Improv 101 — Numbers

Last week I covered the fundamentals of performing a basic scene in an improv scenario. You need an anchor to serve as the “main character”, you only want two or three people on stage at a time (never one or four if you can help it!), and the goal of the scene is to follow the “rule” of the game while establishing CROW.

Numbers is probably the most basic scene game there is. There’s only one rule: every improviser in the game is given a number, and everything they say has to contain that many words. If their number is one, they can only say one word at a time. That’s it.

As far as setting up the game goes, every improviser should have a specific amount of words. One person should have one or two. Another should have three to five. Another should have five to seven or eight. The last person should have a huge number like eighteen or twenty nine.

The easiest way to make a scene like this work is to have your anchor be somebody that can talk “normally”. The anchor should be the person with a number between three and seven, as long as they don’t have difficulty speaking.

The “one or two” person works as a great safety net, because they can introduce a problem or push somebody off stage very easily. They can come on and say “Fire! (Help!)” or “Police! (Stop!)” and immediately change the direction of the scene.

The person with the huge number should, in the ideal circumstance, come on last. Especially if they have an absurd number (like forty six), they should only be allowed to speak once. The second time they would normally speak (if the scene calls for them to do so), somebody should cut them off before they start talking, or the ref can call scene (as long as the game has gone on long enough).

By far, the most difficult thing about this game is the counting. Virtually everyone in my improv troupe miscounts once or twice when they play this game (unless their number is one), and in a performance, the audience isn’t going to fly with not following the game’s only rule. But even then, you should never count on your hands. For one, it won’t make sense for the character to be doing that, and it makes it impossible to pantomime while talking. But it’s also cheating in a way that isn’t really funny for the audience. The idea here is to try to have a “normal” scene, and if you’re counting on your hands that won’t work. (There is an exception here. If you must, the person with the huge number may count on their hands, but if they do, they must do so correctly and hold their hands up for all the audience to see. The difference is that this improviser will have a hard enough time speaking, so its extra funny to the audience when their suffering is increased by gratuitous counting).

There are two things I always tell people when teaching this game: the first is to remember that multiple syllables don’t count as two words. You’d be inclined to count “firefighter” as two words in this circumstance, especially since it takes so long to say, but the audience will know better. Take an extra half second to count the words in your head if you have to!

The second helpful hint is to break up phrases into small chunks. Our brains group larger numbers into threes and fours in order to make them easier to count. Imagine how you tell somebody a phone number: you give them three or four numbers at a time rather than saying the whole string in one go. that’s because as soon as a group of things is more than five, our brain splits them into multiple, small groups and adds them together.

If you apply that principle to this game, it should help a lot. If your number is six, for example, instead of thinking of a sentence exactly six words long, it’ll be way easier for you to make two small sentences three words long. Lets say your character is in a hurry. Instead of trying to say “I’m in a hurry we should… (awkward pause)”, you can say “Can we leave? I’ll be late!” If your number is a bit uglier like seven, you can simply add a name to that sentence without having to count any more!

This game may be simple, but like many scene games, it’s still quite difficult. It requires juggling rules while still trying to establish CROW, and even with moderately experienced improvisers, nailing all four aspects of CROW can be tough! So don’t be discouraged if a scene game is hard. Like everything, it just takes practice.

One thought on “Improv 101 — Numbers

  1. “…but the audience will no better.”

    My gosh I spotted that right away but when I finished reading, I had no idea what or where I saw a typo. Took me so long to re-find ha.


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