Hurry Up and Die Already

Last night, I played in a show with unfamiliar performers.  In one scene, I found myself in a sword fight.  As fun as it was to have this imaginary battle, a little bell went off in my head.  When my scene partner thrust forward, I crumpled to the ground, said my last words and died.


“But you can’t do that in an improv scene!”

Yes, I can.  I did it.

“But what about your scene partner?”

He was trying to kill me.  He succeeded.

“Aren’t you abandoning him?”

He’s fine.  He killed me.  It’s now the responsibility of the other players to begin a new scene, unless something interesting is happening in the aftermath of my death.

In the first scene of the show, I displayed a sacred stone I’d stolen from a Brazilian tribe.  Toward the end of the show, we had a flashback/callback to that first scene.  Another player stepped forward, pointed and said, “You cannot take this stone!”  I picked up the stone, flipped a middle finger and walked off stage.

“But you can’t do that in an improv scene!”

Yes, I can.  I did it.

“But what about your scene partner?”

What would he do in real life if someone stole is precious rock?  Fight the guy?  Chase him?  Cry about it?  Call for help?  Now he has those options.  Besides, he just initiated the scene where I stole the stone!  My best support move is just to steal the damn stone.

“Aren’t you abandoning him?”

What’s my alternative?  Hemming and hawing about whether to steal the rock?  Not stealing it?  We all know I stole the rock – this scene took place in the past.  All the audience wants to see is the rock theft.

Michael Gellman once argued that people who leave a scene are merely uncomfortable and want the scene to end.  But Mick Napier says if you would walk out of that situation in real life, you can (or even should) do it on stage.

I’ve been in lots of scenes that anticipate an action that never comes.  Someone pulls a gun, but never shoots it… out of politeness.  They think they’re helping their fellow actor by keeping them alive.  But it’s more fun to die!

I’ve also seen lots of scenes where people get shot and nothing happens. “I’m bulletproof!” declares the guy who thinks he’s the first to make this choice.  The audience and the person who shot him all react like he dropped a room-clearing fart.

Part of yes-and-ing means that when someone shoots you, you get shot… unless you have a damn good reason.  Self-preservation is not a good reason.  Your character’s death does not mean your own.  And drama is often best served by a good death or two.

So make a big move and worry about the consequences later.  Remember, any scene can end at any time.  Initiation brought down the house?  Edit!  Teammates obviously stuck in a nightmare of a scene?  Edit!  Stuck in a location your characters want to leave?  Leave!  Or make discoveries in that location!  Sitting around talking about what you wish would happen isn’t rewarding to you or the audience.

You have an obligation to follow the fun.  If that takes you offstage, so be it.  The actors on the sidelines need to be savvy and attentive enough to begin a new scene at the moment of your death/departure/incapacity/coma.

Improv is theater.  In theater, people enter, people leave, people die and give birth and fight and poop and wrestle and jump to their doom.   Sometimes all at once.  Anything that can be done in theater can be done in improv.  In fact, you can do more in improv because your only boundary is your imagination.

Shakespeare wrote death and departure scenes all the time.  The lucky guy who played Antigonus even got to exit pursued by a bear.

Previously… Win by Losing.


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