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 — 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 — 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.

Review — Wonder Woman

After all the raving reviews for this movie, and how everyone I know seemed to like it, I had high hopes for this movie. Even with it being part of the superhero bandwagon DC is jumping onto (which we all know they have been horrible at translating their stuff to the big screen), I knew it was going to be great. And, by and large, I think it was. Not a fantastic movie, mind you, but a pretty good one. As far as this post goes, I won’t be spoiling any specific plot related stuff, but I will talk about the general framework of the movie.

Now, when I tell people that I didn’t think this movie was amazing, most are surprised. Don’t get me wrong. This movie is amazing, especially compared to the other DC movies. But there’s nothing that makes it stand out as unique. The general plot is pretty basic, and one of my main issues with this movie is that there are never any direct consequences for the heroine. She wants to do a thing, and nothing in the world will stop her from doing it.

I, like much of the world of fiction, will consider this level of stubbornness and arrogance a character flaw. Only, she is never punished for her actions. (I realize you could argue this, but doing so would involve spoilers, so let’s just leave it at that.) But when I say she is never punished, I don’t mean there is no conflict. I mean that I wanted her actions to make the situation worse, and for her to learn something because of it. Instead, her arrogance leads her to take actions that don’t solve the problem, so she goes and does something else instead.

Overall, the plot structure is also very basic. “Here’s some exposition, now some action, and now we’ll be getting intermittent character development in between action scenes.” You hear a lot about character-driven fiction versus story-driven fiction, but this is definitely action-driven fiction. Characters will make dumb decisions based on the plot’s need for some slow motion action-y bits, of which there are a lot.

That isn’t to say that action movies are bad. But no action movie will ever get a perfect score in my book because I like interesting stories, and they just never do. Instead, they focus on cool shots and CGI. This movie did have some great shots, but I wasn’t a big fan of some of the CG. There were quite a few moments where Diana was moving in a way that looked wrong because the specific things that were happening didn’t physically work. I realize that I’m a product of my generation in that I have extremely high expectations for what looks real and what doesn’t, but still. (I will admit that all the horse tricks and the flips looked pretty dang snazzy, though.)

By far, the single best thing that Wonder Woman had was Gal Gadot. Her acting was pretty awesome, and she did a great job portraying a lost but stubborn character in an unknown world. I love naive characters like that, and she really nailed it without also being ‘dumb’. Plus, I think she really nailed the facial expressions, and as attractive as she is, I found it completely believable when all the characters who saw her for the first time were awestruck.

So, when I watch the next movies in the Justice League series, the thing I’m most excited for is seeing her act more. Unfortunately, it’ll be a ‘present day’ Diana where she’s acclimated to society, so we won’t get nearly as much of the naivety anymore, but either way I think that the quality of this movie is an probably an outlier. I don’t expect the next movies to suddenly be on the same level.

Review — Critical Role

I’m actually a little surprised that I have yet to actually talk about Critical Role as a thing. I know I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m watching/listening to it on a few monthly updates, but I never even explained what it is. So let me pose it to you this way. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons group that professionally filmed all their sessions, and the entire cast, dungeon master and all, are famous celebrity voice actors who all happen to be great friends.

Now imagine that that’s a real thing, because it is.

There are a ton of reasons why this show is amazing. Even people that don’t like D&D would like it by virtue of the fact that it has some amazing storytelling, vivid description, and hilarious role-play moments. The adventures of Vox Machina are everything I want but have never quite achieved in a Dungeons & Dragons group, and I admit it makes me a little jealous.

Here’s the list of players and the characters they play, as well as one of their most notable roles (in that order). Keep in mind that while I know a lot of these people from video games, cartoons, or anime I’ve seen in the past, many of them are very prevalent actors in general.

Matt Mercer, Dungeon Master: McCree from Overwatch

Liam O’Brien as Vax’ildan (half-elf rogue): Illidan from World of Warcraft

Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia (half-elf ranger): Jaina from World of Warcraft

Taliesin Jaffe as Percy de Rolo III (human gunslinger): Darion Morgraine from World of Warcraft

Marisha Ray as Keyleth (half-elf druid): Diamond Dog Soldier from Metal Gear Solid V

Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian): Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard): Spider-man from The Amazing Spider-man 2 (video game)

Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric): Ellie from The Last of Us

Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer): Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies

For starters, Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, is the most amazing DM I have ever seen. Not only does he spin awesome tales so well it looks like the entire game was made for this setting rather than an open-world thing he made up, but he is also an amazing voice actor. Never have I seen somebody be able to so accurately mimic what I would imagine monsters like giant spiders or goblins to sound like. And he does it all on the fly, too!

