Tag Archives: game scenes

What is the Game of the Scene?

I’m a teacher at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater. My job is to demystify improv so it’s easier to perform. The “game” style of improv has really taken off in the last few years and that’s our focus at Under the Gun, so here’s a basic overview of the component parts to this type of scene.

BASE REALITY

This refers to the basic knowledge required to play a scene. You already do some version of this, no matter where you play. As the scene begins, who are you? Where are you? What activity are you doing?

You must establish this quickly and efficiently. Think of it as setting the dinner table. You need cups and utensils and plates and napkins before you can think about throwing the food down. Take a line or two to let your scene partner (and the audience!) know the basics of the scene. If you don’t have the base reality established, don’t go any further.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING

After setting the base reality, you will present an unusual idea. If you don’t have one, simply continue exploring the base reality until something unusual naturally occurs. The unusual thing is an idea or character trait or feature in the world that does not fit what you would normally expect in the base reality.

  • A kindergarten class is a normal place. Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching a kindergarten class is unusual.
  • A motivational speaker talking to a family is normal. A motivational speaker who is 35 years old, thrice divorced and living in a van down by the river is unusual.
  • A teenager in high school is normal. A teenager in his parents’ high school 30 years in the past in order to help them fall in love is unusual.

FRAMING

When one performer introduces the unusual idea, the other performer should “frame” it. Repeating the unusual thing or simply asking, “What?” is a good way to let everyone know that this is the idea you’re going to explore. This step is optional, but helpful in focusing attention.

IF, THEN

If the unusual thing is true, then what else must be true? This is your opportunity to explore the idea. If one person espouses a crazy philosophy, you could question them on it and they could explain exactly why it makes sense.

In my class the other day, two students did a scene about firefighters who were so lazy, they always left the scene of the fire. Two firefighters hanging out? Normal. Two firefighters hanging out because they ditched the scene of a fire? Unusual. If you have two firefighters willing to skip out on work, then how else are they lazy or negligent? The rest of the scene should be greater and greater instances of lazy/negligent firefighting.

An easy way to crystallize this is to look at popular movies. The first act (20 minutes or so in a 90-minute film) introduces us to the characters and the location. Once we know that, something unusual happens. After the unusual thing happens, repercussions must be dealt with until the third act resolution. Most third acts suck, which is fine because we don’t need things to resolve in a comedy scene. We’re mainly concerned with the fun of the second act.

Let’s try this out.

Big

BASE REALITY: Josh and Billy are friends. They’re kids. Josh gets humiliated when he can’t go on a carnival ride because he’s too short. He goes to the Zoltar machine and wishes he were “big.”

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Josh wakes up as a fully-grown man.

IF, THEN: Because Josh’s mom doesn’t recognize him, he flees to New York, enlists Billy’s help, gets a job at a toy company, falls in love and realizes being a grown-up comes with a lot of baggage.

Mrs. Doubtfire

BASE REALITY: Daniel is a voiceover actor going through a divorce with his wife, Miranda. This bums his kids out.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Daniel disguises himself as an older woman and applies to be his own children’s nanny so he can spend more time with them.

IF, THEN: Numerous close-calls where Daniel’s true identity is nearly exposed. He must double-down on the lie so he doesn’t get caught. He also has to cope with his ex-wife dating a handsome guy right in front of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The Little Mermaid

BASE REALITY: Ariel is a mermaid who wishes she could live on land and pursue the hunky Prince Eric. (Even though a mermaid is unusual, this is a world where mermaids exist. Base realities can be heightened or exotic, as long as they are consistent. The unusual thing breaks the normal day-to-day routine of a world.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The sea witch Ursula gives Ariel human legs in exchange for her voice.

IF, THEN: Ariel pursues Eric, but finds it difficult without her voice. Ursula takes human form and vies for Eric’s attention, using Ariel’s voice to boot!

Karate Kid

BASE REALITY: Daniel is the new kid in town. He doesn’t have any friends, but he is interested in a girl. Local karate bullies try to beat him up.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The handyman at Daniel’s apartment complex is secretly a karate master! He beats up the karate thugs.

IF, THEN: Daniel now wants to learn karate from Mr. Miyagi. But because Miyagi is not your average karate master, Daniel must paint the fence, wax-on and wax-off and sand the floor. It pays off when those chores are revealed as secret karate moves. Daniel gets a chance to fight back and win the girl with his newfound knowledge.

It’s a Wonderful Life

BASE REALITY: George Bailey is the nicest guy ever. He’s helped out tons of people in Bedford Falls, unlike the greedy Mr. Potter. All is well until George’s forgetful uncle loses $8,000, threatening the building and loan. George is heartbroken and heads to a bridge to contemplate suicide. (All of this takes 99 minutes, but the slow exploration of George’s inherent decency is key to making the rest of the film work.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: George wishes he were never born and his guardian angel grants that wish.

