Improv 101 — Stand Bend Sit

Stand Bend Sit is one of those games that is really easy to explain, but actually playing it successfully can prove quite challenging. It requires a lot of coordination with the rest of your cast, but regardless of how well you know each other, everybody is going to end up confused in the end. My troupe has never gotten the hang of Stand Bend Sit. Again, it’s a simple game, but it’s really tough to nail. You’ll see why.

This is a high energy scene game specifically for three people (but can be modified for a fourth). Here’s the whole game: Construct a scene in which one person is standing, one person is bending, and another person is sitting. If one person changes their position, the others must change their position so that every position is always being fulfilled by somebody. With a fourth person, you would add ‘Lay’. Usually you get a suggestion of a location, but anything can work here.

Sounds easy, right? Only, as soon as one person starts standing up, the other two people will move to fill the gap, adding multiple seconds to get into the correct positions once more. It isn’t easy to make sure one of every position is fulfilled at all times, but what’s more is that in the context of the scene, these positions must also be justified. Why did one character stand up and make another person start bending?

One of the problems with this game is that it is very difficult to move a scene forward like this. You have no stage entrances and exits, and two of the three positions are low-energy, not conducive to making an audience laugh. You can’t very well move the scene from whatever the location is, because people have to be sitting and whatnot. You could, perhaps, jump in a weird clown car that allows for standing position, but what I’m getting at here is that it isn’t easy to establish and maintain a conflict.

The kicker here is that there isn’t anything this game brings to a stage that another game can’t do better. I classify this as a high energy game because this game always ends with people switching positions back and forth and confusing the entire scene (which, admittedly, can be hilarious). But games like Four Corners and Chain Murder Mystery can confuse the improvisers while entertaining the audience much more reliably and effectively. If you’re looking for a high energy scene game for a performance, this wouldn’t even make the Top 3.

Of course, it could simply be a case of practicing this game wrong. I’ve never seen it performed, and maybe there’s a piece I’m missing to truly understand it. As with all games, there is certainly quite a bit of fun to be had, but as far as “successfully performing for an audience” goes, this game falls short too consistently.

If my mind ever changes on this, I’ll be sure to edit it (or even make an entirely new post) to fix whatever I had gotten wrong or missed entirely.

Improv 101 — Arms Through

One of the games that Whose Line is it, Anyway? is most famous for, Arms Through is sort of a gimmick game that I don’t play a lot, because it requires a few variables to be in place before you can even try it out. Now, when I explain it, I’m not going to explain how WLIIA plays it, because that’s a different environment than what most improv would provide.

Arms Through is a team hoop game with a varying energy level. It’s humor can derive from both the things that are done and the things that are said, so really it just depends on that specific game. The setup for the game is pretty simple. Four people get into two different pairs. One person from each pair folds their arms behind their backs, and the other person from that pair goes behind them and puts their own ‘arms through’ the gaps in their sides. Each pair in this game is one person in the scene, with the body of one person and the arms of the other. You get any suggestion at all, and the scene progresses as if it was two normal people doing it, if those people were excessively prone to touching their faces and generally being “handsy”.

So, why does this game not work well in all situations? Well, for obvious reasons, it requires you to know and trust the rest of your cast. IF you get two strangers to play this, they won’t be very comfortable with one another. You want the pair of people to work as  a team, following hand gestures and all, but if they’re so uncomfortable they’re standing a foot apart from each other, their arms won’t even be long enough to accomplish anything, and any audience would practically be able to feel the discomfort that would cause. Another thing that I specifically have to consider is that I’m working with a lot of teenagers, and without really getting into it, I have to be careful because things can go from uncomfortable to sexual harassment really quick. (When considering this, I always make the pairs the same gender, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.) Really, though, as long as the cast knows each other, these aren’t things anyone would have to worry about.

So, how do you actually play this game? Well, it really is a normal scene. It is the “body’s” job to allow the arms to be as involved in the scene as possible, and it’s the “arms'” job to be entertaining. Obviously moving around can be difficult because each person is actually two, but this game wouldn’t work with stage entrances and exits in any case. As a result of this, this game is often shorter than most, because having two people interact nonstop in one scene starts to get a little stale, even if the scene itself is entertaining.

Whose Line plays this as a gimmick, with Colin making Ryan eat awful concoctions and having him justify those things in the scene. There’s never any movement, and since they only have one body-arms pair, all the focus in the scene is given to them. In a conventional improv performance, however, improvisers almost never have props to use in any game, and it makes the game different each time you play it. I don’t like the way Whose Line plays it because it’s always done the same way, which isn’t in the spirit of improv, but to each their own.

Improv 101 — What Are You Doing?

