I love it all: teaching, performing, writing, and more. Picture by Jasper Sams.
These are my notes from the Friday March 29th Drop-In on Building a Scene One Line at a Time. Enjoy!
By Fernando A. Funes
One of My Big Improv Turn Offs
I think one of my biggest turn offs in improv is when a player comes in with an agenda.
An agenda is an idea for the direction they want the scene to go in
The consequence of that is that a person comes into a scene ready to force their idea onto others.
Because they’re locked and loaded with their idea of what the scene should be, they are closed off to their partners and minimize the contributions their scene partners can make.
I don’t know what you would call this type of person because we’re all guilty of it.
If you’re a veteran, maybe this could be called directing the scene because you think you know better and the person should just follow your lead.
If you’re a newer person, maybe this could be called channeling a scene because you’re directing the course of the scene to a destination only you can see.
Regardless of what we call it, it’s a problem. So my Friday March 29th Drop-In Class was geared towards solving that problem!
Improv Is A Game of Catch
If you ever got a pair of baseball gloves and just threw the ball around for a bit with a friend, you know how it is to play a game of catch.
The ball is thrown. You track it’s speed and trajectory with your eyes.
You set your mitt up to be where you think the ball will land. You receive the ball in your mit.
And then, depending on the energy behind the pitch — a soft casual throw or a hard ball aimed straight to your chest — you respond in kind with your own throw.
Once you’ve had a few back-and-forths with your partner, you can intuit what kind of relationship you have in that moment with that person.
The same goes for a good two person scene.
You throw one thing around back and forth, focusing on that thing alone, and depending on the energy of that interaction, you can probably intuit how these two people feel about each other in that moment.
If you do that consistently, chances are you’ll have a good scene.
Well that sounds good and all, but how do I actually do that?
Just say one thing at a time in a scene.
Let your partner receive the piece of information, be affected by it, and respond.
Repeat that process and see what kind of relationship you develop. Be patient with it and have fun. Just like playing catch!
Whey you say multiple things at once, or speak in paragraphs, your scene partner may not know what to respond to and may get lost. Or at the very least, they may get overwhelmed with the buffet of options to choose from.
Back to the playing catch analogy: in catch, if you got multiple baseballs thrown at you at once, you wouldn’t know which one to focus on, and you would probably duck and cover to avoid getting hit by one. In general, it’s easier to catch one ball than dodge 12.
Hmmm. I feel like I’ve heard this before?
At multiple Specs drop-in classes in the past they have preached the principle of “Bring a brick,” an old Del Close quote about how to build a scene.
Basically, to create an amazing, collaborative scene where both partners are equal contributors, let each person speak one at a time, and build the scene one line at a time.
If you stick to this process, at the end you will have a cathedral that neither of you could have built on their own.
Cool! So how do you actually do this?
For the drop-in we did one line scenes where each person could only say one line at a time.
You would say a line, your scene partner would receive it, be affected by it, and respond according to whatever that line stimulated. And the process would be repeated until I called scene.
How did it work out?
Not as planned! Speaking one line at a time is not a natural thing to do.
Without me on the side capping players’ sentences, players had hard time self-regulating. They spoke more than one line at a time, and scene partners were often not sure which line to focus on or explore.
Although I side coached to enforce the principle of the exercise, too much side coaching can get disruptive and take a person out of a scene. And that happened actually.
Honestly, I hadn’t prepared for the impact of this limitation.
So what did you do?
I decided then and there that the best solution was just for me to do the one line scenes with students and enforce the one line rule by adhering to it myself.
I had to demonstrate it basically.
Why did you do that?
The concept was not coming off across because there hadn’t been a good example to follow at the beginning of the exercise.
The principle and lesson of the exercise — building collaborative scenes one line at a time — was important to me as a teacher, so I did what I had to do to communicate this concept to my students.
What was the end result?
All the scenes were just the students and I going back and forth one line at a time, not forcing a direction on the scene, and just seeing where each line took us in terms of character development, informing us about our relationship, or details about the world we lived in.
It was a lot of fun! I promise you every scene was something I nor my scene partner could have ever dreamed up in our heads.
I think it was the combination of playing with an authority figure and of me adhering to the principle of only one line at a time, thereby being an example for the students to follow.
By being an example, the students watching from the audience now knew what I expected from them and how to execute the exercise. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a teacher.
Was it necessary to do that?
In the moment, it felt like I had to do that. And I’m glad I did!
Back to another baseball analogy.
If a hitter is working on their baseball bat swing and something is wrong with it, you don’t let them continue practicing their wrong swing and develop bad form.
You stop them, and you show them where they have to work on their swing. If you correct their swing, you increase their likelihood of hitting the ball and getting on base.
*I got this analogy from when UCB Improvisers Mark David Christenson and Jonny Svarzbein were guests on the Pack Podcast with Miles Stroth. You can listen to it here => https://www.packtheater.com/tpt-podcast/
For improv, like in baseball, we want to develop good form — listening, being affected, being in response — because good form will increase the likelihood of good scenes and good shows. And who doesn’t’ want that? But it all begins with good form.
Is the only way to do good scenes?
No! It’s not!
Again, like everything I’ve taught before, there is no one way to do good improv.
Improv is subjective.
Good improv scenes are a matter of taste and preference. Also, your local improv scene and community will dictate what a good improv scene is. Basically, when in Rome do as the Romans.
On top of that, most improv scenes are not in this fashion. They are much faster with more lines spliced in between. The goal of this exercise was to get people to learn how to listen and respond in the moment from the person across from them, to learn to not force their ideas on the scene.
This is just one method I’ve learned the past few years at tons of Specs drop-in classes I’ve taken over the years with Josh Nicols, Joey Shope, Sam Forbes, and Matt Thomas.
Side question: what’s up with all the baseball metaphors?
Baseball makes sense to me and I recently saw a documentary on the life of Ted Williams on Netflix, the greatest hitter to ever live. You should check it out!
Thank you for reading and I hope to see you at a Specs Drop-In Class in the future!
Fernando A. Funes
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!