IF, THEN: The angel shows George what Bedford Falls would look like if he didn’t exist. George revisits all the important moments in his life, only to see a dark, twisted version of the world without him.

Note that in all of these examples, the first unusual thing is something that radically alters the base reality. There’s no turning back after that point. That point where routine gets wrecked is where the fun part of the movie begins.

In an improv scene, we don’t have 99 minutes or even ten minutes to lay a foundation. We want to do it in one or two lines of dialogue. The person initiating should take the lead in establishing the base reality. The initiator also usually introduces the unusual thing. Alternately, the scene partners can discover the unusual thing organically.

As you practice these initiations, you will become better at establishing a base reality and an unusual thing more efficiently. Here are some examples of initiating lines that contain a full premise:

  • “We can’t go to Disney World, honey. They closed forever because of how naughty you’ve been.”
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t operate on you. I’m gluten-free.”
  • “In an effort to improve community relations, all you police officers must turn in your guns. From now on, you’ll be armed with live cobras disguised in cans of peanut brittle.”

In each case, a seemingly normal conversation gets hijacked by an idea that conflicts with our expectations. With any of those three initiations, can you see where the scene might go? A really great initiation gives your scene partner and the audience a glimpse of where this thing might be headed. We don’t know how you’re going to justify your idea, but we know it’s going to be fun watching you try. That’s the game: Defending/exploring the absurd or unusual idea that would never occur in the confines of normal life.

One of my favorite examples is this scene from the Upright Citizens Brigade themselves. The base reality? Two brothers on a golf course. One is nervous about an upcoming presentation. The first unusual thing? Well, I’ll let you pick that out. Then watch as the brothers go back and forth, debating the merits of this terrible idea. That’s the game.

As you watch virtually any sketch comedy, pay attention to the component parts. You will almost always see 30-60 seconds laying the groundwork of a normal world before it gets hijacked by an unusual idea. Watch as the unusual idea is repeated, modified, heightened and justified.

Now, you might be saying that entering a scene with that much initiation is cheating. It’s not. The audience and your fellow performers will thank you for coming in with a clear idea. Which partner would you rather play with: one who calls you “Captain” and informs you that your potato submarine has been hit by a torpedo and is flooding with gravy? Or one who walks on stage and says, “Hey, man. What’s up?”

When playing this style, it’s also important for the non-initiator to listen and offer polite support until it’s clear what the initiator is bringing to the table. If the initiator says, “Johnson, come into my office,” you shouldn’t throw out too much in reply. It seems like there’s more where that came from. So your line shouldn’t be, “Wow, your office is a giant fiberglass taco!” Give the initiator some time, nail down your base reality and if the initiator never brings up anything unusual, look for a natural opening to discover one.

To learn more about this style of play, pick up the Upright Citizens Brigade Manual and join my class so I can guide you through the process! I’m teaching Monday nights beginning in March. It’s just $25 per class, which is ridiculously cheap for Chicago.

Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.

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Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Finding the Game

The UCB schools in New York and Los Angeles preach the importance of “finding the game” of the scene.  This can be daunting for beginning improvisers.  In this video, you’ll hear a well-played game.  Listen first, then read on.

Matt Besser begins the scene as the teacher of a shotgun class.  Without missing a beat, Ian Roberts makes the sound of a gun going off.  It’s about the shortest wait you’ll ever have for a Checkhov’s gun sitution.

Checkhov’s Gun: If a gun appears on stage in a play, someone must be shot by the final curtain.

But that’s fun, right?  Everyone in the audience would be waiting for that gun to be used.  The fact that they use it right away is a good scene move.

Immediately, everyone else fires off their guns.  And Besser gets mad.

At this point, you might be saying, “If the teacher is yelling at his students NOT to shoot the guns, isn’t shooting them a violation of the ‘yes and’ rule?”

This is where “yes and” gets messy.

“Yes” is not always a literal yes.  “Yes” is simply agreement to the facts of the scene.

In fact, if someone in a scene tells you NOT to do something, you MUST do it.

The audience is not looking for us to follow marching orders.  They want us to misbehave.  The stage is a place to explore the consequences of misbehavior.  You’ll often find that doing what another performer asks you not to is actually a great gift to the other performer.  If he was angry before, he’ll be fully enraged after you ignore his warnings.

Think of it this way: The most interesting part of any Superman movie is when he encounters kryptonite.  If another character reveals a weakness, the entire audience wants to see what happens when that weakness is exploited.

