“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser
Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with:
• What form your opening should take
• How long it should be, and
• What (if anything) to take from it
We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They tend to include:
• “whooshing” sounds
• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make the first move
• players standing in a semi-circle, talking about some invisible thing on stage
If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.
Standards & Practices is a team that’s famous for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, people and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.
Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:
Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. No wonder audiences love them. Their opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.
Get Cooler Gets
The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or “Dickwad!”
Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:
“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”
“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”
“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”
“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”
It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.
“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill
It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there. Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit.
Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture
Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:
• Narrate the action
• Scene paint
• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.
• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.
• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.
Go Deep, Not Broad
It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” to quote Jet Eveleth).
Player #1: We see a ball.
Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.
Player #3: There’s a man holding it.
Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.
Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?
A Word About Length
During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”
We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie
In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.
Finding Your Own Style
After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.
Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:
Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.
Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!
Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.
Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.
Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves.
For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss at ussrocknroll.com.