“Edit with your intuition. Listen to your body.” – Jet Eveleth
It’s Harold night.
You’re standing on the side, watching a scene that’s been getting huge laughs. It’s so hilarious, you’re not even thinking what beat this is, or which character you should bring back, when suddenly…
everything goes to hell in a badly-mimed handbag.
The performers, on fire just moments ago, are now strangely quiet. The audience is even quieter. And the only sound is your own heart thumping as you wonder, “How the fuck do I edit this?”
Or you’re watching a scene that started out shaky and went downhill from there – but still you’re rooted to the spot.
Or maybe you’re actually in a scene that’s well past its best-by date. You find yourself calling for a newly-invented character, miming a noose, or just screaming for help with your eyes for someone to PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, EDIT. THIS SCENE.
If any of these sound familiar, here are some techniques that can help. I guarantee your fellow performers will thank you.
Some people say you should edit on a laugh. That’s not a bad thought, but it isn’t a must. Especially if the scene you’re watching has clocked seven laugh-free minutes already.
The best time to edit is almost always before you think “Someone should edit this.”
Replace that thought with “I should edit this.” Better yet, just stop thinking and edit. Starting with the…
The granddaddy of improv edits, the sweep often gets a bum rap for being boring, safe, or amateur. Say what you will, but when shit hits improvised fan, a sweep edit will get you out of the way of flying feces every time.
There’s really only two things to remember:
1. Stay in front of the players you’re sweeping, and
2. Jog, don’t walk.
Otherwise you might be mistaken for a walk-on character. And the only thing worse than a scene that’s tanking is a scene that’s tanking with one extra person, aka a clusterfuck.
Some people put their own spin on a sweep.
Improv duo Scratch uses a 360-degree spin to let the audience (and each other) know when they’re new characters, or in a new location.
Now that you’ve got that down, the wonderful Jet Eveleth teaches a bunch of great techniques, including…
This is one of my faves, because it’s so versatile. All it requires is stepping out and taking focus, either with words or a sound.
Let’s say the scene on stage takes place at a vet. You could edit by making animal sounds. (This could also work as a swarm edit – see below.)
Just make sure to stay downstage, and be loud enough so that you take focus, to make it clear you’re editing.
Maybe the vet scene referenced a song. In that case you could edit by singing the song as you move across the stage.
Now anyone can bring the same song back as an edit, or a song from the same artist, genre or era.
You can edit with a brief narration, spoken as you walk confidently from one side of the stage to the other:
“Meanwhile, in a basement in Idaho…”
“A hundred years later…”
“And as the sun set on the horizon, meth lab owner Bryan Hobbs was just waking up…”
The narrative edit is similar to a sweep, but leaves the rest of the team with the gift of a location, character, or other new information.
Also called an organic edit, it simply means making a clear, strong initiation as you enter to begin a new scene:
“…and that’s how meringue was invented.”
“This place is filthy!”
“Has anyone seen my bandana?”
Enter the scene with energy, and you’ll lift the rest of the show with it.
You can always edit by stepping out and starting a monologue, until you’re tagged out or edited.
Unless you’re doing a monologue-based set though, this probably isn’t your best option. I’ve seen Harolds where one person did a random monologue, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.
Monologues work best when they’re brought back, either by one person or several.
This makes an awesome stage picture, because it involves multiple players. The idea is to move in and edit as a group.
Anything can be a catalyst.
Paloma Nunez initiated a great swarm edit with Little American Bastards. One of the characters on stage started crying. Paloma entered from stage right, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” while making falling teardrop motions with her hands.
The rest of the team followed a beat later, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” and making the same motion. It looked great, and started a whole new scene seamlessly.
You can swarm silently, or with words or sounds. Use your physicality to heighten the effect.
This is a subtler form of edit, where you change the scene you’re currently in.
Let’s say you’re in a scene where your character’s on a blind date.
You could break the fourth wall, turn to the audience and say, “That’s when I knew I could never really love Brad.”
You could then move downstage and start monologuing, or narrate, or scene paint a whole new scenario.
Or, you could take on the voice and physicality of a totally different character, then begin a new scene as that person.
This comes courtesy of Dave Sawyer from ImprovBoston. (See our post on the Snatch Edit)
If a scene is dragging, you can take any line of dialogue that’s just been uttered and repeat it as you walk on stage. Use your volume to take focus and let the performers know you’re starting a new scene:
Player 1: I got some vanilla ice cream. You want some?
Player 2: I’m lactose intolerant.
Player 3: (walking downstage, louder) I’m lactose intolerant…but I love Scientology!
You can also repeat a sound from one scene, and heighten – or morph it into something new – to start another.
Sometimes It’s Good To Be An Asshole
One of my teachers said, “When the audience is laughing, you want to be the asshole who edited the scene too soon.”
Trust your gut to know when it’s time to edit. And before you second-guess yourself, just remember Ben Stiller’s Starsky character and “Do it.”