Improv 101 — Film Noir

This is it. Probably the last game I’m going to detail in full for a long time. It’s by no means the only game I have yet to talk about. There are several other warm-ups that don’t constitute full posts, or games I know that I’ve never played, or games I simply don’t care for. But in a lot of ways I consider Film Noir to be the final hurdle. The top of the food chain. If you can play this game successfully every time, you’ve made it. Where? Beats me. The point I’m trying to make is that this game is pretty tough, and in a lot of ways, it’s unique, as well.

There are a few ways to play this game. I’ve already talked about a variation of one of them, a game my troupe calls Side Note. But the version I’m going to talk about today is weird. It’s a low energy, two person scene game. That’s it. Only two. And it doesn’t work with more. You’ll see why.

You get two stools, and both improvisers sit down on them, facing the audience. You get some suggestion (any works, but I usually take a location), and then you talk. Both improvisers take turns describing a scene in first person. They describe everything as detailed as possible. The hot handle of the door as you pull it open to step inside a gas station. The sound of the artificial bell and the blast of air when you pass beneath the threshold, and the smell of gasoline once you leave again to start filling up the tank. Maybe the lock on the pump doesn’t work so you have to stand there and fill it manually in the hot sun. Maybe there’s some homeless guy that keeps eyeing you and making you uncomfortable, making you anxious to leave. That’s the sort of detail I’m talking about here. The first person to talk sets the scene. They give details like that as if they are experiencing it then and there. After talking for about thirty seconds, they stop and the next person picks it up. They start talking from their perspective. Maybe they’re the guy at the cash register, waking up from their nap as the bell rings. Or maybe they’re the homeless guy that doesn’t want to go and ask for a handout. The two of them take turns talking, for about twenty to thirty seconds each, until both have spoken two or three times. (You’ll know when to stop when you get a natural conclusion to the scene.)

Once they’re done narrating, they move the stools and then act out that scene. Now, here’s what’s so cool about this game. It’s not funny. It’s magic. The pacing of this game will feel very slow, and as such it’ll be hard to make funny things happen, and they definitely won’t happen unless you force them to (which, don’t get me wrong, is possible). But the majesty of the game is what the audience experiences when they see it done well. They’ll hear that bell chime when the actor pantomimes opening that door. They’ll feel the door burn their hand when they subtly flinch. They’ll smell the gasoline, too. Even though none of those things are actually in the scene that is performed.

Actors have to portray everything they narrated in the scene. If you describe the smell of gas, their better be a point in the scene when the actor telegraphs them experiencing that smell. But you can also only perform things that you describe. You can’t suddenly think “Oh, my character forgot his wallet” if that wasn’t in the narration. You also can’t speak unless you put direct dialogue in the scene, and as such a Film Noir scene is often pretty quiet. “I told him my business doesn’t accept bills over $20” is not dialogue. That is description of what was said. If you want to say that in the scene, you have to narrate “I said, ‘Sorry, man, we don’t accept bills over twenty.'” In that circumstance it is okay to speak in the scene, but only then. If you narrated it the first way, you would have to pantomime speaking without actually saying any words. Sometimes that’s better, but it’s an important distinction to remember.

When people think of improvisational acting, they think comedy. But this isn’t a funny game. It probably isn’t my favorite, but it’s usual lack of humor doesn’t take away from the entertainment of watching it performed. It requires a lot of synchronization with your partner, and also it requires a lot of life experience to be able to articulate a lot of physical experiences. You will often get a suggestion that will involve a scene you have never experienced in real life. But you have to make it feel real nonetheless.

It’s a cool game, and I often show my students what improv can become at a higher level, but it’s not something I actually teach. I think of it as a goal to reach. Of course, you can always get better at improv, just like everything else in life. But being able to play this game well can serve as some decent validation of your capabilities.

Improv 101 — My Movie

Like many improv games, I’ve seen My Movie played a couple of different ways. The core of the game is the same, but there is a bit of variety to the nuances that can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular troupe.

Most often, it is played as a high energy group game. It can work with lots of people, but generally as long as you have more than four you’ll be fine. The idea is that the improvisers are a group of scriptwriters pitching movie ideas to the ref. You get some initials from the audience and you have the improvisers come up with movie titles using those initials. One by one, the ref points to them and they yell the title of a movie using those letters. If it sounds interesting, the Ref calls “Tagline!” and the improviser must then give a short description that could appear on a poster or in a movie trailer. If the tagline appeals to the ref, they can say “Let’s see it!”, in which case the improvisers must then act out a snippet of a scene from that movie. After that, the ref and improvisers return to calling out movie titles until the next one sticks.

