Tag Archives: initiations

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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Initiations: Lessons from Auditions

Today, I watched dozens of people audition to join the Under the Gun Theater ensemble.  I wrote down their initiations.  Take a look and consider how you’d react to these first lines.

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”

“And that is how you make an apple streudel.”

“Sometimes I wonder if OPI changes the color or changes the name to make more sales.”

“Guess who just submitted their application to Domino’s!”

“You know, people really underestimate the qualities of digging a hole.”

“Honey, I got your report card in the mail.”

“Jessica, fancy seeing you here.”

“Eggs benedict – the top item in the whole chain of breakfast items.”

“Not gonna lie.  I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”

“I’m just… it’s too much.  These muffins are too much.  I can’t think of another flavor.”

“Thanks.  You know, most people won’t help me dig out my space because I have a smart car.”

“So what, you’re just gonna do the laundry?”

“I’m just a sucker for polka dot drapes.  I’ll be honest.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”

“Aw, hey, Linda.”

“Listen, sweetheart, your mother is suffocating me right now.”

“Janet, if you want a smoothie, just ask for another smoothie.”

“Another flight canceled.”

“Apparently, people aren’t buying Big Macs anymore.  They’re going gluten-free.”

“Here is your water.”

“You’re a little obnoxious about your pies.”

“Your form has gotten so specific.”

“Okay.”  (Actor hugs the other actor.)

“I really have to go.”

“Hey, Stacy.  Super cool running into you at the mall.”

“Welcome to the campsite.”

“I hope it’s not delayed again.”

“The answer’s Tom Cruise.”

“I took it.  I was hungry.”

“Lizzie, you look fantastic.”

“You don’t have to get me a Father’s Day present.  I’m good.”

“Thanks for coming in.  Here at Pooch Day Care, we take our jobs seriously.  Your dog ran away.”

“Volcano looks like it’s going to blow.”

“Megan, come here.  (Actor hugs the other actor.)  Am I really fired?”

“You’re makin’ me nervous.”

“I’m still hungover from last night.”

“So, iceberg lettuce, right?”

(Actor hugs the other actor.)  “I’ve missed you.”

“Maggie, we’ve done it.  The orange grove looks amazing.”

“So I’ve started wearing less and going out more.”

“Young man, this library book is six months overdue.”

“I knew you were great at growing trees, but I never knew you could grow an elm like that.”

“I hear that this is where they keep the old skeletons.”

None of these is a great first line.  (I am partial to the one about digging holes, however.)  A few are woefully inadequate.  You do need to give some information in that first line, so a generic, “Hello,” doesn’t get much across.  But in reality, you could probably have a good scene with any of these lines.

An improv scene’s success usually hinges much more on the second line than the first.  It is your reaction that sets the stage for the scene to come.  Think of how Big Bird might react to any of these lines.  Now consider how Oscar the Grouch might react.  To quote Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  If you had any kind of emotional reaction to any of these initiations, the scene would be off and running.

The scenes that failed in these auditions usually suffered from one of three fatal flaws:

The initiator was not particularly invested in the initiation.  Nonchalant characters are hard for the audience to care about.  Consider, “So, iceberg lettuce, right?”  If you heard that spoken to you, what could you possibly intuit from those words?  Is this character happy/angry/sad/lonely?  The words themselves don’t matter, but the intent behind them does.  For more on this, read up on the genius TJ Jagodowski’s take on “heat” and “weight.”  A simple line can have tremendous weight if delivered properly.  The heat refers to the implied intimacy of the relationship.  As it was delivered in the audition, there was no weight and no heat to the relationship in that line.  The scene sputtered.

The initiator was indecisive.  These phrases popped up in the first lines of the scenes I watched: “I just don’t understand,” “I wonder,” “I don’t remember how I got here,” “I don’t know,” “I can’t think,” and, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable.”  These lines indicate subconscious fear on the part of the performer.  Yes, auditioning is nerve-wracking.  As an improviser, your scenes will be more successful if you’re declarative at the start.

Which is the better first line in these examples?

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”
or
“Stay out of my stuff!”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”
or
“If you want my marble collection, you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

This is what your teachers are saying when they tell you not to ask questions in a scene.  I think the “no questions” rule is awful, since real humans use questions frequently and you sound like a monster if you never ask questions in a scene.  But it’s the ambiguity and uncertainty of questions that really drags down a scene.  Wile E. Coyote doesn’t walk up to the Road Runner to ask, “Can I eat you?”  He just pounces.  Asking permission or seeking approval of your fellow human is a wonderful quality in life.  In improv, just make assumptions and take action.  The scene will go more smoothly.

The initiation was too functional.  Consider, “Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”  Care to guess what the subsequent scene was about?  Yep.  Three minutes debating the merits of various candies.  To be fair, that opening line could work if you had a savvy scene partner.  Instead of making the second line about the stupid concessions, you could make it about the first character’s indecision.  For example, “You never had trouble picking candy before you got engaged, Carla.”  All of a sudden, the scene pivots away from what we don’t care about (the candy) to something we do care about (what’s bothering Carla).  I promise you, no one in the audience cares about the outcome of a fake decision you’re making on stage.  In fact, I’m sure the actor didn’t care about the outcome.  So why are you spending valuable stage time on that?

You’ll hear improv coaches say you should avoid talking about what you’re doing.  That’s because the details of baking a pie or fixing a flat tire are not entertaining.  But if you’re baking a pie while discussing your broken marriage, activities like breaking an egg suddenly take on a huge metaphorical weight.  If you’re fixing a flat tire on your way to propose marriage to the girl in the passenger seat, I’m going to be interested.  Make your activity a metaphor for something larger – ideally something emotional inside you or between you and your scene partner.

Oftentimes, functional scenes occur because people are playing “polite.”  We are taught we are supposed to “Yes And” our partner’s ideas.  You frequently get scenes like, “Let’s go bowling!”  “Okay.”  (Two improvisers bowl for three minutes, talking about what pins they knock down while they hate themselves for their choice and silently beg for the mercy-kill of a sweep edit.)  “Yes And,” does not mean you are a puppet who just has to do what you’re told.  When you hear, “Let’s go bowling,” all you need to respect is that your scene partner has a desire to bowl.  You could say virtually anything in response.  How could you help this initiation by adding context?  Here are some ideas.

“Damn, Ralph, you’re awfully calm considering you just administered a lethal injection.”

“Sir, I can’t let you go bowling.  This says your blood alcohol level is way over the limit.”

“Abraham, you are completely out of control on this Rumspringa.”

“Gonna try out the new prosthetic hand, eh, Bob?”

“So I guess I dressed up in Victoria’s Secret for nothing.”

“If you can unhook this IV, I’m down.”

“But Mr. President, you have the State of the Union tonight!”

If you encounter, “Let’s go bowling,” in an audition, it’s your job to make a choice about how that line affects you.  Hopefully, the first line is delivered in a way that helps that choice.  If not, fill in the blanks.  Who is this person to you?  Why might it be appropriate or inappropriate to go bowling?  How do YOU feel about bowling?  Responding with any of that information gives you so much more to build with.

You can have a great scene that begins with, “Hey,” as an initiation.  And it can be about the dumbest thing in the world.  But the characters need to care about something.  Consider this genius SNL sketch about a “fenced-in area.”  It is literally about a man who only cares about the small part of his back yard he put a fence around.  If he can care about that, you can find a way to care about something in your scene.

I’ll remind you of a quote from the late, great Roger Ebert – “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”  The text of your sentences can be almost anything.  It’s the meaning behind them that really matters.  Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains.  But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship.  Dig beyond the surface.  Find the gold.  Slay the audition.

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