What Are You Doing? is one of the more simple warm-up games for improvisers and, really, just actors in general. Unlike many warm-up games, however, this can be modified for a performance. It is both a group game and a large group game, but really this game is anything you want it to be. For my purposes, I’ll explain how it would work for a performance first, and then propose modifications for other needs.

Performing What Are You Doing is a high energy hoop game that would generally require at least six people, but works better the more people you add. Generally in a performance the troupe won’t have more than ten members present if you even have that many, but there’s no maximum number of improvisers. You have them get into two lines representing their respective teams, and the goal will be to eliminate the other team. From the audience, you get a suggestion of some initials. It can be any pair of letters, but that’s not the important thing. (You can also get a suggestion of a theme for the game, such as ‘holidays’, or ‘beach fun’ or things like that, but that’s totally up to you.)

The game begins when one person starts pantomiming (it doesn’t really matter what, but often we stick with brushing one’s teeth). The person from the front of the other line will jump on stage and ask “What are you doing?”, to which the person pantomiming will respond with something that is completely not what they are doing, using the initials as inspiration for the action they are describing. “Wrestling koalas!” for your initials of ‘WK’. The other improviser will then begin pantomiming a wrestling match with some koalas. At this point, tooth brusher will stop pantomiming and ask “What are you doing?”, and this goes on until one of them messes up, stalls, or says something too similar that was stated previously, up to the ref’s discretion. The game continues with improvisers interacting one-by-one until one team is entirely eliminated.

For more seasoned improvisers, I ask them to make every sentence a distinct pantomime. How does pantomiming “wrestling koalas” differ from “wrestling rabid koalas”, or “wrestling pygmy pandas”? You can, of course, incorporate speech into the pantomime, but really, these three actions should be distinguishable from one another.

In a performance, I like to challenge my improvisers by steadily increasing the number of letters I force them to use in the game. Suddenly, it’s not just “wrestling koalas”, it’s “wrestling koalas sleepily” or “wrestling koalas sleepily never”. You’l notice that the more letters you add to the game, the less these actions make sense. People find that it’s often easier to add words to the end of the action rather than just add adjectives in the middle, but hey, if the right letters are used, it doesn’t matter all that much. As a side note, this game should be played very quickly in a performance. Any stalling at all (such as “I am wrestling koalas!” should be met with elimination.

As for non-performance applications for this game, it’s pretty simple. The easiest thing to do is remove the elimination aspect of it and have everyone be in one big line. As soon as you mess up, you go to the back of the line and keep playing. Also, using a general theme works better than initials with larger groups, as there are more readily accessible actions associated with “beach fun” than there are with the letters “WK”. The main thing to remember here, though, is that everybody should be having fun, which means it needs to go quickly. It doesn’t matter if people are bad. It’s meant to inspire quick thinking and help with pantomime practice, but beyond that it gets the heart going, which is (almost) never a bad thing.

 

Improv 101 — Two Line Vocabulary

Two Line Vocabulary is a little weird for a couple of reasons. It’s a fundamentally simple game, particularly because the scene is generally only about two minutes long. This is a scene game for three people, and it functions much the same way as Actor’s Worst Nightmare. This is often low energy because the humor derives from the things that are said, but sometimes the actions can be funny, too.

The way it works is that one person, the main character or “anchor” of a scene, has to justify everything that is being said by the other two people in the scene. The only caveat is that the other two people in the scene can only say two phrases each. For example, one person might only be able to say “Don’t touch that!” and “I love you.” and the other person can only say “Where are we?” and “Not again!”. Since the third person can say whatever they want, they have to make each of those expressions make sense given the context every time it is said. So, once you get a suggestion (typically of a location, but anything works) you go on your way and establish CROW just like any other time you would play a scene game.

As with every game, there are a few things actors should keep in mind as they play. The first is that for this game in particular, there are no stage entrances or exits. All three actors are on stage the entire time it is being played. This can be difficult, as it means nobody can come in to save you, but since everything should be tied around the anchor who can do whatever they want, this shouldn’t be a big problem.

The second thing is that the anchor is always the focus in this game. Since the other two improvisers are so limited in their dialogue, it’ll be impossible for there to be any meaningful interaction between the two. This means that the anchor should be talking roughly half the time, as after either of the other two says something, the anchor should be replying to it. (The anchor doesn’t have to reply to everything that is said. If the natural flow of the conversation doesn’t call for a response, it isn’t necessary.)

While it’s the primary job for the anchor to justify anything the other two say, it’s also important for them to carry the scene forward. Make sure all three people are dealing with (but not solving) the conflict as the game progresses. This can be the hardest thing for new improvisers to achieve, so when in doubt, move the scene to a new location. It’s also important for the anchor to not ask questions as, outside of silent gestures, each of the improvisers can only respond in two ways. So as long as the anchor carries the scene justifies statements without denying or asking questions, this game is a cinch.