The biggest difference in the two ways I’ve seen this game played is the intro. Namely, what happens before the ref starts pointing at people and the game actually starts. The first time I had seen this game, all the improvisers chant “My movie, my movie my movie, aww yeah!” in the same tone of Big Booty, a game I’ll probably never actually talk about in detail. Because I obviously can’t describe what the tone of that chant is, I think the second way is easier. Instead of the chant, all the improvisers just yell “My movie!” as fast as they possibly can while trying to get the ref’s attention as if they are a bunch of people at a crowded press conference trying to be called on. I prefer it this way, and it’s a lot easier because it doesn’t require synchronization.

Another reason I like the second intro is the faster pacing. The key thing to remember for this game is that it’s meant to be high energy. The ref needs to point to his or her targets quick to get them to pitch movie titles rapid-fire. There should never be a full second of downtime in this game, and all transitions must be seamless. This is the sort of game that is a good warm-up for an audience, because it gets their heart rate up. My Movie isn’t a very funny game, but it only needs to be fast and entertaining to get your viewers into the mood.

This is also the sort of game that combines preparation with on-the-spot moments. You kind of have to think about movie titles as you wait for the referee to point at you, but it’s hard to have both a tagline and a scene ready if it’s a good movie title, so you often have to say the first thing that comes to mind.

With this game, improvisers can do no wrong. With as fast as the pace is set, the most difficult thing about it is that you’ll often be expected to pitch movie titles faster than you can come up with them, and as such it’s a great way to force beginning actors to think more quickly. There will, inevitably, be instances where you have to speak when you don’t know what to say. It happens a lot in improv, but don’t let that stop you from saying anything. Sometimes the most memorable quotes come from instances in which you hadn’t put any thought to your words. And even if you do say something dumb, the game is supposed to be pretty quick. People will only remember the gems in a game like this. And if you have upwards of six people, this game is super easy, because it allows the other improvisers time to think about better titles.

This is one of those games that is great for beginning improvisers, and I try to introduce it very early on to the kids I teach. Also, here is a link to a great example of this game.

Improv 101 — Superheroes

Superheroes is one of those weird games that can’t be played a whole lot. For one, the only version that I’m familiar with is easy to script, and it’s a hoop game where the difficulty is set totally by the improvisers themselves. That being said, it is a fun little game that is easy to teach people with little improv experience.

The game is a low energy hoop game for about four people (but can still work with three or five). From the audience you get a suggestion of a superhero name and a problem for them to solve. The scene starts with that superhero on stage, doing some menial activity their alter ego might do as a hobby. They then get word of this problem via telephone or Batsignal, or anything else as long as it is portrayed in the scene. Instead of solving the problem, however, they think about this for a while, and says something along the lines of “I can’t handle this, this sounds like a job for ___!” introducing a new superhero, who then enters the scene. The first improviser can say any superhero name they want (meaning it can unfortunately be scripted), and the two of them discuss the problem. Even with the two of them, they still can’t solve the problem, so Superhero 2 calls in number three, giving them a completely new name. This goes on until all of your previously discussed improvisers are on stage, and the last person to come onstage does solve the problem (ex. Duct Tape Man solves the problem of the world exploding by taping everything up so it stays together).

Obviously, as each person gets called on stage they should personify their superhero. If somebody is “Talking Backwards Guy” then they should either say words in reverse order or speak gibberish as if he talks backwards. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they portray that superhero.

The grievance I have with this game is that the conflict is an artificial one. The only rule to the first three heroes is that they aren’t allowed to be able to solve the problem, so they are pretty much irrelevant to the scene and can therefore be literally anybody. You can also give the last superhero a power that is perfectly suited to solving the problem. This all leads to a very real possibility of everything happening systematically rather than organically, which is not how improv should be.

