in a train; the rest of the show exists in that same train.
The first scene of a show starts with Little League players. The next scene focuses on the parents in the stands. The next scene focuses on the players’ siblings hanging out in the parking lot.
The first scene of a show introduces a reality wherein people shield their improper thoughts from heaven with an umbrella. The next scene shows angels using the same umbrellas to shield them from God’s view. And later we see God himself hiding his own self-doubt under an umbrella.
In our efforts to build worlds though we mustn’t lose sight of Improv As Improv Does Best, which relies at its core on heightening established Personal and Scenic Games. So how’s about we build worlds around our patterns of emotional behavior?
Here is a series of exercises I ran to that purpose… Continue reading
Looking for a fun character-based Opening for your long-form improv format?
Try a Duologue or, like The Johnsons do, try several. Here are two examples –
A Coalition show called Strange Bedfellows pairs an actor with one half of a script with an improviser who ad libs their half. I had the honor of performing one night in the improviser’s role.
And I have never been more terrified pre-show.
In a typical show, I have at least one improv partner. I can relax in the uncertainty of improvisation knowing that, whatever happens, my partner(s) will support my choices, I’ll support theirs and any direction we go together will be successful. In this show, I can’t trust my scene partner to support my choices; they’re tied to their lines. They could be directly working against me.
Other improvisers who had done the show encouraged me to “just make a choice.” But “a choice” can be anything: a limp, a pirate accent, a yo-yo. My anxiety wasn’t calmed by the advice.
My calm came from realizing that I didn’t need to treat this any different than any other scene. And to succeed in any scene all I had to do was Feel and React.
Two Sides of the Same Two Person Scene Coin
“More of this makes me feel more.”
Nothing bugs me more than a scene where two improvisers meet stage center, stare only at each other and talk only to and about each other.
I get it. Your stage partner is truly the only other active element on stage with you. But, c’mon, show some imagination.
The audience likes to see us interact with things we imagine. The audience loves to see us care about things we imagine. The audience f*#king adores when what we imagine makes us feel.
If you and/or the ensemble you’re in and/or the ensemble you coach are having the tendency to do centerstage talking heads scenes then this warm-up exercise might be right for you.
“A Massage Convention’s an HR hotbed.” –> “If OSHA says this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
With Hey Everybody mechanics in our back pocket we can confidently jump into chaos knowing that all we need to do is each stick and heighten our individual perspectives while collectively sticking to the order of individual contributions. With these tools we harness the power of the chaos, enabling it to swell and pop.
We can relax, too, in the knowledge that every player doesn’t need to nail it; they just need to participate. Especially in that first pass, what’s most important is just for each player to say/do something, anything. And if “anything” is too broad and therefore crippling then we remember that we can always align and agree with one another as well.
Watch this example. Note how the first pass gets established – who agrees with whom, who has a different perspective, who doesn’t speak. How many different perspectives would you say are in play among these 7 improvisers?
Check out this Two Person scene performed by Shaheen Ali and Christopher May. In it the performers weave patterns of emotional behavior to link characters, relationships and environment in a sustainable scene. Enjoy!
To establish sustainable scenes, it is helpful to remember that each player on stage can have at least one Personal and Scenic game at their disposal to heighten.
Personal Game – how you react to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing
* I love cake; when I eat a piece I’m overcome with joy and I sigh involuntarily
Scenic Game – how you react to who your scene partner is, what your scene partner is doing or how your scene partner is acting
* Greg is my hero; when he criticizes me I’m destroyed and flagellate myself
* We are scared of ghosts; when we hear a noise we freak and run around
The games represent a pattern of behavior established through evolving rules. Establishing and leveraging these games A) enable players to react through rather than think through scenes and B) engage the audience, letting them know our characters through their patterns of emotional behavior and care about them.
Audiences love Musical Improv. LOVE it. They know you’re collaborating in-the-moment to build something out of nothing AND YOU’RE FOLLOWING A TUNE AND YOU’RE RHYMING!!!
Musical Improv is hard. It’s hard to make up with songs in-the-moment. It’s harder still to make those songs a backbone to a compelling story, with rich character and emotion. It’s harder still to do it with only two people on stage (and one accompanist off-stage).
But Karen Lange and Jordan Hirsch‘s Vox Pop make it look easy.
Jive Turkey is Chris Ulrich and Joe Randazzo. They’ve been working on a two-man format where all the worlds connect.
There’s certainly a through-line of a plot here – finding one character’s spouse, trying to have a threesome with said spouses, etc. – but what I like here is that the worlds are more connected by emotional characters and their words than by the plot.
“Buh-duh, buh, buh, buh,…”…enjoy it!
A “Blackout” is a short scene with one big punchline. In sketch, or in improv with a tuned-in booth operator, the lights would go out on stage after the punchline, designating the end of the scene and earning the name “blackout.”
Blackouts are fun. They can help vary the pacing of a long-form show. They can be great when it’s clear there’s not going to be a bigger laugh beyond the first big punchline, but even if there is life beyond the punchline it can be enjoyable to cut the scene “early” so you can bring it back later. Will Hines and I had a scene where, in crossing stage, he asked if I had “a roll of quarters in my pants.” I did, I removed it and that was the end of the scene. Later in the show he asked if I was smuggling a zucchini in my pants; again, I was. Repeat.
I really love this Blackout from Horse Apples’ District Indie Improv Fest Show. Joey Tran kills it by being authentic. Truth is he doesn’t believe he can whistle; that’s honest frustration in his “no” to my question. And the audience believes him. So when he tries – and he legitimately tries because, again, he doesn’t think he can – and, lo and behold, he succeeds!, the surprise is also genuine. Honest, in-the-moment, shared with an engaged audience, emotionally reactive… that’s improv as improv does best, folks.