A scene is chugging along between two players when a third decides to enter from the sidelines. This is called a walk-on.
Ninety percent of them are awful.
I understand why they happen. Ideas often flow more freely when you’re a spectator. As you stand on the sidelines, you get an idea how to improve a scene, so you walk on and steal the spotlight. Rarely does this help the original performers.
When is a walk-on okay?
- If the performers on stage are calling for the entry of another character. (“I think I heard Dad’s car in the driveway!” or “My sister’s getting here in five minutes,” or “I saw a monster in my closet!” or a character makes a phone call to an off-stage entity.)
- If your walk-on can serve a functional role. (Bartenders, waiters, ushers and others can drop in, help define the location and fade to the background.)
- If you are supplying vital information to frame the scene. (Declaring a location or a situation that helps the original performers find a comedic idea that they’re missing on their own.)
- A late-show opportunity for a callback to a prior character who would fit perfectly in the scenario. (This is rare.)
When is a walk-on NOT okay?
- When you’re stealing focus.
- When your idea does not enhance the original scene.
- When you’re bored.
- When the scene has been going on too long.
- When nothing in the original scene is worth saving.
Think of a walk-on like a life preserver. If the actors on stage are swimming, they don’t need one. If they’re merely struggling, they may not need one. If they’re drowning, just pull them out of the water (with an edit). The worst case scenario is throwing a huge life preserver that crushes the swimmers. A barrage of endless life preservers would be a hazard to the swimmers. One life preserver is all you need, and you must be judicious in whether to throw it.
If you feel an impulse to walk on, ask yourself…
- Would an edit or tag-out make more sense?
- If I wait, will they figure it out on their own?
- Am I able to recede into the background or exit after delivering my one piece of information?
- Am I just trying to crash a scene that’s fun because I also want to have fun?
Although walk-ons are easy to do, doing them correctly is a fairly advanced move. Watch more veteran performers and you’ll see that most almost never walk on. There’s a good reason for that.
Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.