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.

Life — August Update Pt. 1: Blog Changes

Technically, this is a week early, as I had reserved my monthly updates for being “the first Monday of the month”, but it seems strange to wait an extra week when August is tomorrow. I have a lot to talk about this time around, so I decided to split it up into two posts. This weeks will be exclusively blog changes, since they’re pretty extensive.

Like I predicted last month, I’m making some significant changes to the blog schedule this time around. I had been struggling with coming up with topics for my Learning! posts, but adding another “Prompt” day would have made them back to back, which didn’t sit well with me. I’ve been considering dropping days from my schedule and spending that time writing stuff I don’t publish immediately, but I decided against it for the time being. While I may have the discipline to trust myself to write every day, the idea of making more of those words go “under the table” makes me a bit uneasy. I like having new content accessible for anyone that wants it. If I made that sort of change, it would be adding ‘phantom’ words that don’t get posted, not subtracting the amount of content I post on the blog. But anyways, here is the new schedule:

  • Sunday — Long Story
  • Monday — Life
  • Tuesday — Prompt
  • Wednesday — D&D
  • Thursday — Wildcard
  • Friday — Review

With this setup, I’m making two big changes to the blog. I’m removing Improv 101 and Learning! from the weekly schedule. Why? Well, I’ve covered pretty much every improv game I’m familiar with, so while I do have more to say on the topic, it won’t be enough to warrant a weekly spot. I’ve also removed the Learning! posts because, as I said, I simply don’t know what to say in that category. In their place, I’m adding a new category: “D&D”. In them, I’ll talk about my experience in Dungeons & Dragons, including both tips and funny stories. As the months go on, the game is taking more and more of a focal point of my life, so I feel justified in this change. I’ve already sort of posted the first few in the guise of Learning! posts, but by the time this publishes the titles (and the sidebar) should be reworked.

I’ve also added a “Wildcard” category where I’ll talk about anything, even retired categories. (Maybe even a new chapter excerpt from the Spear Gate book, though I wouldn’t count on that happening often.) For example, if I have a new improv game to talk about, it’ll be on a Thursday. Truth be told, I still have about three more of those posts that haven’t gone up yet, so they will be the first few “Wildcard” posts. But rest assured it will be different afterwards.

To organize things more temporally, I’ve shifted everything over a bit. With this new schedule, every other post on this blog has the chance of being fiction, (and Tuesday is a better Prompt day for me, anyway). And last and least significant of these changes is the fact that I will now only be keeping track of posts in the multiples of 25. This means a post will only have a number tagged at the end about once a month. I don’t need the same amount of validation I needed a year and a half ago. At this point, I just enjoy keeping track.

So, that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll give the second half of the monthly update and talk about everything else that’s going on in my life!

 

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 — 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.

Improv 101 — Beastie Rap

Beastie Rap is one of my troupe’s favorite games, and the biggest requirement is knowing your cast. Also, having somebody that can beatbox works wonders. This game is a crowd-pleaser, and while I think it’s a little silly, I can’t deny the fact that it brings a lot to a performance.

This is an elimination-style group game that requires lots of energy. Typically eight people works best for this, but any even number works. (An odd number still works if one of the improvisers can beatbox instead of play in the game.) The way that it works is you’ll get a simple name like ‘Matt’. You have a beat, and the first person on one team will say something like “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!” (anything that fits a similar amount of syllables works, though), and on the last word of the lyric, everybody else on their team will jump in with whatever word they want it to be, much like the style of Beastie Boys from whom this game was inspired. The opposing team will answer with their own lyric that rhymes with ‘Matt’, and this is where it gets tricky. The person coming up with the word has to let the rest of their team know what that word is using the rest of the lyric. For example, “You pet it and it purrs, it’s called a ___!” and the rest of the team will jump in with ‘Cat’.

It  sounds tough but it’s actually pretty easy, and this is because of two things. The first is that whatever the word is, you know it will have to rhyme with ‘Matt’. The second thing is the fact that you don’t have to make a cohesive plot to this song. Each lyric is individual. The cat lyric doesn’t have to retain any continuity with the Matt lyric, (though bonus points to you if you can manage it), so you can use that time to tell your team what you want to say. This goes on until one person from either team messes up, and another person steps in. This sort of elimination is fun because even if you’re “out”, you can still participate by shouting the words at the end.

How do you mess up? Simple. If the person fails to convey the word to the rest of their team, leading them to shout out different words, or if they can’t think of a rhyme, they’re out. Really, though, it’s up to the ref (and the audience) whether some mess-ups are worth being forgiven, though often none of them are.

When you’re playing this game, you don’t have to stick to any strict words. You can take objects as suggestions, not just names. You can also take polysyllabic names, though by virtue of how rhymes work, this doesn’t necessarily make rhyming any more difficult. You can also open the song with any dialogue. You can say “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!”, or “This guy at work, they call him Matt!”, or “I hate this jerk and his name is Matt!”. The only factor is fitting it into the rhythm of the beat. Though, in a performance where you’re taking people’s real names as suggestions, I would refrain from insulting them for fear of them taking it personally, so be cautious.

And that’s the whole game. Final parting words, though. My troupe rarely practices this game, because you don’t want improvisers to be too familiar with the names that are used. This is an elimination game, and if they’ve practiced so much that they know all the words that rhymes with every common name off the top of their head, they won’t get eliminated, which is half the fun of the game. So when I teach this game, I do enough to explain the game and get them into a rhythm that works, and after that we only play it every few months to make sure we all still know how it goes.

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.