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The Performance of Improv Comedy

It's all about Scenes:

I've been doing a lot of short form improv comedy lately (that game oriented style of improv most familiar from "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?"), often with inexperienced players, and I've been noticing that they often see the game as an end in itself; they believe that all they have to do is concentrate on the game structure and everything else will work out.

This is a mistake.

Improv comedy isn't about the games, it's about scenes. Ever notice how many improv games are introduced with "We're going to do a scene where..." and then the game structure is explained? The scene comes first. A scene is supposed to hang together and make sense, sometimes even make a point, to go somewhere. Games exist to create a structure for the actors to work in and to help create the comedy (structures set up expectations to play off of). It's something you add to the playing of a scene, it's not the scene itself.

So, what is a scene? It's not just people randomly interacting on stage, it too has a structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. A situation is introduced, explored, and ultimately resolved. A good scene has direction, and is about something that matters.

Consider the sort of scene you often see improv beginners attempt; let's call this a "Zoo Scene". Our players are given a potentially interesting location like a zoo. So, they wander aimlessly around the zoo playing visitors, first "Oh, look, a tiger," then "Oh, look, a monkey," then "Oh, look, a bear," and so on, never building and with no causation between this action and the next. Meanwhile, the players are working furiously, desperately trying to invent new gags and come up with somewhere to go next as they fill the time -- the scene has no motor to propel it, no inherent direction, nothing to resolve, so the scene just goes nowhere. The audience yawns.

Let's try that again. We're in a zoo. Player One turns to Player Two: "The lion has escaped!" Now, we have something to do: we've got to catch the lion. We don't have to work so hard to invent each new action because it's all going to relate to a story about catching a lion, and we have our beginning (lion escapes), our middle (various attempts to capture the lion), and our resolution (we either get the lion or it definitively escapes or gets us). We have a scene (not a very involving scene, true, but a scene). It doesn't matter what game we're playing: it could be Ninety Second Alphabet, or Changing Film Styles, or Whose Line?, or any of a number of games. You need a goal to work for, so your scene will have direction.

But pick your goal carefully. If it's trivial, no one will care if you achieve it or not. There must be stakes; it must matter to your character or it won't matter to the audience. If it seems too wacky or forced or plot driven, nobody's really going to care, either.

If you want people to care, you have to touch them on an emotional level. On film, an elaborate plot and awesome special effects can overwhelm and excite an audience, but it rarely works like that on stage. It has been said that film is about what happens, while theatre is about the consequences of what happened. Never forget, improv, even short form, is theatre, too.

Now, back at the zoo, let's make it personal. "Um, Bob... it was me. I'm the guy who let the lion escape this morning." Clearly, this guy has a problem, and, no matter if his goal is to keep his job (Bob must be the boss), or get Bob not to tell the boss (Bob must be a co-worker), or talk Bob into helping him free more animals, or get a divorce from Bob and free herself from a metaphorical cage... we have a clear path to follow even if we don't know where it may lead. Now, instead of running around the stage chasing a phantom lion, we have a living relationship between two people to dissect, and that is the heart of theatre.

If your goal is too easy the scene would be over in three seconds, so it's best if you have to work against some sort of opposition -- you work toward your goal, while something or someone works against you achieving your goal -- and this interaction creates the scene. Thus Conflict (a goal thwarted) is the motor of a scene. You want to do something, something stands in your way you must overcome. A scene is the story of how you achieve or fail to achieve your goal. Conflict is the driving force that gives a scene direction. Relationship is what gives it meaning.

Conflict is often divided into: Man vs. man, man vs. environment, man vs. himself. You can use any form (although internal conflict, man vs. himself, is often hard to dramatize). Man vs. man (or man vs. woman, or woman vs. woman, or man vs. alien, or...) is usually the easiest to show on stage, as all you need is two people with goals that clash.

It's important not to confuse conflict in an improv scene with Negating, which is a bad idea that we'll discuss later. Just be aware that some improvisers have a hang-up about conflict, but that's usually due to a misunderstanding of what conflict is in a dramatic context. Having conflict in a scene doesn't mean that you must have a goal in conflict with the goals of your scene partners, although that is one way to create conflict. You could also work together for a common goal, against an unseen enemy or problem.

