Lead with your neck

It’s finally starting to click on this day 3! Yesterday felt like sliding backwards but tonight it worked. Started internalizing the rules, relaxing in the parts, scenes that made sense and were even funny. Fun!

Tonight’s warm-up was an “invitation game.” Someone in the circle does something random to the person to their left. Has to include some sound/words (e.g. “Hellloooooo” or “Figgy Pudding”) as well as distinctive movement (e.g. a sweeping bow or jumping from side to side). The next person turns to her left and attempts to repeat everything exactly to the next person — sound, movement, facial movements. And so on. But fast. And you’re not trying to imitate the first person, just the previous person. So of course it morphs as it zooms around the circle.

The point is to get you to pay attention to what just happened close enough to repeat all parts of it. Also — as with all warm-ups — the point is to get silly and get rid of the filters and normal rules of behavior and interaction. Silly or, as the teacher put it, “Be gayballs.”

The first lesson reinforced the idea that what happens at the very start of the scene must be sufficient fodder for the rest of the scene. The game is “Three-Line Scenes.” You only get three lines total — player A, then B, then A and you’re done. The trick is that at the end of the scene you have to know who both of you are, and your relationship to one another. What it is you’re doing isn’t important.

It’s challenging to bring that much information in just a few sentences, but it hones your ability to get to the point of the scene very quickly. When you don’t know who you are or why you’re there or your relation to the other person, you’re fishing. You’re throwing things out and seeing if anything sticks. By the time something does (if ever) you’ve invented so many different things and now you have to deal with all of it and make sense of it.

So the first benefit of the quick-to-the-relationship is to establish what’s going on. The second is that you’ve established everything important you need for the rest of the scene. Of course you develop things, heighten things, change something to develop the plot, etc., but if you know what’s going on it’s not so much of a struggle. You’ve defined the boundaries of the world and now you follow it. (Although it turns out it can be more difficult than it sounds to understand the implications of the world you just created…)

In the “Three-Line Scenes” exercise you emphasize this by stopping the two players and asking each things like “Who are you?” “Who is that — your brother, friend, roommate, what?” If there can be more than one answer to too many of those questions, you haven’t done your job.

Another thing we covered in a minor way was “edits.” This is where the players in the wings decide when the current scene should be over. Up until now the teacher “conducted” when we started and stopped. The skill here is in picking the time to end the scene. If a scene is progressing nicely (which ours still aren’t, usually), it will “heighten” (more lingo) towards a climax. You don’t want the scene to get past the climax. There’s no denouement in improv — you want to cut it off just as it couldn’t get better.

The rule is: It’s better to cut off early than late. If it’s late it’s called “cooking” the players on stage; you’re hanging them out to dry. Ideally there’s some great “out line” — the final nail in the coffin, the note to end on. The problem is you can’t count on that in the scene because if you do that on purpose and no one comes out and edits you off the stage, there’s not a good come-back.

Doing the edit isn’t anything special. The editor just walks confidently across the front of the stage from one end to the other like a curtain being drawn. Has to be strong, fast, and confident so it’s obviously the edit and not e.g. another character coming into the scene. Also the editor starts the next scene immediately. Some people say you can jog across the stage for this, but our teacher pointed out that it can look cheesy.

We did an interesting exercise to get a feel for when the edit is right. The game is “Cocktail party.” Everyone’s on stage in pairs and each pair gets a topic of conversation. Everyone thinks of a separate character and pretends to converse with the other in the pair. The teacher points to one pair who starts talking about their topic. Then the teacher cuts them off and points to another pair, and so on. When it comes back to you, it’s the same characters but “10 minutes later” in the conversation.

Then we have to decide when to cut off each other. You let a pair go, then when you think it’s time (30-90 seconds) you start in on your deal. There’s a few lessons here: Deciding when to cut off, and jumping in without cutting off someone else who just beat you to it; communicating about that sort of thing without words or gestures.

There was a lot more talk about the steps of “establish, then heighten.” Nothing deep to note here. “Heightening” means bringing the scene along, digging into the world that was established (hopefully in about 3 lines). Let’s say player A is a great bowler and player B isn’t, but since they both started bowling at the same time, B is envious. So the key here is: B is envious of A. So envious of bowling, what else? Maybe B could say, “So what did Tracy say about your medal at the Iowa State Finals?” A can take that and run; now B can be envious of that. What else? So it’s not really about bowling, it’s about envy — dig into that. Also at the same time maybe they’re roommates and they’re moving. Moving the bowling trophies, which brought it up. But don’t talk about moving because then you’re just saying boring stuff like “Can you hand me the glasses?” (snore) or “What do you think of the new place?” (who cares? it’s not relevant, and now we have to invent a bunch of stuff about this other place and why we’re going there etc. etc.). What’s going to be funny is how pathetic we can end up making B and how awesome A is.

There’s also another term called “giving a gift.” It’s not exactly prompting the other person, but it’s setting up something that’s easy to work with. Not necessarily directed, but a little thing in the world that’s easy to play inside. For example, “This is just part of my brick collection.” This is a little nugget. Who the hell has a brick collection? Is this a hermit, loving his bricks? Does he use it to get attention? A guy who collects bricks might have other weird hobbies. Or maybe he likes nothing but bricks. And what about the other player? You could approach this guy in all kinds of ways. Make fun of him. Congratulate him. Compare your own brick collection to his. Or argue that ant farming is more interesting.

