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Posts from the Scene Work Category

In improv, as in life, the biggest laughs often come from something you stumble across. It might be a discovery about your character, your scene partner, or a so-called mistake.

Even in scripted comedy, some of the most hilarious stuff wasn’t planned. Think of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s “You know how I know you’re gay?” sequence from The 40 Year Old Virgin. Check out Russell Brand’s improvised audition for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Or my favourite, The 32 Greatest Unscripted Movie Scenes.

I saw a Second City revue where Reid Janisse said “X-ways” instead of “X-rays.” The audience tittered.

But a few lines later he brought it back, saying, “I”ve looked at your X-rays, and I’ve looked at your X-ways…” This time the audience roared.

Think back on some of the funniest scenes you’ve done. Chances are you started somewhere and ended up somewhere you never intended. And isn’t that the joy of it?

Photo © Graham Lee

Photo © Graham Lee

For decades, TV shows had the same structure: an opening montage or story synopsis, typically sung or narrated, so newer viewers could understand the story and characters right away.

Meanwhile, regular viewers had to listen to how The Brady Bunch got together. Every. Goddamn. Episode.

As the internet grew and attention spans shrank, intros got shorter. Scrubs‘ intro was just 20 seconds long. By the fourth season, it was five seconds. And Louis CK’s Louie got right to the point this season with no opening whatsoever.

StartInTheMiddle

Modern audiences are story savvy. We’ve become really good at making assumptions, jumping in midway and figuring it out.

When you lose exposition, you focus on now. And that’s where great improv lies.

A Harold traditionally has some kind of opening (the form, after all, was modelled after TV and film) but even that’s changing. More and more long-form shows start with scenes. And dynamic scenes start in the middle.

Even if you just have a fragment of something to begin with, that’s OK. Make assumptions. Decide to know each other. Make bold choices, and you’ll figure it out as you go.

Another way to think of it is like an Oreo cookie.

In Canada there’s a brand called Eat The Middle First. The boring outer layer is like all those scenes that start with “Hey,” “Hi,” and other timid offers. Feel free to ditch that and dive right in to the fun part.

Don’t wait to get to the good stuff.

Carpe Cookie

Carpe Cookie

I did a show a couple of nights ago where I was a robot. Oh, I looked human, but I might as well have been C-3PO for all the emoting I was doing.

For whatever reason, when I got on stage, I played “from the neck up.” In other words, I talked a lot but there was no weight behind what I was saying.

I was looking for something clever to say, when the answer was in my heart, my gut, my body the whole time. The next time that happens, I hope to remember these few simple words:

recite-16720-1869220677-1hma15c

Subway

Experts say anywhere from 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (facial expression, gestures, and posture). We take our cues from how people sit, stand or move. But the information doesn’t end there.

“Hairstyle is body language. Clothing is body language.” – Fred Herzog, Photographer

Look at the men in the photo.

The guy with the beard, Subaru shirt and camo pants is worlds apart from the dude with the checked shirt and forlorn expression. If I were to guess their first lines of dialogue, it’d probably be something like:

Guy #1: “I used to ride bikes in the military.”

Guy #2: “I wish Maanika would call me.”

In improv though, it’s rarely this obvious. We don’t have as many physical cues to get a read on someone’s character right away. So what can we do?

Mime An Accessory

In Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ initiates an office worker who wears a beret. With one small gesture, adjusting the angle of the hat on his head, his character instantly becomes more interesting.

Maybe your character likes to stroke his beard, or play with her ponytail. I’ve seen Lisa Merchant mime goatees, while Ted Hallett twirls imaginary locks that would make Kim Kardashian jealous.

Maybe you’re wearing a scarf or a boa that keeps coming loose so you have to keep tossing it over your shoulder.

It doesn’t matter what it is; just reach out into space and find something, then use it to learn about your character.

Scene Paint Someone

If it’s three minutes in and we still know nothing about the people on stage, go in and scene paint something on them. Be specific. Is it a corduroy jacket, or a $6,000 Tom Ford suit? Reveal that they have a secret tattoo, describing what and where it is in detail. Endow someone with a toupée or glass eye.

Give them something to dimensionalise their character, and it will add dimension to the scene.

Study Body Language Like A Thief

There are so many tiny physical clues to how a person is feeling:

• Touching the back of the neck or head signifies doubt or uncertainty.

Improvisers who get in their head often do this unconsciously. If you see this happening to your scene partner, you can snap back them back into the moment by asking them if they need clarity.

• Putting both arms behind the head and leaning back in a chair is a show of status. (Watch for it at your next big meeting.)

• Touching or scratching the top of your hand or forearm signals stress. It’s especially common when people feel anxious or under attack.

Anna Gunn, who played Skyler in Breaking Bad, brushes her forearm ever so slightly when Skyler tells Walt she’s afraid of him.