Here’s a link to WLIIA performing this game a few years back.

Improv 101 — World’s Worst

World’s Worst is most easily described as an alternative to 185, where instead of making bad puns, you act out a joke. It is at its best played as a high energy group game, with very quick and short segments with at least six people participating.

There is basically nothing to explain with this game, really. All the improvisers stand in a line, and the ref gets a suggestion of a profession. Then, one by one, the improvisers step forward and do their best impression of the “world’s worst [suggestion]”. This continues until the improvisers have no more ideas, and a new suggestion is taken.

Let’s say your suggestion is doctor. You could step forward, pantomime being in an operating room (which can be done a number of ways), and then yell “Screwdriver!” in the same way a doctor would ask a nurse to hand them a scalpel or some other tool. Or, they could pantomime unplugging an ICU outlet in order to charge their phone (and yes, I realize that’s not how it works, but the audience will laugh anyway). You could also pantomime somebody playing the Operation board game. Throwing in a Doctor Who, Dr. Doom, or Dr. Horrible reference could be hilarious, but keep in mind that your audience may not know those characters.

This game is a lot harder than 185. In that game, all you have to do is come up with a punchline. The setup is all there. But in this one, you have to actually act. You have to establish Crow in less than five seconds just to set your joke up, and you have to do it without slowing the momentum of the game and the energy of the audience. This is why more improvisers makes this easier; you simply have more people to come up with jokes.

You can also bring in other improvisers to make short little scenes. Obviously, it will be hard to brief them on the joke you want to tell, so ideally you’d only want to do it if you just need a person there. This also works better the more familiar you are with your cast, because they will be able to play along with whatever your idea is easier. This can be hard, especially if you don’t know your cast, because something you do in the scene might prompt them to respond, and you run the risk of jeopardizing the setup to your joke if they don’t know what you’re trying to go for. In these instances, it is okay to whisper something to them quickly as you’re walking up to whatever your stage is. This is for entertainment, after all. You’re not going to be booed off the stage for quickly collaborating with your fellow actors.

The best way to practice this game is actually to practice other games in conjunction with 185. This is basically a much more advanced version of that game, and it functions the exact same way in a performance, so beginning actors should stick to coming up with jokes until they’re comfortable developing those mini scenes. Also, as a side note, this game is generally not as entertaining as 185, for whatever reason. In my experience, it’s more fun as an actor, but the audience doesn’t typically enjoy it as much as they would have liked 185.

And also, this comedy skit by Studio C does an amazing job illustrating the sort of things you should be doing with this game.

Improv 101 — Replay Countdown

As I’m recalling this game and all the things that go into it, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that it’s a pretty simple game; especially in regards to the ones that I’ve gone over in the last couple of weeks. But when I was thinking that, I also remembered that when I was first learning this game with me and my fellow inexperienced improvisers, this game was hard. We simply could not play it “successfully”, and though we loved it when it turned out well, we couldn’t make the entertainment consistent enough to risk putting it into a performance. That memory makes me truly realize how much I’ve learned in this field, because the thought of ‘not performing a game successfully’ isn’t even a concern I have when I’m performing these days.

Reminiscing aside, there’s a reason my troupe thought this game was hard, and that is because it demands lots of high energy and big action. Dialogue will kill you in this game. Replay Countdown is a scene-based team game, and it’s rule is very simple. First, perform a normal 3 minute scene. Then, perform that same scene in half the time: 1 minute and 30 seconds. Then, perform it again in 45 seconds. Then again in 20, then 10, then 5, until finally the actors condense that entire 3 minute scene into a 1 second scene.

As you can imagine, this game gets pretty hectic. And you can probably understand why dialogue doesn’t work in this game. Once you’re performing in under thirty seconds, you have to go so fast that you have to cut out so much dialogue it’s not even worth it. If you perform the scene using primarily big actions, however, such as large stage entrances and exits, you can convey those much more quickly.

And that’s actually pretty much it. This game also requires that you establish all of CROW, because without it, a 3 minute scene can’t work. So if you can perform one in that time frame using mostly big action, you’re golden.

Here’s a number of things you should keep in mind as you’re playing, however. First, you need a ref (preferably with a timer, as well), but here’s the key. You don’t actually need to time it. As long as the ref calls “scene” at a point that makes sense, the audience will believe the correct amount of time has passed. They’re looking for entertainment, after all. Nobody is going to say “Ah-ah-ah! It’s only been two minutes and forty seconds!” because that just kills the fun. So the time frame is malleable.

It’s so malleable, in fact, that you can start with any given time limit. All that really matters is that you cut the time frame in half every time. Here are some time slots that work well, depending on how long you want the starting scene to be.

