THE WHAT – PLOT – THE ARC
Once we have THE WHO and THE WHERE we want to get into what the scene is really about, THE WHAT. This is the action of the scene. What happens to the characters? In a short scene (3-5 minutes) we call this the ARC. In a full book, play or movie, we call this the PLOT. In the longer work, the PLOT starts with the exposition – where we learn THE WHO and THE WHERE. As we get into the story, we have the RISING ACTION, building to the CLIMAX, followed by the FALLING ACTION and finally the RESOLUTION.
PLOT DIAGRAM 1
In Classic literature we have the TRIANGLE shaped plot as seen above. The CLIMAX is in the middle of the play. In Shakespeare, each of the FIVE acts of each play represents the FIVE parts of the action. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare kills off Caesar in Act III. For two more acts other characters play politics and go to war. In most two-act Broadway musicals the intermission occurs after the climax. The entire second act sees characters dealing with the fallout.
PLOT DIAGRAM 2
In modern film, TV and theater, we usually see a fairly quick end after the climax. Think of a movie with a big explosion that quickly resolves with the hero making a quick clean-up of loose ends. In action movies the Climax is obvious by the largest explosion of the movie or biggest car chase.
PLOT DIAGRAM 3
THE ARC of a 3-5 minute improv scene has a beginning, middle and end like a traditional plot. In the diagram above, you see the ARC rise quickly, hover mostly at the raised level and fall quickly. When performing a three-minute scene, get the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible. In the first few seconds we establish THE WHO and THE WHERE – Relationship and setting or our scene. Now we focus on THE WHAT. We get a full 2 minutes or so to develop the scene. And then we go out on a bang – while the fire is still hot. This small circular arc is all part of the tip of the Plot triangle from previous diagrams.
In improv, it is important to quickly develop a starting point for a scene (WHO WHERE). Build the scene with a give and take exchange of details and actions. (LISTEN & RESPOND to your scene partner) and then find a resolution.
Not every scene will follow this formula but it is a great launching point for a new player. Keep it simple. Create a situation, develop a conflict, solve the problem.
Every great story has conflict. Every day we have conflict in our own lives. Most scripted works deal with conflict as a way to cope or learn how to deal with conflict better. Audiences are gripped as they see characters deal with conflict they understand and relate, conflict they wish they could engage OR conflict they fear and hope they never have to engage.
TYPES OF CONFLICT
Character versus Character
Conflict between two people. In Improvisation, usually the characters in the scene. Possibly the characters are working together against an implied person.
Character versus Self
Conflict of inner demons. Alcoholism, drug addiction, disease, depression, guilt, pride, etc.
Character versus Nature
Conflict dealing with the elements – hurricane, earthquake, volcano, disease/epidemic, THINK DISASTER FILMS – PERFECT STORM, TWISTER, 2012, etc
Character versus Society
A character feels oppressed by the system. Stories of Slavery, Apartheid, Great Depression, and even Frankenstein (The monster is feared and therefore hated by all)
Character versus the Supernatural
Character is up against forces of demonic nature, diety (God), mythology, fantasy, science fiction, etc.
CONFLICT v BLOCKING
Earlier we discussed that BLOCKING is bad for a scene. BLOCKING refers to actors disagreeing with the details of the scene. CONFLICT is a disagreement between the characters. While we like to avoid physical violence or death in Improv, conflict is essential to making a scene interesting. Establish a conflict and then, in 2-3 minutes, work to resolve the conflict.
AVOID FIGHTING SCENES
Conflicts often end with physical or verbal assault, but I challenge you, especially as young players, to avoid these drastic resolutions. Fighting is a bad resolution for a fight. Fighting never brings about positive resolution. In most cases no one wins after a physical or verbal altercation. Often novice player jump to fighting almost right away.
ALWAYS AVOID VIOLENCE
Actual fight scenes in film, TV and theater are the most staged and rehearsed of all things artistic. More than any dance routine. The effort put into insuring an artist’s safety is immense. But even actors with extensively trained and experienced stage combat refrain from physical violence in Improv. It is far too easy to get hurt.
Similarly, no actor should ever push another off their own center. In stage combat training we learn that the intended victim controls their own destiny as the pretend attacker merely pretends to push, pull hair, hit, kick, etc. No artist is actually put in real danger on a responsibly managed set / stage. NOTE: If you are part of a show where people are getting hurt, the director, stage management or someone else is in sever negligence of duty.
Canadian Cross v Cameo
Often during a scene there is a need for a third character to jump into the action. While two players are performing a scene, a character may be mentioned and a third player off stage may be called upon to play that character to help further the scene along.
Sometimes, additional players can add to painting the picture of a scene by simply doing a Canadian Cross. While Canadians are rarely truly cross with anyone, as they are part British (sometimes the French connection emerges), the Improv technique can be quite useful to add to establishing a stronger where.
As always, LISTEN!!! When on or off stage, every player should be focused on what is going on on-stage. Too often I see (and have offended myself) players ignoring what is going on in a scene and either miss great opportunities or waste by hogging a moment. But when players work together, amazing things happen. Improv looks just like scripted material. A great team looks like they rehearsed on a scene for weeks. Only, because of the spontaneity, it is far more interesting.
Cameos occur when a character is introduced later in a scene. Two players may have called on a third player by mentioning a character.
