I’m going to be a haughty asshole and talk about “game” like I understand it. Sorry.
The game in the scene is equivalent to the chorus in a song.
The chorus of a song is what the crowd gets excited about when you come back to it. You’re glad to hear it twice. You’re probably thrilled to hear it a third time.
When I use this analogy in class, I always use “Sympathy For The Devil” by the Rolling Stones as an example. The core of that song is the confrontation with the devil. Everyone gets excited when Mick Jagger belts out, “Pleased to meet you! I hope you guessed my name!”
But as great as that classic piece of rock poetry is, it’d be pretty dull if they just repeated that chorus over and over again for 5 minutes, right? “But whats puzzling you is just the nature of my game….Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name…” I’m already bored. You have to take a break, but still keep the audience’s engagement in the scene.
This is where you let the game rest and fill in the scene with all kinds of other great elements. Committed acting, visually badass object work, sub-games and other fun bits of business. This is where you talk about Anastasia screaming in pain, every cop being a criminal and how all sinners are saints. Or just a solo from Keith. The “woo-woos” are a sub-game.
A student once asked me for a comprehensive list of games possible in an improv scene. Fair question. How many types of choruses are there in a song? I guess you have various basic genres/archetypes, but it’s infinite. The saxophone solos in “Baker Street” are completely different than the chorus in “Sympathy” but it serves the same purposes - it’s the game of the song. It’s what I as a listener, consciously or not, want more of.
Game isn’t about filling in the blank. It’s not looking for a single correct response and being “wrong” if you don’t fill the blank in correctly. What’s the part of your scene/song YOU find rewarding to revisit?
I will probably (and fraudulently!) not be able to do any of this the next time I perform, but it sounds decent on paper and I think it’s helped some students in class, so here it is.
And here’s a killer version of “Sympathy For The Devil” to enjoy as a bonus to my self-aggrandizing advice.
I’m going to be a haughty asshole and talk about “game” like I understand it. Sorry.
Barney Frank is NOT HAPPY about being passed over by Deval Patrick to serve in the United States Senate.
One of the most common categories of questions I get to this improv blog is the “I’m playing with someone bad. What do I do?” Variations include that so and so is sticking out amongst the group, or maybe is behind everyone else, or playing really broadly, or mugging at the audience, or is somehow…
Another fantastic post. This one really hit home for me. I had this problem for years. I fucked myself over because of it. Badly. I probably got cut from Harold Night because of it. Twice. Whatever shit is bothering you, in the end it really is about you. It’s not about them. “Go to them” is about the most succinct way someone could articulate it. Anything else leads to the Dark Side.
Also it’s fucking crazy Will remembers specifics from a scene he did in 1998.
Saw this in a class:
A: So you hated the dog I bought for you.
B: Yeah, well I already had 4 cats. The dog is going to murder those things. You buy me the worst gifts. You always buy me gifts that just don’t fit.
A: (side coached to say why he bought a dog as a gift) I got you it because I…
Great post. The desire to win in a scene is pervasive, and this is a wonderful example of how so much beginner improv has this aggressive, confrontational “tone” it. Anyway, here’s my two cents on this scene…
If this were a more advanced class I’d probably just let the scene go, but in a 101 when long-term neural pathways are being carved, I’d probably have side coached very early on and asked if we can have the same initiation, but somehow keep things “cool” between the two characters. The more aggressive new improvisers get the worse their yesanding gets.
Choice notes are bullshit, but here are some hypothetical responses to that initiation I think would avoid the caustic tone Will discussed. And yes, these are responses I’ve had the benefit of thinking about and editing and re-writing, so yes in the context of improv I realize I’m being a fucking hypocrite. Sorry.
A: So you hated the dog I bought for you.
B1. Yes, you’re right. I do. He’s really cute, is great with the cat, but it’s taken a shit on my pillow every night since I got him.
B2. Yep, I hated him. He made me realize I’m not ready to have that baby. You were right, Ross.
B3. Yes, I absolutely hate him. That whole “I love dogs thing” was just to get a second date with you.
While trying to avoid the gaucheness of praising my own choices, I do think these responses manage to diffuse what is admittedly a pretty aggressive initiation. If a minute or two into the scenes generated by any of these responses a character FINALLY couldn’t take it anymore and got pissed, yeah than I can handle it. But you don’t start there. You get there. Unless a scene specifically and directly needs it, you should do everything in your power to stay cool with your scene partner a line or two in without playing dumb.
Posting the Thanksgiving Carson/Severinson clip always sends me down a rabbit hole. I think this is Carson’s most badass unscripted, spontaneous moment. You see flashes of the harsh and not always so friendly “real Johnny” the public never saw, what was at the time an unprecedented look at the behind the scenes workings of a television show, and it’s also just goddamned hilarious.
Awhile back I remember hearing this wise response to an improviser who claimed to not like doing scenes with game.
“You don’t like improv with game? Do you like cars with no engines?”
Fair enough. The metaphor is self-explanatory. There’s no needing to convince me that game-focused work is what makes good improv a presentable artform, something worthy of people paying to see on a stage and not some self-indulgent mess.
But as illustrative as the game=engine idea is, I don’t think it’s that black and white.
Say you’ve got a powerful, roaring engine but the car which houses it is just a stool and a metal steering wheel. No shocks. Crappy tires. No AC. No nothing. How much fun is that ride going to be?
Change the metaphor slightly to a boat. It can have the best engine around, but if it’s not housed within a seaworthy vessel (or a good scene), then it will sink like a rock regardless.
