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ReV Up Your Improv Scenes
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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reveling in Revealing

PART 4 of the Series: ReV up Your Improv Scenes
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Okay let's get into the nitty gritty. Reveal, reveal, reveal. That's what we're talking about here. Hang on because I'm about to combine 2 or more metaphors and illustrations. First, I want you to think of the most delicious bowl of stew you've ever tasted. Yummy yummy with lots of good things all mixed together for a tasty and savory sensation of a meal. Hearty, robust and fills the kitchen (and whole house where I live) with wonderful and tantalizing aromas. Then when you eat it - how satisfying and delicious. Consider your improv scene in the same way. Now imagine if you take a pot and put it on the stove, add some beef broth, bring it to a boil, simmer it for an hour - and serve it. I know, your mouth is watering just thinking about it, right?
Well, suppose you added maybe a bay leaf. Nobody wants just beef broth. Sound tasty yet? In a sense, that's what a lot of improv scenes can be like. We start with such limited ingredients - when you bring it to a boil, there's only so much that can yield from such a mixture.
Is it food? Technically, yes. Is it something we'll savor and enjoy? Probably not that much. But when you add herbs, spices, vegetables, and some meat - and let it all cook together - oh, what a feast you'll create.

When I use (overuse?) the word reveal, I'm talking about those ingredients that you add in and eventually mix together that will make your soup or stew a gastronomic delight when finished. The consuming of it will be sublime and the memory afterward will keep you satisfied for hours - and sometimes - for days. Ever eaten something that you fondly remember for days after the meal has been consumed? This is what I'm talking about for your Act 1. Your set up. You've got to get enough delectable ingredients in the pot so it has a chance to become something really wonderful. You've got to get some good nuggets into your scene in order for it to be able to satisfy in the long run. How would you like it if the audience (and the improvisers themselves) were enjoying every part of the journey of that meal? From adding the ingredients one by one, from seeing them all compliment each other as they interact, then enjoying the heck out of serving it up hot and fresh, eating it, having it fill your belly and your soul, and remembering it long after you've left the table?

What are those ingredients for the improv scene? Well, luckily, that's the easy part. It can be anything. It just has to be something. For our purposes I'm going to call this stuff "stuff." What an imagination I have. The stuff great scenes are made of. You're going to add them to the pot through revelation. By revealing them one by one. You're not going to instantly boil these ingredients. You'll reveal them into the scene, then bring them all to a boil for a fantastic and satisfying dramatic outcome. You will do this by revealing something - I suggest each improviser do this for the first 4-5 sentences (back and forth), each. With that strategy, you'll have populated your scene with 8-10 wonderful elements probably within the first minute. Each improviser offers something tangible - some bit of information heretofore unknown, that contributes to the details of the scene, the environment, the relationship, the backstory, the immediate physical surrounding, the physical nature of the characters - back and forth into the scene, like playing ping pong. When enough has been thrown in the pot, then the improvisers can find to moment to progress to Act 2, which we'll talk about later.

What if each thing said or done by each improviser dropped a little more body to the scene? Avoid the urge to start fighting, arguing or bickering. Keep from challenging what has been presented by your partner. Add to it. Another ingredient added to the mix.

How shall an improviser decide what to add as an ingredient? How will you know that it is what the scene needs or wants? That's the beauty and the fun. There is no single or specific thing the scene needs. Here is where you trust your instincts. Just put something out there. Flavor the scene with something. Use your imagination. Trust your imagination. It can be anything.
Reveal something in the environment - preferably by using it, touching it, gesturing to it. Perhaps it's a newspaper. Maybe it's a fire hydrant. How about a Twister board? How or why did I think of any one of those things? I don't know. Who cares? I just snatched something tangible from an image I had in my head at that given moment. We just want to get some "stuff" into the scene. It can be about the environment, or it can be about you (your character). It can be a physical attribute of yours or your scene partner. You just reveal it in some way and now it is a part of the reality of the scene. Imagine if you do that, and your partner does something next that reveals something else, something additional into the scene. If it is something that is directly related to what you have already set forth, all the better, but it doesn't have to be that. Two disparate (seeming) elements offer wonderful possibilities for later justification, weaving and interplay. The most important thing is to resist the urge to challenge what your partner has offered, not just yet. And I don't just mean that you shouldn't say no to it. We all know the "yes, and" rule. I mean don't even start an argument or offer an opposing perspective just yet. Just bring something else into the scene. (This is not to say you can never offer or respond with provocation. For our purposes right now, we're trying to break a habit that inhibits successful scene building. We'll discuss this more in subsequent posts.)