Watch for these and other clues from your scene partners. You probably know friends or family members with unique quirks or tics; gestures that tell you they’re happy, anxious, sad, or about to explode. Try using some of them on stage, and see where they lead you.

 

“No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” – Del Close

 

When we step on stage, we enter a world with endless possibilities for characters, setting, and story.

Why then, do so many improv scenes start like this?

Standard Set-up

The answer is: it’s safe.

On the up side, it allows you to make eye contact with your scene partner easily. On the down side, it encourages you to stay static for long periods of time.

Two chairs facing towards each other could be the cue for a restaurant, a doctor’s office, a job interview, or any one of those undefined limbos where two people just sit and talk and keep sitting and talking that we’ve all seen and done, oh, about a million times.

If you’d like to change things up, take yourself out of your comfort zone, and you’re ready to break some chairs – uh, boundaries – let’s get started!

We Think In Pictures

Look at the examples below. What mise-en-scènes do you see? What relationships do the postive and negative space suggest?

Back To Back

Near & Far

Eavesdropper

Brawl New

Simply moving the chairs further apart changes the dynamic from cosy…

Face To Face

Citizen Kane NEW

…to Citizen Kane breakfast montage chilly.

Of course, one chair can also tell a story. And the possibilities multiply when you add a third chair to the mix.

You Are The Architect

Just as you have a relationship with your scene partner, you also have a spatial relationship with the stage, the chairs, the curtains, and any mimed objects that become part of your scene.

In Viewpoints, this is called “Architecture.” Architecture also includes light, shadow, and sounds.

How you interact with your Architecture is important. Do you sit up straight, knees together? Or do you turn the chair and straddle it, legs splayed like Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train? (Actually, that’s a great tumblr to browse for body language.)

How does it feel to be in that physicality? Who is that person?

Lean on a chair with one arm and see how that affects you. Place the chair between you and your scene partner. Or pick it up and throw it (somewhere that it won’t hurt anyone).

“Your architecture is an emotional delivery system that lets you express yourself to the audience. It’s your voice. It’s an anchor.” – David Razowsky

Dean Buchanan and Don Gervasi improvised a brilliant scene for their Conservatory show about a cut-rate airline that crams in extra seats. They discovered the scene and their characters by placing their chairs close to one another at right angles.

Dean became a low-status passenger who spent the flight facing Don’s high-status business passenger. The intimacy it created and the resulting conversation were pure comedy gold. (After a particularly long, awkward silence, Dean broke it by saying “You have great hair.”)

Airline

Exercise: Walk With Chairs

My first Harold coach, Tom Vest, taught my team this exercise. It’s a great way to find a point of view and avoid pre-planning.

To begin, two people grab a chair each and walk around the space. The idea is to keep moving, not dawdle or linger too long in one area.

After a few moments, the Coach/Director says “Stop!”

The improvisers place their chairs down wherever they are. After a beat to see what the stage picture and their scene partner’s posture suggests to them, they start a scene.

You don’t have to sit; you can lean on the chair, stand beside it, put one foot up…whatever feels right in the moment.

Cameron and I did a show where we used this technique. When one of us wanted to edit a scene, we just picked up one or both chairs and placed them somewhere else on the stage.

Advanced Chair Work

As we’ve seen, just the slight repositioning of a chair can change the dynamic of a scene. Here are some ways you can use chairs to create different objects. Try them, or experiment with your own:

• as a wheelchair

• upside down on your head with the back of the chair facing forward to become Darth Vader

• place each foot on a chair and hold them as you lift your feet to walk; voila! instant stilts

• grab two chairs and flap them on either side of you for pterodactyl wings

Screen shot 2014-04-10 at 10.16.55 AM

David Razowsky has a wonderful tool that he uses to teach about energy and duration of emotions in scenes. He calls it “The Jerry Chart,” and now there’s a YouTube tutorial courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times so everyone can learn about it. Click below to view.

Oh, and happy birthday David!

Early on in my improv life, I did a set where I played a heroin addict. (My scene partner’s character had AIDS, so presumably we needed some comic relief.)

Doing my best Sid and Nancy impression, I mimed jamming a syringe repeatedly into my left leg.

When second beats rolled around, I decided to do a time dash. Hopping on one leg, I held my foot behind me.

The only problem was, in my haste to initiate, it appeared that my right leg had been amputated.

Instead of taking this gift from the comedy gods, I “corrected” myself and switched legs, thus destroying the reality that had already been established – and that everyone had seen.

Things deteriorated from there (if that’s possible), and by third beats…well…to quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

It took me a while to understand that so-called mistakes are a gift.

If I hadn’t been hell-bent on doing the “right” thing, my teammates and I could have played with the fact that my good leg got amputated.

Maybe the doctor was also an addict, and he operated while he was high. Maybe the hospital realised their error, and in the third beat I’d be legless. Who knows?

Not my brain.