This is a gift. It leaves lots of options for both players, but it’s not so vague that nothing is established and we’re not sure what to do next. Of course it helps if it’s funny, but that’s not at all necessary.

Another exercise helped to clarify how to think about two characters with a backstory (even though you don’t know the backstory yet). You start a scene; this time you’re given the situation (e.g. “Pimp and whore,” “President and bodyguard”). You do a little with it, establishing the relationship. Remember, the situation is not the relationship. Maybe the president has control issues about how to work the move from one room to another, but the bodyguard has ideas of his own. Then control-freak vs. the expert is the relationship. Then the teacher calls out “20 years from now.” Now continue with the relationship and characters 20 years into the future. Not the same lines, not the same situation, but the same relationship. Then “5
years before the first scene.” Then maybe “1 day before that.” And so on. It crystallizes the importance of the relationship over the situation. Also it helped me think more about the character, and it demonstrated (again, but we need the reinforcement!) that knowing the character and relationship is all you need.

Another interesting sub-rule there is “Start in the middle.” It’s tempting (when you suck like we all do) to get on stage and say, “Sooooo, hi I’m Jake.” This is starting a fresh relationship, and it’s bad because: It’s hard enough to create a world from scratch — by creating a world where these two characters don’t know each other, you now have to build the relationship during the scene. And the relationship is the scene. So it’s a lot harder.

So whenever we’d do this the teacher would say “Freeze,” then instruct to keep everything the same, just fast-forward 10 minutes. The time-shift exercise also pointed this out in a more general way.

There were a variety of tips on how to get out of trouble. Show, don’t tell. No stories, just do it in the moment. Have an honest, strong reaction to whatever’s going on. Whatever your character might think, just say it out loud. Start with “I have a confession to make: XYZ.” Or “You’re making me feel XYZ.” Or “I know you think I’m XYZ.” Throw a stake in the ground. Make a strong choice.

Another interesting tip about how to get on stage with some concept for yourself but flexible enough to deal with any situation: “Give yourself an adverb.” Don’t think “I’m going to be the president” because that might not work out. But you can be “presidential.” Decide that you’ll conduct yourself that way no matter what happens. Gives you an anchor and something to build on. And it can almost always work. If it’s dad/son scene, if the son ends up presidential and the dad is a goofball, that’s probably funnier than the other way around!

The other real eye-opener tonight was in some character development exercises. The best was one where we’d start by all milling around the stage, walking around randomly, making eye contact with everyone. Just be yourself. Then the teacher calls out something like “Now lead with your knees.” What does that mean to you? Of course everyone does something different. Maybe you high-step. Maybe you’re wobbly. Maybe you’re leading with one leg and dragging the other. So you just walk around in whatever way makes sense to you. The teacher is asking things like “Why would you walk like this? Are you old or young? Do you have a disease? What kinds of things would you eat? How would this person sound? What does this person do for a living? What’s this person’s name?” Then you start having to greet people as you walk around, in this character, in the voice, however this person would greet another person. Making eye contact the whole time, still milling around the room. Then finally you have to find someone and a topic of conversation is yelled out, e.g. “mutual funds.” It’s surprisingly easy to talk about whatever, because once you’ve really thought about who you are, you just respond through that filter.

Of course the idea is this is exactly what you’re doing in an improv scene, except you get less time to think about who this person is. But you can come in at least with an adverb and some ideas, and as things are established (in the first 3 lines?) you should stick to whatever choices were made.

Finally we ventured into some 3-person scenes. Teacher warned that multi-person scenes are especially susceptible to becoming clusterfucks. (Wow, the Mozilla spell-checker doesn’t know the word “clusterfuck.” Hmmm, Add to Dictionary… Maybe I should add “gayballs” too…)

A common game used to keep it coherent is “2-on-1.” It’s just what it sounds like. The point is that if there are three different opinions OR if everyone agrees it’s hard to go anywhere. I guess in a way this turns it back into 1-on-1. We were instructed to just do the 2-on-1 format since of course we’re not good at 1-on-1’s either. It actually went pretty well, especially for the “2” people because if one was stuck the other could jump in. And somehow it’s funny when 2 people are defending a weird idea against one straight person, I guess because the 2 are automatically stronger and yet their pushing something weird.

The other general rule with multiples is “Keep it simple.” Even more simple than usual. We did one scene where it was all 8 of us and the scenario was “basketball teams.” I started the scene by jumping to the middle, doing some stupid movements, and yelling “Aww yeah, y’all got SERVED!” The other team looked sheepish. This set up the game of: “Our team is cool and makes fun of you and keeps congratulating ourselves, and your team is continually uncool and unable to come back.” We kept it just at that level — no development or anything — and it was still hard to keep things together.

Anyway, tonight was the first time that I started feeling comfortable going out there with enough in mind that it isn’t random, but still being able to react to whatever. So that felt good, and ended up in some coherent scenes and even some funny moments. The next few classes will start to get more into characters, common games to play and pick up on to make scenes work more easily, and see how rules can and should be bent.

  • I’m curious, you wrote this post a couple of years back. Do you feel this improved your social / conversational skills?