5min > 2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s
4min > 2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s
3min > 1.5min > 45s > 15s > 5s > 1s
2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s

Generally, 3 minutes is the best starting point because most improv games run from between 5-7 minutes, and you’ll get more time than you’d think in between scenes. Starting at 3min will generally make the game take around 7 minutes start to finish.

Here are some pro-tips that make the game a bit easier. A good thing to remember is that the game won’t be funny the first half. You’re just performing a normal scene initially, after all, so humor will be in short supply (but don’t try to force it in!). When performing the scene a second time, don’t cut out any dialogue. If you cut out the blocking and all the beats of the original scene (all the time where nothing is being done or said), you’ll be left with roughly half the time, and it will be right on target. So just do the same exact scene, only make things happen quicker without paraphrasing. The third time you perform it, that’s the time to start paraphrasing dialogue and having people enter at the same time. By the time the scene is less than 30 seconds long, you’ll have all actors on stage most of the time, trying to talk over each other, and the audience will love it.

If you’re playing this right, the last four times you perform this scene will make your heart rate go through the roof, and you’ll be out of breath by the time the game is over. Make sure it isn’t hectic the first two times you perform the scene, though! If the energy doesn’t ramp up as the game progresses, and instead remains consistently high, you’ll leave the audience exhausted!

But really, the main thing with this game is to just half fun and do big actions. As long as you can make those happen, it’ll be enjoyable for everyone.

Improv 101 — Eggs

Eggs is usually the first team game I teach to any group of aspiring actors. It’s a very simple hoop game that only involves acting how you are told, and thus is extremely easy. The more experienced the cast is with this game, however, the more you can do with it.

So, as I said this is a team game. Unlike others it requires exactly four people (unless you have the ref fill the “director” role, which I will get into). It’s a hoop game because every improviser has a very specific role in the game, and all they do is modify their role depending on what they are asked.

Another reason this is the first game I teach to people is because it has an established scene. Scripted? Only sort of, because it requires the audience to know the scene to be able to get the joke. The scene goes as follows, describing each role as a proper noun to make it easier to understand who is who.

<Egg Maker starts center stage, whisking some eggs in a bowl (pantomime, obviously). Dead Person walks on from stage right.>

Dead Person: What are you doing?

Egg Maker: Making eggs.

DP: Can I have some?

EM: Sure, but they’re not ready yet.

DP: I don’t care. <Takes the bowl and drinks from it. Promptly falls to the floor, apparently dead.>

<EM runs slightly stage left, grabs a pantomime phone.>

EM: Doctor, doctor! Come quick!

<Doctor walks on from upstage left.>

Doctor: What seems to be the problem?

<EM points to the Dead Person. Doctor walks over and checks pulse.>

Doctor: He/She’s dead.

When you’re playing Eggs, this scene must be performed to “set the stage”, if you will. These lines and actions must be performed verbatim in order for the scene to do well. Once this scene is performed, the Director (which can be the ref or another improviser) calls “Cut!” The Director does not have preset lines. You can give the Director any personality you choose: Anything from Gordon Ramsey to kindly grandmother. They can say anything they want (I usually go with something along the lines of “That was the most awful thing I’ve ever witnessed. You’re lucky I’m desperate.”) Whatever they say leads into having the Director have them perform the scene again, only “This time as painters, teachers, clowns, etc.” (The Director can come up with these suggestions on their own, and they can be anything from objects, to emotions, to occupations, to genres, but it looks scripted if you don’t get these suggestions from the audience.)

When the actors perform the scenes, they must change their original actors to make sense with their new suggestions. The Egg Maker can now be painting something instead of making eggs, or making a lesson plan, or juggling. Here’s the key, though. Whatever the suggestion, you must make it different from the original scene.

For this scene, I usually grab very specific suggestions in order. This is because as the scene progresses, I want the improvisers to make the scene more and more different, while making sure the whole audience understands what is going on. In a typical game, four different scenes will be played. The first change shouldn’t manipulate any of the dialogue, but the third change can be a very different scene. The suggestions I grab (in order) to help make this happen the way I want is emotion, genre, and occupation. Performing depressed can make the scene the same but different, but making everybody painters will change the entire story progression.

As improvisers get more experienced, they should be able to take similar suggestions and perform differently to accommodate how late into the game they are. Performing with the suggestion “Depressed” when it’s the first scene change should look very different when it’s the last scene change. This goes for any suggestion, and grabbing the suggestions in a specific order will inhibit the actors’ ability to learn how to do that, but it’s useful for instructional purposes.

There are different versions of this game, as well. Bus Stop is the same game only with a longer static scene, and Movie Director is the same only with no static scene. Typically I teach this one because it’s easier to teach and learn than the other two. It’s fun, it’s easy, but most importantly: it’s simple.