I love teaching improv just as much as I love doing it.
By Fernando A. Funes
The Top of Scenes
Starting a scene can be a scary thing when you’re a new improviser.
You feel pressure to come in with a fully developed idea in a gift wrapped box with a big red bow on top.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always make for the best improv.
Although the top of the scene can be intimidating, there are things we can do to make that less scary, and, dare I say, fun!
First off, take off that pressure.
Our work is important, and we should always treat it as such, but don’t put the entire weight of the scene, show, and audience experience on your back and shoulders.
Make it important, but relax.
Okay, so let’s do this!
What do you do first?
Ask for a suggestion.
*Also, feel free to filter suggestions so you’re not forced to take dildo or condom as a suggestion, or whatever other phrase from the audience that is for the enjoyment of the person saying it. This is probably another improviser doing a bit of some kind or a long time fan participating in an established bit when it comes time to take suggestions. Filter suggestions and don’t feel bad about it.
Let’s say someone says “Banana.”
Ask yourself these questions:
How do I feel about bananas?
What’s my opinion on bananas?
Does the word banana elicit or provoke any emotion?
Do I love bananas? Hate them?
Is there a specific person, place, or thing that I associate with bananas?
Whichever of these questions and answers is at the top of your internal search engine, use that as your inspiration for the scene.
Here are some examples:
How do I feel about bananas? I love them!
Therefore, I might come out and play a character whose in love with bananas, and not just bananas, but all things banana related like smoothies, gyms, working out, potassium, being healthy, etc.
What’s my opinion on bananas? I think they’re awesome!
Therefore, I may come out and play a character that is super positive, high energy, and just stoked about life. To try to bridge back to the suggestion in a way to connect it for the audience, I might do some space object work at a blender and make a smoothie, and say something like, “Protein banana milk shake, baby! I’m getting ready for the bench press, dude!”
Is there a specific place I associate with banana? Yes! My home and my mom!
Therefore, I might come out and play my mom being like “Well Fernando, make sure to eat your banana at work today, so you get all your vitamins.”
Is there another thing you associate bananas?
Yes! When I was in high school, a German exchange student named Benno stayed with my family for a few weeks.
He grew up partially during the last days of communist East Germany, The DDR.
One day, his mother sent him to the market to get bananas.
When he was there, he was astounded by the amount of fresh bananas available.
He then told his mother about it upon arriving home. She responded by saying, “Why didn’t you get more? Who knows when they’ll have them again!”
Turns out banana shortages where a common thing in the DDR, so when you could get them, you had to because you didn’t know when the government would have them again.
Does that mean I have to go out and do a scene about banana shortages in late 1980’s Communist East Germany? No. It just means that I have that to inspire me.
So I could literally come out and start a scene and tell my scene partner, “Where out of bananas,” and just take it from there.
How long does this take?
This process varies per person, and it just depends on what’s easier for you.
Characters are easy for me to play, or starting with spacework too. It really is a matter of personal preference.
Know your preference and proceed from there.
Where did you learn this?
Just years of doing improv, long form improv especially.
In long form, there are whole exercises at the top of scenes dedicated to creating ideas for scenes.
These are called “openings,” and they range from simple storytelling to elaborate rituals involving the entire ensemble.
During the opening, your job is to generate premises — ideas for scenes — for the rest of you show.
For the opening, you may be asking and answering the questions I listed earlier as an ensemble; that way, you’re all on the same page.
A good opening is an extremely rewarding experience because and your audience get to see where you got your inspiration for scenes from.
Can I use long form techniques for short form?
Yes! The key to improv is to be malleable, changeable, and adaptable.
The top of scenes are to establish a firm ground on which to build the rest of the scene.
And the scene is a collaboration between you and your scene partners.
Honor their choices and contributions, and you will have a scene neither of you could’ve created on your own.
One final question: why is the suggestion important?
The suggestion is there to do two things:
1). Inspire the scene
2). Prove to the audience what there there about to see is not scripted
Beyond these two things, the performers have no other responsibility to the suggestion.
That’s a controversial opinion in some circles, but the suggestion is there to serve us, and we are not there to serve it.
The suggestion is just the door that opens the room of the scene; you then have to walk through the door and see what world you will live in; never forget that.
Hope these notes help!
Spectacles Improv Engine host drop-in Improv Classes every Friday from 12pm to 2pm and every Sunday from 11am to 1pm at STAGES Theater in Fullerton. Classes are $10, and every class is different from the other. Check it out!