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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.

Improv 101 — New Choice

New Choice is, without a doubt, one of my personal worst games. Funny enough, out of all the improv games, this one requires extremely quick thinking, and I am terrible at that. (The first thing I teach people about improv is that it’s not being creative, it’s about following the rules!) That being said, this game is really simple and the more experience the improvisers playing it, the more fun it can be.

This game is a scene game, and as with many scene games is usually played with about four people. For maximum entertainment value, it also requires a good referee that knows what they’re doing. As with all scene games, the improvisers should establish CROW, but everybody has the same rule here: When the ref (or designated person outside the scene) says “New choice!” the person that last spoke must now change whatever it is that they had last said. If the ref doesn’t like this new correction, they can call “New choice” again, and call it over and over again (much to the improviser’s chagrin) until they say something that satisfies them.  Here is an example:

*Improviser walks on stage, greeting another*

“Hey, Aunt Sally, how are you doing?” (New choice!)

“Hey, Uncle Bob, what’s new?” (New choice!)

“Oh my gosh a new puppy!”

Something to keep in mind here is that since the ref can keep calling “New choice” over and over, it’s best to completely change the topic on the third response. If your lines are said, in the following order: “Yes!” … “No!” … “Maybe!” … “I must go, Gotham needs me!” by the end, you’ve introduced an entirely new situation that, since it was so unexpected, will be hilarious for the audience. The out-of-the-blue randomness that this game requires is why I’m so bad at this game.

Many scene games should be played a certain way in order to be successful. For example, Forward Reverse and Replay Countdown should be played with a lot of large actions/pantomimes with limited amounts of dialogue. With New Choice, dialogue is encouraged, because that gives all the more opportunity for the ref to call out bad lines or weed out good ones. As an aside, the ref can also say “New action!” or “New sound effect!” whenever the phrase is appropriate.

The number one thing that all improvisers should keep in mind with this game is to speak one at a time. Never interrupt another improviser on stage, and never try to talk over each other. (This is especially a problem with new improvisers.) Obviously, this makes the ref’s job a lot harder, because you can’t call “New choice” when two people have just spoken. Who would start over? Would both of them say something new? That would be a mess! Instead, it’s best to make sure only one person is talking at a time, and allow at least a half beat in between each line of dialogue. Don’t immediately respond to the actor’s line in case the ref wanted to freeze the scene and call “New choice” there.

With a good, experienced ref that knows when to call “New choice”, this game is incredibly easy to do well. The ref can save you from bad lines, i.e. questions that don’t progress the scene, denial, missing pieces of CROW, etc. Since the ref can just keep making you say new things until you say the thing they want, it’s an incredibly good game for beginners because it forces them to, quite literally, correct their mistakes. So as long as you have one experienced improviser in a group of people that want to have fun, New Choice can be a blast.

P.S. And before you say it, saying “New choice!” at the end of a really long monologue or after somebody says something you don’t want to hear is an overused joke in my improv troupe.