In the next post, I'll show you an example of how they do this in the movies, so you can get a better perspective. But for now, you can even play this little exercise in your head - while you're driving perhaps. Play both characters in your imagination. Back and forth. Ping pong. Each time something new or additional is layered on the scene. You don't have to be spot on obvious "Well, I better put this stamp on this letter..."

What if you said something like: (miming putting a stamp on an envelop)
"I miss the ones I could lick." 
You've revealed a letter, or correspondence, or something being stamped. More details about it will hopefully be revealed by your scene partner. For example:
"I hope the IRS can process it quickly, we need that refund." 
Each piece of added information opens up a world of additional possibilities, while at the same time narrows down the infinite as we're getting more of the "what's going on here" picture, and "why are we looking in on this moment at this time." Perhaps the next offer from actor number 1 is something like:
(stomping on something on the floor)
"There's another one. The sooner we get this place tented the better." 
Again, we see a little more information which gives us more of the story developing.
"I still think your brother should pay for it since the bug problem started when he stayed here."
I know what you're thinking. You feel compelled to take the defensive on your brother's behalf and settle the hairs on the back of your head that are raised now. Not yet. Resist that urge. Especially for right now, as we're working on this. It's too soon for our current purposes. How about something like:
(miming putting a jacket on, noticing something on the floor)
"Wow. These droppings are huge. Like rat-size or something."
We'll stop there for now, hopefully you get the idea - we're in the middle of our 3rd exchange. Hopefully 1 or 2 more exchanges, and then it would be about time for something to happen to launch us into our Act 2. Let's take a moment and review what we have developed so far and what some of the possibilities may be moving on from here.

So far we can surmise that: the two characters are in relationship; that they have a bug problem; that the bug problem may actually include a rodent (or something bigger than a bug) problem; that the significant other might have issues with the "brother;" that it's tax refund time; and that they probably live in a house because there was reference to "tenting" the property. That's a lot of stuff already, wouldn't you agree?

And what about where we go from here? I like to look at it this way - what kinds of questions are conjured in my mind as an observer to this world at this time? Well, I wonder perhaps what their relationship is specifically. I'm guessing they are married since it seems like they are filing one tax return together (that truth is not set in stone though, but I wonder), I'm also curious about this brother. What's up with him? Did he introduce the bugs into the house? How bad is the bug/rodent problem?

There are still a bunch of possibilities for the characters to jump on and explore further as the story develops. But they've done well to give themselves some wonderful specific things which they can use to further develop and eventually complicate this story. The complications are what Act 2 (and drama) is all about. I'm just riffing here on what some of those possibilities might be:
What if there's a knock at the door? What if it is an IRS auditor? What if the auditor is the brother? What if a new or huge or unusual "pest" scurries out of the brother's coat and disappears in the cupboard? What if there is a big discrepancy with last year's tax return? Or what if it reveals inheritance money that the auditor brother never knew existed? None of these are more right or wrong or better or worse than anything you might imagine. The point is there is much to play with from what has been offered and developed to this point. Who knows, you might take what has been developed to this point in a completely different direction. The best fun for improvisers, in my opinion, is when they use what has been developed so far as a springboard for what will happen from this point forward.

Most importantly keep in mind there are many possibilities. To channel the mantra of Carl Sagan, there are "billions and billions" of possibilities. Enough for now. I'm going to play out the above scenario in my head and see how it ends.


Jay Rodriguez said...

Great blog!

David Russell said...

Thanks Jay. I'd love for readers to spread the word about the blog. More to come. Thanks for the encouragement.