The second you find yourself judging what’s already happened, put your focus on what’s here now.

It’s all that ever matters.

“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Screen shot 2014-05-14 at 9.43.20 AM
The Gossips is one of American artist Norman Rockwell’s most famouspaintings.

Rockwell said he had the idea for 20 years, but couldn’t figure out how to complete it. He finally solved it by having the person the gossip was about hear it, then come full circle to the person who started it.

(That’s Rockwell’s wife in the third row, second from the left, and Rockwell himself pointing the finger at the blabbermouth.)

When you’re feeling stuck in a scene or a Harold, think back to what happened at the start. Calling back a character, a word, or even a gesture is often all you need to revive the energy, close the loop, or provide a great blow line.

As Mike Myers says, “The end is in the beginning.”

(Thanks to Rob Norman for the source, and the inspiration.)

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 10.54.02 AM

Improv attracts some very smart, very funny people, each with their own unique style. You can learn a lot just by studying how your fellow improvisers perform. Here are some of my faves:

The Chameleon

Most of us have a go-to on stage; some back-pocket character we can pull out if we start to panic.

Not Matt Folliott.

He’s equally comfortable being low or high status, male or female, hyperbolic or grounded and real. What’s more, Matt’s talent for accents is nothing short of astonishing. He does Southern, New York, Jamaican, Italian, Liverpudlian, German, Australian, Spanish, and dozens more so flawlessly, you’d swear he was born there.

The Magician

Kurt Smeaton finds something playful in everything, no matter how small or mundane. His ability to turn straightforward scenes into something Spielberg-ian is awe inspiring.

• He once played an entire village of people running from an exploding volcano. One of his characters saved the day by stopping the lava with his bare hands, and rolling it up like a rug.

• His motorcycles sound like horses. He rode one into a scene, kicked it and gave a “Yaarrr!” sound, sending the bike on its way.

• After initiating a scene with “The end of the world is nigh!” he mimed handing things out to passersby. What would have been flyers in someone else’s hands became “Frisbees! Get your end-of-the-world Frisbees here!”

The Shapeshifter

Mark Meer is the king of transformation. Watching him perform The Harold of Galactus is a master class in character and physicality.

His characters are always strongly defined; once he establishes them, they’re instantly recognizable later on. In one swift motion he transforms from a stiff-spined butler, to a hunchbacked gnome, to a drug-addled lunatic and back again.

The Clown

Jet Eveleth, Becky Johnson and Isaac Kessler all have strong elements of clown in their playing style.

There’s a fluidity, vulnerability, and openness to whatever is happening on stage that characterizes their performance. Nothing is off limits, no move is too risky. For a perfect example of this, watch Isaac’s turn as a gymnast here, or click on the photo at the top of this post.

The Imp 

Sarah Hillier has a childlike, mischievous quality that makes any scene she’s in sparkle. Her playfulness is infectious: she has an ability to make scene partners corpse like no one I’ve ever seen.

If you’re the kind of improviser who likes rules and order, beware. The only thing predictable about Sarah’s performance is that it’ll be wicked funny. (Click here for a glimpse of her as Arya Stark.)

The Wild Card

A close relative of the Imp, the Wild Card comes out of nowhere and fucks with reality. Andy Daly, Rob Baker, Devon Hyland and Cameron are all Wild Card players.

In one of his improvised podcast episodes, Andy Daly and Matt Gourley play waterskiiers. They talk about how Andy’s character stood on Matt’s shoulders to form the top of a pyramid.

“I got your foot tattooed on my shoulder!” says Matt. Without missing a beat, Andy replies, “Yeah, I had no idea you were gonna get that till I saw you.”

With one small move, he shifted time and smashed preconceptions. When the world you thought you were seeing is turned upside down, you’re probably watching a Wild Card.

The Everyman

Some performers stand out for their ability to blend in. While everyone else is larger-than-life, the Everyman quietly plays in the spaces between, often the scene’s voice of reason.

That doesn’t mean the Everyman is boring. Far from it. Because he (or she) plays so many roles with ease, they can do weird stuff like this and be totally believable.

Jim Annan, Jameson Kraemer, James Gangl and TJ Jagodowski are all superb Everyman performers.

The Kraken

We had to make a category for this rare, sometimes terrifying improviser. Jason Mantzoukas is one. So is Alex Tindal.

The Kraken is fearless, owning the stage the moment they set foot on it. Like the Clown, they don’t flinch from what’s happening, but rather, turn it up to eleven.

We witnessed Mantzoukas play a psychopath at the Friars Club Improv & Sketch Competition. His character took Ed Herbstman’s hostage, raped him (in real time), then shot an audience member in the head. If that doesn’t sound funny, it wasn’t. But it was electrifying, honest, and completely unforgettable.

You

The intent isn’t to mimic your favourite performers, but to find ways you can bring as much commitment and passion as they do to every set.

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