Now, I have thought of a fix to this game. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it actually works, but here’s the idea. Once all four(ish) superheroes on stage, they can solve the problem, but only when all of them work together. It doesn’t quite work if you act out the fix, but rather the superheroes should come up with a plan. If Treeman, Catface, Steelletto, and Astronomurder all get together when all the world’s water somehow evaporated, how do they solve it? Easy. Instead of saying “Astronomurder can just make a bunch of water-rich asteroids collide with Earth, problem solved”, you must include all of their powers. Astronomurder calls down a bunch of meteorites, sure. But how will this not also destroy the planet? Easy. You get Treeman to turn into a giant tree, which Steelletto climbs, and once the meteorites breach the atmosphere Steelletto uses his cool sword legs to slice all the meteorites into tiny debris. Catface brings all her cats for moral support (or leaves one at the top of Treeman’s tree form to inspire Steelletto to climb at heroically fast speeds).

This way, a bunch of seemingly random superhero names can become a team to solve any problem, and only with their powers combined were they able to handle the task at hand. This makes the improv game into one where each person really has to use their head, and allows them to personify really weird characters to boot.

Also, I’m pretty sure Astronomurder is actually a super villain given his name and power. But maybe he wants to destroy the world on his own terms, or get revenge on his nemesis, Treeman, before killing everybody off. This is all stuff that can (and should) be explained in the actual context of the scene.

Improv 101 — DVD (or Television)

DVD is one of those games that can be played regardless of how experienced a group of improvisers are. All you need is for the ref/improviser at the helm to know what they’re doing, and everything else comes easy. Since it’s basically the same game, I’ll also talk about Television and how to play that one.

DVD is a highly customizable improv game, but usually it’s a high energy scene game. Since there are so many ways to play it, you’re not going to see two different improv troupes play it the same way, and I couldn’t reasonably explain all there is to do within a short amount of time, so here is the basic premise. One person holds the remote (this can be the referee or another improviser), and they have full control over what is happening in the scene. They can mute, volume up/down, pause, rewind, fast forward, change the channel (if you’re playing Television), or skip chapter (in DVD). The biggest difference between skipping chapter or changing channels is that in DVD, the characters will remain consistent, whereas in Television everything changes. (It’s worth noting that Television can easily be played as a group game, with different groups of people acting as different channels. In this case, it’s played very similarly to Four Rooms, which I’ve already talked about.)

The rule of thumb for this game is “do it how it happens in real life”. If the ref calls “Mute!” then the only thing that happens is that you stop making sound. If they change the channel after that, the TV will still be muted, and when they unmute it, you suddenly start talking again, mid-sentence preferably. If they skip the chapter in a DVD, everything changes instantly. Usually this means the start of a new scene (as DVD’s are often broken this way, but not always).

If they change channels, you are now on a different network entirely. I remember the Food Network and the Disney Channel were on button away on our old TV. It isn’t so different now. Depending on how you want to play, however, the ref might ask for suggestions based on what channels they want to be in the game. In that case, the ref should say “Food Network!” instead of “Channel up!” The best takeaway for this is to do what makes sense for your troupe. Come up with your own rules. The only thing that matters is that you all know what’s going on and that you remain consistent.

Another thing to consider is volume changes and rewinding. When the volume goes up and down, an experienced improviser should be careful not to shout. Remember, the scene isn’t changing, it’s only the amount of noise you’re making. If a character is yelling, they should be yelling regardless of how loud they are (and I’d expect a good ref to turn the volume down if you start shouting!) not to mention that when the volume is up really high, blocking should also be loud. Try moving across the stage more loudly than you otherwise would. In the case of rewinding and fast forwarding, this also often mutes the TV. So you just start doing everything very quickly in silence. If you want to go for a retro TV, then speak in gibberish ‘squeaky voice’, because it should still be unintelligible.

I’m leaving a lot out here because the game is so versatile, so just ask yourself how TV’s and DVD’s work. It’s totally acceptable to say “Stop!” during a game of DVD and then go to the bloopers, or pause it to add subtitles (in which case a new improviser should step in and start talking over them in a different language, to your discretion!) The key thing here is that while improv is pretty much open to anything, you need to establish with the rest of your troupe exactly what is in the realm of possibility. It’s not scripting it because there’s still no script, you’re simply discussing what they can expect in these games. Other than that, Television and DVD are basically open to anything.

Improv 101 — Side Note

This game is sort of an amalgamation of other improv games, twisted into its own unique thing of my troupe’s creation. It is similar to a second version of a game called Film Noir, which I haven’t gotten to yet but the list is getting pretty short. This game is actually a lot harder than it sounds, not because it’s complex, but because the improvisers have to know each other and the craft in order to make this game a success. A fair warning, though. There is a lot to this game, and it’s a pretty hefty post for one improv game. If that doesn’t scare you, read on!

