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 — 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.

Improv 101 — Dime Store Novel

Dime Store Novel, sometimes called Typewriter, is a scene where an author narrates the book as he or she writes it. As they do, the other improvisers jump in and act out the things they say. It sounds simple, but there’s a lot to unpack with this game, and ironically, though I’m a writer, I am a terrible narrator for this game (and I’ll explain why).

While this is one of the more flexible games, I typically play it as a low energy team game. You can play this as a group game (with more than five people), but in my experience it makes it more difficult. This can also be played as a higher energy game, but it requires a very strong narrator. Remember, the difference between a low and high energy game is the source of humor for the audience: is it the things that are happening or the things that are being said? Funny lines tend to be low energy, but running across the stage will be high energy. Dime Store Novel is flexible because both can be fulfilled here (though a narrator should try to stick to one or the other, depending on the circumstances in which the game is played).

So, how do you play? This part is simple. You have the narrator/author sit on a chair downstage on one of the wings (preferably stage right). All the other actors will be characters in the story they are about to tell (The suggestion from the audience I grab is of “A book that has never been written”.) You can have them stand up stage or on either of the wings to function as “not performing”, but all that’s important here is the clarity of which actors are performing and which are not, because there is no backstage in improv.

When the game begins, the narrator starts off by saying “[Book Title], Chapter One…” and then monologue as if they are telling the beginning of that story. When the narrator is talking, they sit upright in their chair and hold their hands out as if they are typing. (Remember that.) As they introduce characters, more actors will jump on stage, and all the character/actors on stage pantomime whatever the narrator says (even talking). The audience should be listening to a narration of a silent film right here. When the narrator chooses, they put their hands down and sit back in their seat. This signals to the actors to pick up the scene from there, and they can now make sound and take the story where they want.

The most important thing about this game is that there are two strings of action happening. When the narrator is talking, the actors are not. When the narrator is doing nothing, the actors pick it up. Moving back and forth must be seamless, so it requires all the actors actively paying attention to the narrator, and waiting for he/she to “continue typing” to shut up. (It’s worth noting here that the narrator will naturally make things happen quickly, whereas the actors moving the scene on their own will make the story progress much more slowly.)

When the narrator says “Chapter [Number]”, this calls for a clear stage, regardless of what was happening. This gives them the opportunity to reset, and the chapters do not have to be in order. In fact, the way my troupe plays this, we steadily make the narrative quicker and quicker, going from Chapter One, to Two, to Three, to Seven, to Thirty-four, to Book Five: Chapter Nine, etc. This will naturally make the story harder to follow, so it’s important to stick with the same characters throughout the chapter breaks.

My personal flaw with this game is that as a writer, I hate doing that. I want to tell a real story, not one that is impossible to follow and therefore funny. I can’t find a way to make sense of that in my brain, but it also leads me to the point of how difficult this game really is. There’s virtually no restriction in how you play. The narrator can say whatever they want, and the actors can do whatever they want as long as it’s in line with the narrator. I always say that creativity is born from justifying restriction, but you can do anything in this game, even flex it to play exactly how you want to play, and the open possibility can make it a daunting challenge. For this reason, I tend to teach and stick to other games. Rules are nice.

Improv 101 — Interrogation

Interrogation is one of the harder games to play, primarily because it requires a high degree of skill in puns, pacing, and knowing the rest of your cast and how they think. (There is a variation of this game called Good Cop, Bad Cop, which I’ll talk about later in this post.) This game is sort of like Chain Murder Mystery in the sense that you are conveying three ideas to another person without being able to outright say what it is, and while this is still a hoop game, it holds a far more cohesive scene than the other game. Also, this is going to be a longer post because there is a lot to cover with this game.

Interrogation is a four person (team), low energy hoop game. This means that the focus of this game is on the rules (or, the hoop) rather than forcing the improvisers to build a scene. This game is low energy, meaning that the humor involved is based on what the actors are saying rather than what they’re doing, and thus the energy of both the stage and the audience will be low (though that doesn’t mean it won’t be funny!)

Here’s how the game works. You have one of the four people be your ‘criminal’, and you have them leave so that they can’t hear the audience’s suggestions. The other three improvisers will be cops trying to get that criminal to confess to a crime they will have to figure out based on puns and context clues. The three cops will have to communicate three ideas to the criminal: location, accomplice, and crime. They will do so by using puns that describe that place, person, or action, narrowing down the possibility of what those things could be until the criminal confesses and says “I ate the last cookie in the jar at the Golden Gate Bridge with Prince Charming!”

So, how do you use puns to know what’s going on? This is where it gets difficult. When a cop says “Why there of all places?” this tells the criminal that the subject they will be covering is location. It is the cops’ job to provide clues through puns that get progressively easier as the game goes on. You don’t want to say an obvious pun like “This must have been a golden opportunity for you!” because that severely limits the possible locations instantly, and there’s no point in playing the game if the criminal knows the thing you’re talking about. Your puns should at first narrow the possibilities while still keeping the criminal in the dark. If they don’t get it after a minute, you can say things like that. This is also why you have three cops–it’s a lot easier to come up with suitable puns if three of you are working on it. You don’t want to have any down time, but you should never have all three cops doing nothing as they each think of puns. Remember you are performing!

Since this interrogation is so one-sided, it can be hard for the criminal to respond to questions they don’t know they answers to. You have to develop a pseudo-code with the rest of your cast to tell each other what’s going on. If the criminal says something like “Plenty of people hang out there. You’ll need more evidence than that if you want to book me!” This indicates to the cops that the criminal understands the location. Bonus points to you if you come up with a pun to tell the cops what you think it is! Plus, if your pun doesn’t suit the location, it’s obvious to the cops that you have the wrong idea.

When you transition to the next thing, always tell your fellow cops and the other criminal what you’re now talking about. “It’s not the location that disgusts me. It’s who you got to help you!” (changing the topic to accomplice) or “But the worst part of it all is your crime.” etc. If the criminal gets mixed up as to which pun is referred to which thing, the game is already over. But it’s okay if the criminal isn’t spot on, either. Either way, once they have a good idea of what all three things are, they confess, and the game is over.

Good Cop, Bad Cop variation: I’m not as familiar with the way this is played, but as far as my experience goes I think this is the more popular version. Instead of three cops, you have two, and each have their own distinct personalities. I prefer Interrogation because experienced actors will already give their cops distinct characters and personalities. You shouldn’t be forced to act a certain way, because you run the risk of the game being funny because of the actions rather than the clever puns. Shouting and doing silly things for the sake of easy laughs doesn’t require as much skill as forging awesome puns!