The important thing to remember is that to give yourself a difficult personal goal to achieve in your scenes is how you bring them to life.

Scenes have a who, where, when.

So, what else makes up a scene? There's Who you are, your character. There is Where you are, the setting. And there's also When you are, from historical period to time of day. Each of these choices will have a profound effect on your scene.

The more detailed, and thus more real you make these three attributes of a scene, the easier it will be for your audience to visualize what you're doing. In improv we have to create everything on the fly out of our bodies and thin air (via pantomime and verbal reference) so if we don't bring something into existence, it's not there for anyone.

The When of a scene seems to be the most often ignored attribute -- there's the unspoken assumption that everything is being done in the present day. But don't ignore the vast range of time and space you have available to you: improv can go anywhere. It's like that Steven Wright joke about the diner with the Breakfast Anytime sign: "So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance." Your only limit is your imagination, and the ability of your scene partners and the audience to figure out what the heck you're doing.

Where and When are defined by actions. What you say, and what you do (such as the objects you handle) tell us where you are. Characters are defined by relationships/attitudes more than by attributes. How you act toward your scene partners tells us more about a character than any verbal description or funny walk.

Scenes are built one line/action at a time.

Notice that word, built. Like a wall is built brick by brick, a scene is built line by line, action by action. Since this is improvisation, after all, and your scene partners don't know what you're thinking or how you think this scene should come out, you have to build as you go without trying to scriptwrite, control, or lead. Let it happen, don't force it.

It's all about Give and Take. When your time for action or to say something comes, give your partners something to work with. When they give you something, take it as a gift and build that wall together. Trust in your ability to create in the moment, without a plan, and in the ability of your fellow improvisers to make something beautiful together one piece at a time.

If you're going to build that wall higher and higher, always move forward. Avoid those behaviors that can stop your progress or even knock down part of the wall. This is where Negating your partner can cause trouble. Negating means you reject their gift: they say one thing, but you deny that reality. They call you "Boss" but you say "I'm not your boss, I'm the meter reader" because you had this great idea for a bit about a meter reader, but the other guy spoke first. They set down a brick, and you knocked it off the wall: this is not the way to build something. Save the meter bit and trust your scene partner. That part of the wall is already in place for this scene; accept it. Be a boss for now, next time you can go with what you want.

Avoid questions, as they can also stall your progress in a scene. "What's that?" You ask, and all you have done is slow things down by adding nothing to the scene, while forcing your scene partner to come up with an answer to the question. You've failed to place your brick and have made them do it. Don't ask what it is, tell us what it is: "Hey! Look! A wombat!" Now you've given your partner something to work with. Arguments, of the back and forth, "Yes you did!" "No I didn't!" variety also don't go anywhere, so they bog a scene down rather than keeping it progressing forward. Avoid arguments.

The technique is known as "Yes, and..." after the exercise where you accept what your partner said (the "yes"), and then add to it (the "and..."). Both parts are important. Accept and progress.

These are not rules!

Some people will tell you that statements like "Do not negate your scene partner" and "Do not ask questions" and "A scene must (or must not) have conflict" are rules you must follow in constructing a scene. Wrong. You don't build scenes by what you don't do -- what's important is what is done. Don't let advice like the above paralyze you when playing a scene; whatever works at the time is what's right, even if you break a "rule" or two. These are suggestions as to what usually works, but the important thing is to understand the reasons why this is so, not to memorize a bunch of rules to follow blindly. You can't be in the moment if your mind is busy running down a list of rules to check each action against before you do it. These are things to think about as you do a post-mortem on a scene, not while in the middle of acting one.

Watch someone learning to drive, or a child learning to walk: when they try to do it by remembering the rules and by thinking everything through their style is halting, choppy, slow and unsure. It is only after practice and internalizing the way things are done through many successful attempts that they learn how to do it without thinking and therefore quickly and effortlessly. That's the point you want to work toward as an improviser, when you can just get out there and do it without having to consciously process every little step.

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