The “game” in the scene above is simply Besser freaking out every time a shotgun blast goes off.  It’s the thing that can be repeated (with variations) ad nauseum.

There’s a more subtle game going on here, too.  It’s the students behaving as if they’re smarter than the teacher.  And the teacher gets annoyed when they do.

Game scenes can be shallow if done incorrectly.  If the scene was only gunshots and Besser’s reaction, we’d grow tired of it more quickly.  But Besser confiscates the guns.  For a time, the audience forgets how fun that was.  And when it comes back, it’s even better.

That’s your challenge with a game.  If Action X results in Reaction Y, you must do it enough times to establish a pattern.  Then, walk away from the pattern and play the scene as you might normally.  And when you trigger Action X again, the audience will love it.

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Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Win by Losing

Sammy Tamimi just taught a rehearsal for my Playground team, Schnauzer.  He told us to explain the rules of the game “Tag” to him as if he were a space alien.  We did.  Then he asked us to explain “Red Light, Green Light.”  We explained other playground-type games.  Then we played them.  Those games had simple rules and were easy to play.

Next, he had us play games no one’s ever played before.  “Roger’s Ram.”  “Bunny Digs a Hole.”  “Sun Punch.”  He didn’t tell us how to play those games.  He wanted us to discover the rules while we played.

We learned the simplest games work the best.  Do this and you win, do this and you lose.  Here is the pattern.  We should strive to do that in any performance’s “game” slot or a “game-y” scene.  Make it simple and it’s easy for you to play and easy for the audience to follow along.  Everyone’s happy.  Everyone loves Tetris.  It’s just stacking blocks. You did that as a baby.

That was the main thrust of his lesson, but I pulled something else out of it: The Importance of Losing.

When we played “Tag,” the only way for the game to move forward is for someone to be touched, to accept that touch and to become the new “It.”  What happens if someone is touched and refuses to acknowledge that?  The game is ruined.  What happens if “It” is slow and can’t catch anyone?  The game stalls.

Why do argument scenes fail so frequently?  Our egos get involved.  “I didn’t do the dishes?  Well you never mow the lawn!”  The improvisers dig in, determined to prove the other person is wrong.  Where is this scene going?  The fastest way to advance it is by throwing the fight.  Just give in.  Lose.  No one in the audience is keeping track of who won an improv argument.

I love being in a group scene where someone says, “Who broke the cookie jar/ate my sandwich/farted/spilled paint on the floor?”  Nine times out of ten, the assembled improvisers will start making excuses about how it wasn’t them.  They want to get out of trouble.  But it’s only improv trouble!  Who cares?  The minute someone asks, “Who did X?” I raise my hand and confess.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  I’ll take the blame.  And it’ll be funny.

Bill Arnett says, “Idiocy is the logic of improv.” Too often, we let real logic dictate our behavior in scenes.  It’s true we want to give some reflection of reality in our work, but too much reality takes away our power.  We want to heighten reality and to live out fantasy.  In the old boss-fires-employee scene, how many improvisers get upset and beg for their improv jobs?  You’re not really getting fired.  Why not be the biggest disaster of an employee of all time?  Your improv girlfriend is improv-dumping you.  Why not show the audience all the reasons why you are worthy of dumping?  You’re in an improv gunfight.  Why not have your gun get stuck in your holster or miss your target and hit a bystander?  (In that case, you sure hope one of your teammates falls dead, don’t you?  They need to “lose,” too!)

Losing is easier than winning, right?  If I told you the object of Monopoly was to go bankrupt faster than everyone else, is that a more fun game to watch?  Real Monopoly takes forever.  Even winning that game is a chore.

I think losing is important for another reason.  The audience has an easier time relating.  How many gold medal Olympians do you know?  Not many.  How many of you have tried at a sport and had your ass handed to you?  All of us.  Misery, pain and failure are common to all of us.  That makes it a deep reservoir of connection.

In most movies, when the crisis is over, the movie ends.  The monster is killed, our heroes fall in love with each other, the lovable losers finally triumph.  There’s a little thrill when that happens.  But we only care because of the journey.  We relate to the struggle.  Face it – we all fail more than we succeed.  That’s why it’s important to fail in comedy, especially in improv.

Bad date scene?  Make it worse.  Parent yelling at kid?  Kid should do something to make the parent madder.  Bad doctor?  Be a worse doctor.  The lower you go, the harder you lose, the more you get the audience in your corner.  We root for Rocky because no one gives him a chance and he’s clearly overmatched.  And remember, Rocky doesn’t even win the fight at the end of the first movie.

So get out there and lose.  Lose as hard and as often as you can.  It’s one of the most powerful things you can do on stage.  And the audience will love you for it.