Be careful! A Cameo should never become a major player in the scene. A cameo should enhance the story being told by the lead characters and a player entering the scene should never steal focus.
A Canadian Cross should be merely for background. The player(s) should pass quickly in and out without stealing focus.
At a stadium, a vendor could walk by with popcorn
At tennis match, the ball boy/girl can sweep through
At beach, swimmer could run and splash through the water
Each CC helps the audience imagine a stronger WHERE
Sometimes a Canadian Cross can help add something to a scene.
In a park, it starts to rain… In comes an Umbrella Salesperson… A quick transactions saves our players form getting wet… Third Player quickly exits…
In this video, we accidentally displayed a Canadian Cross. Laurice and Meg are doing a scene about a Unicorn. Audience volunteer is obsessed with Canada. I made three quick passes establishing Canadian references. I actually stole too much focus to be a true Canadian Cross, but because I was playing “Canadian” (horribly lol), Laurice calls it out “Canadian Cross” (Add rim shot for Improv folks in the room)
Sound was horrible so I just left in the highlights of my “Canadian” crosses
In the performance of Improvisation, anything we can do to encourage the imagination of the audience and each other is a great help in making connections. Establishing the style of a piece is another way to get the audience engaged.
We all have favorite styles (genres) of film, theater and TV – horror, romance, suspense, mystery, soap opera, action and adventure, science fiction, and period work (Elizabethan, Victorian, Greco/Roman, etc). These and others have classic characters you can call upon. Also many lend themselves to the locations you establish.
Try doing scenes from another time – past or present. Put your characters into scenes from the revolutionary war, civil war, Roman Empire, Ancient Egypt. The audience will be familiar with numerous styles and will easily go along for the ride.
Doing scenes that relate to the top news and scandals is a great way to grab the audiences attention and explore many topical issues. For decades comedy has been a major factor in how we deal with our times. From War to Scandals to Social injustice, comedians give us a forum to discuss the hard topics and process difficult subjects as well as move on with our lives.
We can always invoke the “TOO SOON” clause, but I say attack the hard topics. If we don’t, who will?
Now that all being said, attack the hard topics tastefully. In a recent show I was shot down, because I wanted to take Ferguson as a topic for a scene. We decided not to do the scene. But I felt many in the room needed it. However a few in the room clearly were not ready to explore the issue beyond watching CNN.
After 911, comedians on Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central roasts and 1000s of live shows had the unbearable task of performing comedy. The show must go on, right? In almost every case, it was the comedians that paved the way for emotional healing. Similarly a Jim Bruer routine after the Boston Bombings allowed me to process that horror. Decades ago, Richard Pryor attacked the “N” word. Comedy has done more for equality than any other political outlet.
On a much lighter side, you can always get a rise from the audience having fun with the latest Kardashian mishaps.
For all of the following, develop good ARCs with a strong WHO, WHERE and WHAT… (Note we have suggested specific ASK FORS to develop various skills. Once you master the games, mix and match and find new exciting ways to inspire scenes). Remember the HOW TO START A SCENE game.
Exercise 1) FREEZE FRAME / HUMAN SLIDE SHOW
MC gets a few audience volunteers to join some players on stage and a suggestion for a famous historical event. The players on stage create a series of human pictures, freezing in place. The MC, perhaps with an assistant, narrates the pictures telling the historical story with a few twists and turns.
Exercise 2) FILM & THEATER STYLES
MC gets some ideas of styles – or even specific titles – of films, TV shows and plays. Two or more actors start a scene. Once THE WHO and THE WHERE are established, the MC can yell, “FREEZE!” The MC announces one of the styles or titles. The players have to now take attributes of the new title or style and overlay them onto the scene. The challenge is to keep the scene moving forward while honoring each new style.
COLUMNS (aka HUMAN MAD LIBS™)
Invite two audience volunteers (or other team players) to sit down stage left and right respectively. Two players perform scene. Additional players may join in, as the scene requires. After the WHO and WHERE are strongly grounded, the players may point the COLUMNS to help fill in details of the scene. The players should repeat and then justify whatever the COLUMN says. TIPS – You, the player, are in control. You need to lead you COLUMNS. However if they throw you for a loop, you need to justify. This will become a great source of comedy. VARIATIONS – Instead of COLUMNS, allow the whole audience to chime in. Not recommended for new Improvisers as this can lead to chaos quickly.
SWITCH – MC asks for a fairytale or other children’s classic. Two players perform scene. Additional players may join in, as the scene requires. After the WHO and WHERE are strongly grounded, the MC will call switch. Each time the player last to speak will switch up some detail of previous statement. Sometimes the player can switch the entire statement or perhaps just the activity.
A, B, C game
MC gets a relationship “How do these two people know each other?”. Two actors perform a scene. Player One’s first word must start with an “A” (Apples, Amy, Angry etc). Player Two’s first word must start with a “B” (Believe, Bullies, Behave etc) The scene continues in order of the alphabet until you get to “Z”. TIPS – Brainstorm ahead of time for possible Q and X words. We otherwise would never tell you to think ahead. Remember always be in the moment. VARIATIONS – Try starting at a letter other than “A”. After “Z” go to “A” and finish on the starting letter.
ONE to FIVE
Two Players perform a 1 minute scene. The same scene is repeated “Word for Word, Action for Action” in 30 seconds, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, and sometimes even 1 second (Not easy but I have seen it done).