This is why along with attention to game, good scenes become great scenes with focus on other important elements too. Good acting, commitment, a bold physical choice, etc. All of these things are like the leather upholstery and 5-disc CD player that make us actually ENJOY the ride, even though the engine is no doubt the thing powering it.
We know what these overly game-heavy scenes feel like. The game moves fit, the math works, but they’re not the scenes that fill you with adrenaline. Scenes in the generic improv office. The generic improv apartment. Unless you’re an engine expert (ie. comedy nerd) then even a great game probably won’t be noticed within the bland housing of a 1992 Toyota Tercel.
I think this is why genre-based work with a good game is so satisfying. Committing to a genre usually takes care of all the things we often don’t push ourselves to try, things like character choices, playing a different era, different object work. That in itself is extremely rewarding, both to do and to watch. Sitting in a brand new Cadillac in the showroom can actually be fun also. But then add a game (turn on the engine), and take this bad boy on the road and you feel like a million bucks.
So game is absolutely key, but it isn’t everything. While doing the “if this then what” brain work that is very much needed to make this stuff work, don’t pass up opportunities just to play the best old west drunk you can, or to really make your generic office scene into something specific and relatable. Don’t settle for Tercel improv. If you do all the work to give yourself a strong engine, at least make sure you’re also able to enjoy the ride.
Last month “The Movie” - a performance class taught by Dyna Moe, wrapped up its run at UCB Chelsea. In short, I found it an enormously fun and enormously challenging form. With no real organizing theme, here are my reflections a few weeks after the final blackout.
I don’t know enough about movies. There were many times during notes when, though she didn’t say it so bluntly, you could tell Dyna was thinking, “Jesus Christ didn’t any of you people go to film school?” And considering this form lives and dies by an understanding of the genre being used, it’s a totally fair point. To satirize or parody something with any credibility, then you first need a baseline of actual knowledge and intelligence, of expertise. I could hold my own with certain genres that were in my wheelhouse, but often I’d just feel lost. I’d think we were just doing “a horror movie” instead of some specific subset, and when asked to name “two or three other movies like it” (a frequent question in class) after tossing out a title, I’d usually come up dry. I probably showed my cards as to my lack of cinematic erudition when I proudly declared on the first day of class my favorite movie was (and is) “Independence Day.”
Each week we had a “homework” assignment to watch a movie from a certain genre, and I’ll admit it’s not like on my own I watch a lot of westerns from the 1950’s. I figured between that and some improv chops going in I could make up the difference for being not anything close to a film buff, but I still just felt like I was keeping my nose and mouth above water most of the time. Later into the class I hewed much closer to traditional improv moves and did less camera work/editing support, which is the fuel that really drives this form and what I felt the most shaky on.
This could send me on a tangent worthy of its own post, but more than any other this form made me realize how what you do off stage affects what you do on. I was frequently reminded of the Del Close quote that, to paraphrase, an improviser’s job is live an interesting life and then tell people about it. I thought of Billy Merritt’s advice that improvisers should constantly be absorbing magazines and other media. The Chicago beginnings of this art form came from extremely well read and well informed academic types. If I have to smile and nod while Dyna and a few others in class talk about Kurosawa films, then that’s on me, because by now I should have seen one! Improv or not! All we’re doing in these classes and practice groups and indie teams is refining an instrument, but a Stradivarius violin can sound dull if the music it channels isn’t inspired. Becky Drysdale’s advice on this topic probably sums it up better than I could hope to. I can’t find it online right now, but it’s basically a call to go out and live an interesting life lest your improv become a boring feedback loop of your own shit.
But some positive things! The form really is fucking fun. When everything clicks, it feels like the best improv you ever did. If you’re an improviser who loves genre-based work, then this is the form for you (and there are enough coaches out there who know it you don’t need to wait for a UCB class to try it. I am not one of them.) The shows live or die by the ensemble being in full agreement on the specific type of movie they’re doing and having the requisite knowledge to aggressively riff on it. The next challenge, almost on par with clicking on the genre is finding a way to balance game and still making this feel cinematic. It’s still longform and there is still a major emphasis on game - this isn’t a staged play - but that’s a harder consideration with so many other balls in the air. I rarely found the happy medium on this one. I was either thinking I was “supporting the genre” and playing no game at all, or I was playing game and doing “scenes” you’d never ever find in an actual movie.
It’s fast! This form is very, very, very fast - even if you settle on a “slow” genre like a romantic comedy. From the scene painting opening forward, you really can’t hang back. As the show builds towards the crescendo/plot climax, there’s a major emphasis on getting the whole ensemble involved, and save the first three beats there is little to no sense of “taking turns.” In that, I actually thought it overlapped nicely with the organic stuff I did in Shannon’s class last year. Yes there were much clearer transitions (“we cut to” vs less defined blurring) - but you still had that sense of having to just snap into it with no premise going in at times. That’s another challenge that at this point I don’t have time to write about, but there is still a definite opening in this form, one you’re more tied to than even a Harold, so premise is still there in a big way.
So it’s hard. It’s super fucking hard. But when it all goes right it’s VERY rewarding. This form will basically keep you from hiding any weaknesses. It’s a good reality check for both your improv and your off stage knowledge. Dyna Moe is not for the faint of heart. I’m not breaking any news in saying she’s tough as hell, but she knows of what she speaks and her harsh notes are always based in substance and not just bloviating. Like I said, it’d probably have gone better if the class was nothing but improvisers who were ALSO dyed in the wool film buffs without people like me slowing things down with lack of movie knowledge, but it was still a great time. The best part was obviously getting to work with the rest of the class. It’s scary/exciting how big/good this community is at this point.
And the camera pans from the laptop up to breeze blowing through an open window. The end.