The party of this campaign is also pretty great. I could tell you what I like about each and every person in the cast, but since there are eight of them, it would take too long. Suffice to say that they’re all great in their own right. They’ve each had amazing moments, and while some characters are more enjoyable than others, you can tell they really love not only their own character but the characters of the rest of the party as well. This is a group of people that have grown to love each other and the game. You can really see what Dungeons & Dragons is all about by watching them play.

My favorite part about this game is that I can learn more about it as both a player and dungeon master just from watching it, and I get to experience this amazing story at the same time!

This is an ongoing campaign, as well. They stream it live every week, and they’ve been going for about four years, I believe, and they’ve filmed the last two. This means that there are well over a hundred hours of their campaign that you can go and watch right now, so just a fair warning there.

So, as a parting gift, here is a link to one of everybody’s favorite characters that Matt Mercer cooked up on the spot. It just goes to show that you don’t have to develop a huge boss monster or an important king to make a non-player character memorable.

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 — Four Corners

When I think of Four Corners, my immediate thought is always “discount Four Rooms”. It does have significant differences–primarily the fact that it involves four performers rather than eight. It’s also one that blurs the line between scene games and hoop games. If I were to pick one, I would call it a scene game strictly because improvisers still have to build a scene and establish CROW, but the focus of this game isn’t the scene, it’s the hoop. It’s sort of hard to pin down because of it.

Here’s how the game is played. You get four improvisers and you have them form a square, with the two people in front playing as the current performers. At any point, the ref can call “left” or “right”, indicating that the square should rotate in the respective direction. “Whose left or right?” you ask. Well, technically this doesn’t matter as long as everybody’s on the same page with what each direction means. My troupe orients it to mean “the current performers’ left or right”. So when the square rotates, the new side of the square is an entirely different scene, though one person will always remain the same from the old scene (acting in an entirely different character and situation). The specifics aren’t imperative, but for this game, I usually get the following suggestions in order: Location, Occupation, Relationship, and Wild Card.

But here’s the important thing about this game: the primary entertainment value in the audience is through disorienting your improvisers. This game doesn’t force the improvisers to justify ridiculous lines like in Four Rooms, and the rule for this game doesn’t interfere with the way the scenes are played, so if left on their own, the scenes will pretty much all be boring, especially since it will only be two people per scene by necessity.

How is this game fun, then? Well, it’s the referee’s job to confuse the performers as to what is actually happening and how the square should be positioning. First, I let them each establish CROW, calling “Right” until every scene has been performed for about fifteen seconds. Then I start to make things interesting. I pick up the pace, calling for a scene swap every five seconds, or saying “Left, left, right, left!” quickly in order to confuse them.

Now, this is actually more confusing than it sounds. Your brain doesn’t have time to do math and eliminate the redundant directions, and on top of that if you’re standing in the back, not performing, and I call “right”, that means “clockwise”, and to you, this direction means left. Why not just say “Clockwise/counter-clockwise”? Well, because the entire point is to be confusing! You don’t want to make it easier for the improvisers to get their bearings! Plus, way too many syllables for a quick direction.

The most enjoyment an audience will get from this game is actually in between the scenes when the actors are trying to figure out where they should be situated. The one thing I have to remind actors is to try to eliminate downtime between scenes. If I say “Left, left, right, right, right, left, right, right, left” in one breath, obviously it’ll take time to puzzle that out, but the key is to make sure every direction is followed. Don’t just stand there thinking about it and ‘solve the problem’, because the audience wants to see you suffer. And if at any point the square breaks, and people are caught in the wrong position, go with it. Combine the scenes. Make a joke out of it and laugh at yourself. Even if the entire scene fails to be entertaining, I guarantee that will be.

In any case, this game is a good energy builder, but since it’s entertainment relies on the actors failing, this game isn’t performed very often. There are better games more suited to showcase skill or simply bring up entertaining and memorable lines.