Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Erik Voss wrote an interesting piece for Splitsider about game of the scene. (You can read the full article here.) Some of the improv community’s most respected performers weighed in, and I agree with their (sometimes differing) viewpoints.

The thing is, I don’t give a fuck anymore.

You see, early in my improv training, “finding the game” was the holy grail. The big cahuna. The mack daddy of all improv wisdom. Or so I thought.

When TJ and Dave taught a workshop in Toronto, I couldn’t wait to ask them about it. David looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “I don’t really think about game when I’m performing.” TJ nodded.

This should have slapped some sense into my feckless, fearmongering brain, but no. I continued to search for The Game and how to recognize it in all its myriad forms.

One of my coaches routinely drilled us on “beating the shit out of the game.” Rehearsal after rehearsal, two people would start a scene, then others would tag in when they found the game. Afterwards, we were critiqued.

Let’s say Player A had a stutter, then someone tagged in and made a game out of forcing him to stutter. If Player A was also an alcoholic, then beating the shit out of stuttering, versus putting him in situations where he’d be tempted to drink, was deemed “less smart.”

While I understood the value in seeing patterns, few things put me in my head like trying to find the game, never mind finding the “right” game.

When I asked Susan Messing about it, she said that there can be many games within a scene; that each player might have their own game, as well as games that they play together.

The more I watched and performed improv, the more I found myself gravitating towards the kind of scenes where game just wasn’t as important as discovery.

Discovery of who the characters are. Discovery of the world they inhabit. The kind of discovery that happens when things are out of the players’ control and in the hands of the comedy gods.

What I learned, eventually, was that game can happen without effort. And that “finding the game” doesn’t always guarantee a great scene.

How many times have you seen improvisers find a game on stage, only to beat it so relentlessly that the scene loses any point, or dissolves into endless repetition?

Playing the game can be fun. It’s a bit like a ping pong match: I do this, then you respond that way. Repeat. But we don’t have to try so hard to find the paddle.

If we just allow scenes to unfold naturally, games will reveal themselves.

If you can, do yourself a favour and go see TJ and Dave, or Messing with a Friend, or Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain, or Razowsky and Clifford, or Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s Bassprov.

There is game inherent in their shows, but it’s not overt. That’s not to say game-centric shows like Asssscat aren’t awesome. They are. But if you’re struggling to find the game each and every time and it’s affecting your ability to have fun in scenes, give yourself a break. Take a breath and just respond to what’s happening right now.

If you do that, if you focus 100% on your scene partner and just react to what he or she says and does, you won’t have to find the game. The game will find you. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s fine. Because it will still be a way better scene than one where you’re not present because you’re too busy searching for something.

In seven years of doing improv, I can recall my best, or at least my favourite, sets in detail. And I can tell you that none of them involved me methodically thinking about The Game Of The Scene. In fact, what they all had in common was that I wasn’t thinking. I was just having fun.

Those are the kind of sets I want to do now. And that’s why I don’t give a fuck about game of the scene anymore.

One last thing. Someone asked TJ what he thinks about before he goes on stage. He answered:

• Don’t panic.

• Make an emotional choice, a point of view, so you’re safe no matter what.

• Remember how fortunate you are.

It’s really that simple.



Post a comment
  1. Dan #
    November 22, 2012

    I’ve often felt like players pass through various stages in their improv development. Early on game and finding the game of a scene becomes paramount in players minds. Improv scenes have so many variables and can be difficult to navigate. Focusing on the game gives them a pole star – something to focus on. And many fall in love with game because games = laughs. And more than anything newer players equate laughs with “I’m doing well.” AfterBut But after a while,

    • Dan #
      November 22, 2012

      (continuing)….But after a while just getting laughs loses its luster for many players. They start looking at improv and asking, “what else?” It’s no surprise therefore that very experienced players like the folks you mentioned are leading the push to scenes favoring discovery over game. The thing is, you can’t rush this process. The iO tries to push truth over game but new players want the game – they want quick laughs. Just like you can’t make a child love food that’s good for them. They come to it in their own time.