Side Note is a low energy scene game for three to four people. It plays just as any normal scene would, except at any given time, an actor can step downstage towards the audience and address them specifically, while the rest of the scene pauses behind him. Imagine the freeze frame with the main character saying “I bet you’re wondering how I got here?” The game is like that, only it can happen at any time for any character, not just the ‘protagonist’ of the scene. Once they make a short comment, they step back into the scene and it continues as if nothing happened.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, think of it this way. You can’t tell the rest of the people in that scene with you to stop moving because you want to make a ‘side note’. You just have to start walking and hope they pick up on it sooner rather than later. It means you have to constantly stay aware of the people on stage (which, of course, you should be doing anyway,) and wait for likely moments where people will want to pause the scene. This is why it gets easier when you know your cast. You’ll become quite familiar with the moments in a scene they will want to comment on and even the things they might say, depending on the character they are portraying.

But here’s why this game is actually pretty tricky: It’s actually really hard to say anything meaningful and worthwhile in one of those ‘side notes’. This game has no rules to follow and no hoops to jump over. It has to be funny because of the scenarios you make for it and the things you say because of them, rather than the improvisers making ridiculous comments based on what circumstance the game has forced them into. That’s something that only a handful of improv games force you to do, contrary to popular belief.

When you’re making these ‘side notes’, you’re often telling the audience the inner thoughts of your character. Something they wouldn’t say out loud. This means that basically anything you say is the truth. After confessing your passion for professional tricycle riding in the scene, for instance, the character can pause to tell the audience that, in fact, there is nothing on the planet that they despise more than tricycles. Making a side note to say something completely opposite to what your character said in the scene will get you quick laughs, but it’s a gimmick. You can only do it once.

There’s a number of other things you can do, of course, but as I said, it’s hard. In improv you should never try to be funny unless you know what you’re doing, which will come later than you think. That being said, this game won’t make things funny, so this is the sort of circumstance in which you would negate that rule.

So here are my two tips for making this game work. The first is that in every ‘side note’, try to tell the audience more about the character or the scene. Something they might not have known about the situation if you were performing this scene in a different game. The second is that work with the rest of your cast. Have them help you make ridiculous things happen. And by ridiculous, I don’t mean pouring a truckload of rabid weasels into the Starbucks your scene takes place in. Don’t introduce things unless it has some relevance, or unless you plan to give it relevance as time goes on.

But this game works so well when the improvisers play off of the concept of dramatic irony. The barista at this Starbucks could be going through a sudden break-up, while the customer is making their way through a “How to Socialize for Dummies” book in their spare time. How do those things connect? I don’t know, but as soon as you introduce both of those concepts to the audience independently of the scene, they’ll have some expectations for how the scene will unfold. So here’s the thing. You can allow the scene to unfold predictably, or deny the predictable ending, but either way the pieces of information you introduce in the ‘side notes’ should eventually be relevant to the context of the scene. Making them all start stringing themselves together is not easy, but if you can do it right, this game can be phenomenal.

Improv 101 — Genres

Genres is one of those games that is deceptively difficult because of how easy it is to explain. It’s not one of my best, simply because it allows for a lot of openness and there aren’t really any constraints. Despite that, it can be a lot of fun as long as the improvisers know the fundamentals of how it should be played.

This game is a scene game for a small team, so three or four works. It’s energy levels varied based on the suggestions, but often it can be on the higher end since it can get a little ridiculous. This is how the game is played. You get a suggestion of anything (I like ‘well known fairy tale or story plot’ for this one in particular), and then the improvisers build a scene based on that suggestion. Then, throughout the game, the ref calls ‘Freeze!’ and asks the audience for a new thematic suggestion. Often ‘genre’ works really well (it’s what the game is named, after all), but other suggestions can work, too. As soon as a new suggestion is picked, the actors continue their scene adopting the elements of that genre into their story. If Little Red Riding Hood suddenly becomes a western, the actors playing those iconic characters might start speaking in accents and pull out revolvers. Maybe people jump on horses and begin a chase scene. The key thing to remember here is that the original suggestion: the plot of the scene, should remain consistent. You’re still telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, only the medium through which it is being told changes roughly every forty seconds.

