1.0 – The 3lements

Improvisation: Making it up as you go along.

A group of players gets on stage without previously rehearsed lines or blocking and acts out. 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.

Improvisation then is at its best when it leverages its monopoly on spontaneous collaboration before a live audience. When a group of individuals creates something out of nothing together on stage before their eyes, the audience sees magic. When improv is as improv does best, it is magic. Magic. “How’d you all do that?” Continue reading

1.1 – The Self Contained Emotional Statement


How do you start an improv scene? My answer was forged from the perspective of giants’ shoulders.

Mick Napier, of The Annoyance Theater, says we start with just one thing.

– Assume a posture.
– Grab an object.
– Start a motion.
– Engage your environment.
– Embody a character.
– Emote.

What do you do with that one thing? Expand, says Napier. Discover through “if this
than what” extrapolation. Build that one thing out, or draw a line to another point of the

The direction I believe you should expand to – the scene start structure most conducive to
good improvisation – is the Self-Contained Emotional Statement.

It can be as simple as:

– I love it here.
– I hate the arts.
– I’m uncomfortable.

The Self-Contained Emotional Statement aligns you with an emotional perspective. It’s a solid foundation on which to build the possibilities. Continue reading

1.3 – Game Mechanics


Some definitions:

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

A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. That’s a fine pattern. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. Repetition makes the sequence purposeful. And repetition alone is heightening – imagine a room filled with “A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark” wallpaper.

But in aspiring to elevate 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.

Continue reading

2.0 – “Two Person Scene” Theory

When we whine that we don’t want to do group game work anymore, we ask, “Can we just do some two person scenes?” We want to breathe. And we equate two person scene with time to breathe up top.” There’re just two of us; there’s less impetus to force our voice into the scene. We’re free to discover the scene without fear of hijack.

We can walk up to center stage to face our partners, careful not to make any sudden moves, meet them eye to eye – chests turned out slightly to the audience – and in our round, enunciated theater voices negotiate the reality of the scene. “Well, if I am your lawyer then I need to know why you’re in the pokey in the firsty place.”

What happened to the Self Contained Emotional Statement? Where’d your patterns go? “But…uh…we’re doing two person scenes now.”

There are many approaches to two-person scenework. I prefer to do two-person improv as improv does best. Continue reading

3D.1 – Being Tertiary

Pop quiz, hotshot. When do you add on to a two person scene in progress?
A. When you have a funny idea
B. When the scene needs to be saved
C. When there are holes in the information on stage
D. When you want to get in on the fun
E. When you can heighten the game in play

Think about it. Now realize the question is flawed because its answers are not mutually exclusive.

Here is the proper pop quiz: When do you add on to a two person scene in progress?
A. To serve yourself
B. To serve the show

Hopefully now the answer is more obvious.

Entering a two person scene in progress, you are a tertiary player. The scene’s not about you and you shouldn’t make it about you. Continue reading

3D.2 – Subsequent Beats

Pop quiz, hotshot. What do you take as inspiration in initiating subsequent beats of a scene during a long-form show?
A. This makes me think of that
B. If this then what
C. If first beat is “a day in the life,” then second beat is “the day when X happens”
D. If a character was at work, show her at home. If a character was at home, show him at work.
E. If that makes him feel that emotion, this should make him feel this emotion.
F. If that makes her feel that emotion, more of that should make her feel more of that emotion.
G. A place/event/time was mentioned – let’s go there.
H. That same character dynamic would be funny mapped over these new characters
I. That same theme would be heightened through this context
J. The theme of this whole piece would be sharpened if I callback that scene with this focus

The answer, if you know your 3D.1, is, of course, serve the show. And we serve the scenes of our show, and the show of our scenes, by heightening the emotionally derived games at play. Continue reading

SWOT #13 – Crafting Beautiful Trajectories

If beauty is defined by symmetries and proportional asymmetries – and it is – then we can craft beautiful trajectories in our scenes through pattern mechanics, employing triggers and caps to link heightening personal and scenic games. A scene that ends where it began – with a reformed character returnng to an old habit. A scene that clover-leafs back to a central point – with characters committed to completing their work yet consistently drawn back to kids playing in a fire hydrant. A scene that roller-coasters between emotional perspectives – with a woman who keeps being derailed in her attempts to be cool by an attractive loose curl in a man’s hair.

Without attention paid to our trajectories we… Overplay the first funny thing – hoping our scene’s edit arrives at the critical moment in the game’s assent. Or… Throw out a series of random contributions – hoping one will hit a funny chord with the audience and that our fellow players reward that moment with an edit. Or… Assume a consistent but non-heightening perspective/desire – hoping for a mercy edit before the audience dies of boredom.

Crafting Scene Trajectories

If this Weakness is identified, the following posts may help you coach to the Opportunity:
* Trajectory theory
* Trigger and Cap Mechanics
* My 3 Rules: A Triggers and Caps Exercise

SWOT #14 – Enabling Sustainable Scenes

We play with the three core elements of improvisation – The Details,  Emotional Reactions and Patternsin balance.  We don’t over-rely on being clever, which works as long as we are clever and fails us the moment we aren’t.  We don’t over-play our emotional range with erratic characters that, at best, the audience just can’t follow and, at worst, annoys or drains the audience.  We don’t overload on games, finding “the funny” and then riding it to death.

We establish patterns of emotional behavior that define how we interact with our world and our scene partners.  And we develop a rhythm between those patterns of emotional behavior.  We don’t run from one idea to another desperate to find something the audience will like, or audaciously assaulting the audience with randomness, or caught so far up in your own brilliance that you don’t care what the audience thinks.

We lead by following.  We know that if we’re ever lost that we can always go back to something we’ve done before.  We embrace improv’s inherent chaos, working to direct the flow without controlling it.  We focus on supporting the scene moment by moment, and not pushing the scene to an envisioned end.  To ensure our scenes a robust life, we raise them right and trust them to explore their freedom.

Enabling Sustainable Scenes

If this Weakness is identified, the following posts may help you coach to the Opportunity:
* Trajectory theory
* Trigger and Cap Mechanics
* Situational Stakes
* Behavioral Stakes
* Relationship Stakes