      • November 22, 2012

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dan. I wrestled with whether to post this piece, because I have so much respect for players who have really mastered game, and do it brilliantly. I personally think Matt Besser is one of the funniest people on the planet, but I also know that for me, grappling with the concept of game of the scene basically made me a shitty improviser until I was able to leave it behind. In the Splitsider piece he said “The game is the scene.” I agree with that, but that’s seldom the way it is taught, at least in my experience.

  2. November 23, 2012

    Good stuff, Sally! I have to be honest, the current “game of the scene” improv parlance is parroted so much these days by most improvisors it’s lost all meaning, and it leads to improvisors being in their heads, trying to find a ‘game’ instead of trying to find a scene.

    It is a common denominator in a lot of improv I see these days which can be labelled under “jacking off onstage” to no-one’s enjoyment… and definitely not the audience or the poor improvisor who is the 5th person in, know they have to do the same stupid blow-job joke his other 4 team-mates have just made.
    It leads to a lot of jacking off on stage, which is why many comedy loving non-improvisors I know

    • November 23, 2012

      Hey Marcel, yes, unfortunately I think it’s become the buzz word du jour. But even when it’s taught as a philosophy, it’s very difficult for a lot of people to wrap their head around. Differing opinions on what the game actually is made me think I was really shit at improv for a long time. So consequently I was shit. But then I’d have the odd breakthrough show where, for whatever reason, I was the comedy gods’ puppet, and it was awesome.

      Some people counter that when you’ve trained at something for so long, you can play the game unconsciously, and that improvisers can’t help doing that on stage. Perhaps. But I know that I did comedic things that had a pattern or game inherent in them long before I heard the phrase Game of the Scene. This leads to me believe that as a concept it’s fine, and analysing it works great for some people. But for others, it becomes a burden.

      I agree with TJ that not every scene needs a game. I also agree with Besser that the game IS the scene. So…what is the sound of one hand clapping? ; )

      • November 24, 2012

        Yeah, I agree with both those guys… that’s the grey zone good improv lives in sometimes… not every improvisor can use the same method, nor should they.

        I’ve never been much at really hunting for the game of the scene, but I know it when it happens. Still, sometimes what a scene needs is for the game/pattern to be broken for it to be worth anything.

  3. Lou #
    December 14, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. My improv started at the UCB, so “finding” the game was important to me for a long time, but you touch on important truths. Finding a game implies it’s already there and you’ve misplaced it or didn’t find it yet, I like Susan Messing’s explanation of it and feel that it’s just an element, or if as is so often there is more than one type of game going on then elements, of a scene. I do think a scene where you can’t identify– in hindsight!– a game that sort of generalizes the scene, then the scene probably drifted away from what it could’ve been. I think it should be thought of as “realizing a game” or pattern of behavior, rather than finding it.

    • December 15, 2012

      Hi Lou, thanks for posting. Love your term “realizing” the game. Perhaps if I’d been taught that, I wouldn’t have spent so many years in my head! It’s taken seven years, but I finally understand what approach and techniques work for me. While I do grasp the concept of “game,” it’s not a tool I prefer to reach for immediately. I think improvisers are like any artists; everyone has their own style, and that’s what makes for a rich artistic community. If UCB is rock’n’roll, bringing kickass three-minute scenes to the stage that form a kind of Harold “greatest hits album,” then I’m probably more of a Radiohead “Kid A”-style performer…if that makes any sense. 🙂

      • Lou #
        December 15, 2012

        Thank! I came upon “realizing” when I read your articlr actuall, so thank you. I think, as any other element of a scene, you can or should only make a game move when it Is there ripe for the picking. Too often game moves are made in scenes because other, perhaps still ambiguous elements, require us to actulally improvise instead doing the “calculation” (as so often gamey improv is treated like a mathematical approach). The fear of playing a scene at the exprense of making a game move- and the fear of appearing to lose a very clear and specific game for a drifting scene or a broader “game”– prvents people, I think, from playing their scene. The marriage of a quick labeling (not a patiently discovered) “who, what, and where” and find the game leads to too often not only overly safe improv but detatched or fakely acted scenes with more taking than behaving, where one player is dictating the behavior of the other before they’ve even read each other looking for truth. I look forward to reading more of your stuff! Keep up the good work!

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