If you’re familiar with the game, this is very similar to Eggs. The biggest difference is that instead of performing a given scene multiple different ways, you’re performing one scene that is constantly in flux. You aren’t just adapting to the suggestion, you’re applying that suggestion to the thing you’ve already made as you make it. In some ways it’s easier, because you’re not constrained by predefined actions or lines. But as I always say, creativity isn’t empowered by the lack of constraints, it’s hindered by it.

The fact that the character and the story is always concrete is probably the hardest part for my troupe in particular. It’s hard to move the scene and use the same characters when creating new ones is so much easier. It’s difficult to follow a plot structure in so many minutes while also hitting the key elements of whatever genre you’re fulfilling, and it’s for that reason that I don’t teach this game to beginning improvisers. (Start with Eggs. It’s the same idea, but it’s much easier, especially if your actors don’t have a firm grip on how to establish a scene with CROW.)

In order to really nail this game, it should also complete the story arc of whatever original suggestion you were given. It doesn’t need to end the same way as Little Red Riding Hood does, or any other story for that matter. In fact, I would argue that it shouldn’t, because humor often derives from subverting the conventional norms. This does mean that you have to tell this story in three to five minutes, which is why fairy tales and nursery rhymes work better than “Lord of the Rings“, but either way, it has the best ending when it has a natural conclusion, as opposed to the typical conclusion of improv scene games where you end it by referencing something that happened in the beginning.

Improv 101 — Foreign Film Dub

This game is one of my team’s more difficult games. I personally love it, but my problem is that I’m really bad at accents (one thing I really wish I was better at). But this game can be amazing, if done right. Another thing to consider is the fact that the way my troupe plays it, it can easily be scripted. Of course, it isn’t, but there’s no restrictions that inhibit people from doing so.

Foreign Film Dub is a scene game for four people, with varying energy level. It can be done a number of different ways, but I’ll describe it the way I’ve seen it done the most. Two people are scene partners, and the other two stand in the wings of the stage. You get a suggestion of a language and an object from the audience. The entire scene will then be played with that object in mind, spoken in a false tongue, if you will. Both will speak in a gibberish reminiscent of that language, and after they are done speaking, one of the two improvisers outside the scene will translate what they just said (it works best if you pair them up, having both people translate consistently for their characters).

Here’s how the game functions. The primary source of humor for this game is often the translations of what is being said. With this setup, there is no restriction of what the translators say, so technically they can say whatever they want. This means that one person can monologue in gibberish for a minute, only to have their counterpart translate the entire thing into “No, thanks.” That works especially well if the person monologuing is clearing angry, it establishes a clear contrast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny, but it’s a gimmick, and it’s my problem with this game. It is inevitable because it generates cheap laughter, and thus it doesn’t lend itself well to true improvisation.

Barring that, this game can be amazing, but there are things to keep in mind. Obviously, a lot of subtext can be given even through gibberish and pantomime alone. Respective translators should be able to pick up on this. In order to help them out, however, you can make defined actions that have clear ‘endpoints’, to establish when you are done talking. If a character is arguing while they sweep, then throws their broom down to cross their arms in a huff, they’re obviously done talking, as there isn’t any natural blocking that follows such an action.

I find this game most difficult for the role of the translators, as they have to forge a scene out of gibberish and subtext on the fly and make it entertaining. If a character changes moods halfway through their speech, a good improviser will have to change their translations halfway through to match. The audience will catch things like this, and it turns an enjoyable scene into a great one.

Another easy gimmick of this game is faking your gibberish. Using iconic phrases, objects, or celebrity names in that language is easy. “Mario spaghetti pepperoni, Medici!” the improviser said in an exaggerated accent is funny the first time, and it’s really easy to slip into that sort of game, but that doesn’t really take skill, as you’re not speaking gibberish at that point.

Lastly, a point to consider. When my troupe is playing this game, I ask the audience for a “European language”, because the majority of my troupe is Caucasian. With as easily offended people are these days, I tell people to stray away from personifying characters of a different ethnicity in any game, especially this one. I can easily see somebody being upset if I do a horrible Indian accent on stage (even if it’s supposed to be gibberish). It’s best to avoid that sort of situation, but if you’re not worried about offending anyone, this obviously isn’t something you have to worry about.