Walk-ons are one of the most dangerous moves in improv. For the beginner, a walk-on is when you step from the sidelines into a scene in progress to add some information or to change the direction of the scene.
I’ve heard teachers and coaches say the impulse to walk-on is usually the impulse to edit. That’s true 90% of the time. People walk on for several reasons…
1) This scene is fun! I want to be in it! So your friends are on stage racking up tons of laughs. You want some of those laughs, so you enter. Most of the time, you just killed the fun. If a scene is working, they don’t need you. Stay out. If you want to bask in the scene’s glow, do a callback later in the show. You’ll get a bigger reaction that way. Think of it this way: Everybody loved “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Add Indiana Jones’ son and you have an abortion of a movie like “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
2) I’m bored with this scene, let me help it. When I’m in a boring/terrible scene, I don’t want anyone to prolong it. I want someone to hit the eject button. When you do a walk-on, your teammates on the sidelines will let you spit out your line, but unless it gets a giant laugh, they probably won’t edit immediately after. So you jumped out to help the scene and now you’re trapped in it. Enjoy the quicksand.
3) They just mentioned a character who isn’t there. I’ll be that character! Perhaps a good impulse, but you need to be very careful with that. If a husband is talking about his evil mother-in-law, we would all love to see the evil mother-in-law at some point. But do you need to hit it right away? The scene in progress is about the husband’s feelings. If we get a callback scene later, we can see the evil mother-in-law and we’ll know how the husband feels thanks to the earlier scene. But if the mother-in-law walks right in after the husband says how much he hates her, we’re missing out on the opportunity to hear him talk about her when she’s not around.
Usually, the only kind of characters who can get away with an immediate walk-on of this type are auxiliary people – characters that can advance the action of the scene without really becoming a part of it. Noah Gregoropolous is a master of this. He plays more waiters and bartenders than anyone I’ve seen. He’ll often just hand off the food or drink without a word, advancing the scene and staying out of the fray unless directly called upon to comment.
In a scene I saw tonight, three genteel Southern ladies were sitting on a porch, sipping mint juleps. They referenced slaves working in the fields. An actor on the sidelines grabbed another and they stepped out to be the slaves. But they didn’t really add much other than, “Boy, this is hard work.” Did we need to see that? As they kept working in the fields, the scene got awkward and the ladies invited the slaves to sit down and have mint juleps. So we had five people doing something that was working just fine with three. Bad walk-on.
4) This scene is confusing, let me add context. This is the most successful of all the walk-ons. In a recent Schnauzer show, two men were discussing a horse. A stable boy brushed the horse’s hair. It was all very casual. The scene wasn’t really advancing because they were talking about the possibility of riding the horse, then deferring to each other about who would ride it. It went on that way for a maybe three minutes. Then it hit me. I ran out, acting like I was out of breath. “Mr. Revere,” I panted, “the British are coming, so if you could get a move-on…” Boom. Suddenly, the scene had context. Three leisurely gentlemen were endangering the colonies by not jumping on that damn horse. The crowd loved it. (Patting myself on the back.)
If you find yourself in a confusing scene and someone walks out to provide context, that’s usually a welcome help. It’s especially good if the walk-on guy doesn’t stick around. Walk in, state the fact that these people are in a deli/emergency room/Turkish bath and get the hell out. Just don’t rush to deploy this kind of walk-on. Give the principle actors a chance to declare the situation.
Executing a good walk-on is very difficult. They crash and burn more often than they soar. Just remember, if you’re walking on, do so selflessly. Do it to serve the scene or the show. You don’t want to be that guy on your team who continues wrecking fun scenes because he wants to be in them.