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When I was a freshman in high school, I made a series of battle plans along with my older brother and his friends that detailed how we’d take out our entire school once we obtained guns and bombs.
This happened while huddled over my dining room table, and it was funny. We drew blueprints. We made maps. We organized lists of ammunition and inventory and all the different things we’d need to make our military raiding of our own school a success. We figured we’d all have cyanide pills to take ourselves out before we got arrested. We knew we had to take over the nurse’s office first – it’s where all the medical supplies were and it also had no windows, which made it a perfect place for our final showdown when we were inevitably backed in by police as we burned out in a blaze of glory in our bold last stand.
Amazing night on stage at #UprightCitizensBrigade with the #Bangarang crew. One of LA’s finest improv groups!
Anonymous said: How do you maintain a game's forward momentum as a straight man? People often refer to "throwing softballs for the unusual person," how do you do that well? Follow up question: should a straight man also be a fully formed character or should they be working solely to serve the unusual person/thing? Thanks Alex, these have been so helpful.
The CliffsNotes version is that you need to add information and you need to be affected by what’s happening in the scene. The straight man character isn’t there just to be a stick in the mud and shut things down nor is she there to just be a sounding board for the unusual one to bounce their weird thing off of. Investing in emotion and real reaction while also adding new information throughout the scene pushes the game forward.
I’d also caution against the “throwing softballs” idea. You can set your scene partner up, sure, but the best game moves are the ones you don’t see coming, the surprises. So, to that end, you can’t make it too easy for your scene partner to make game moves, because the audience will be ahead of you. The example I always give is that it’s awesome when you can dunk a basketball, but no one is impressed if you say you’re going to dunk, and then someone runs out on court and sets up a ladder while you cautiously climb it to gently deposit the ball in the hoop. Same thing in improv… we want to see people take chances and pull it off, not do the easiest move possible. So, if I’m playing a game where I have an irrational hatred of fish, the softball move would be to tag someone out and set me on a boat in the ocean. Sure, a fine scene can come of that. But I’m more interested in the tag that takes me to the middle of a desert. How will I play the game there? I don’t know. And neither does the audience. And that makes it more interesting.
And yep, the straight man character should always be a fully formed character. She should be someone that you could see in her own scene, away from the “weird one” and still get a fun scene out of it. To me, every character you play should be like a real person in that in some situations they can be the normal one, and in other situations they can be the unusual one. If your straight man character doesn’t have anything distinct, specific or unique about them, then they’re boring. If your unusual character couldn’t be put in a situation where they behave perfectly normally, then you’re playing a broad cartoon.
Anonymous said: In Organic Improv, how do you create a game when nothing unusual has presented itself? Sometimes in scenes it seems like my team gets stuck in the Base Reality portion of the scene. I've seen players use the inappropriate response approach to jumpstart the game. Can you recommend any other strategies?
There is always something unusual. If it seems like there isn’t, it’s just because you missed it.
In the next day, pay REALLY close attention to every single minor interaction you have… with a waiter, a guy at the convienience store, a casual acquaintance you run into. And try to notice every small, unusual thing that happens, no matter how tiny. Each of those things would be usable in a scene. As fairly normal people, we gloss over these small things because we know they don’t matter, and we give each other the benefit of the doubt. But in improv, we need to NOT do that. Think of your improv scene the way people dissect Stanley Kubrick movies… every single choice matters, so anything that is even slightly out of the ordinary must exist for a reason. And the reason is to develop the scene and create the game.
Another way to look at it is that the “unusual thing” can sometimes be considered the “interesting thing.” What’s the most interesting thing we learn about either of these characters? If something piques your interest, bring attention to it, and make it part of one of the characters. If someone mentions that they love French New Wave cinema, in real life, that means that you’re about to have a really shitty conversation at a party. But in an improv scene, that means that you can hone in on that, let that define the character, and then let that unusual/interesting thing be the first thing from which you can create a game.
So, that’s my main answer. Is listen incredibly actively. There’s tons of information in every line that we frequently pass up as improvisers, looking for a bigger, shinier thing. Especially in organic improv. Don’t pass that stuff up!
Beyond that, specifics. If you’re stuck in a boring base reality, it’s because no one is being specific enough. If each line contains at least one new piece of information that builds off of what came before, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid an unusual thing.
When you ask people to think of reasons why someone took an improv class for the first time you get answers like “I wanted to do something fun” or “I’m a huge comedy fan” or “I wanted to be able to think on my feet more for my job.”
(Side note: people often say “wanted to get better at public…