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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

IMPROV EXERCISES: REACTING

Updated: 2 days ago

Recently I was teaching a Radical Agreement workshop and a student who has been coming to class for a very long time asked some questions about Voice of Reason reacting to funny offers. This is a persistent area of confusion from students in Radical Agreement classes (and probably most improv classes) so I wanted to focus on it with this post, which is intended to be a sister post to the Saying No In Improv post from a few months ago. 


I wanted to address this student's question more through repetition than I did through intellectual discussion for two reasons. One, we had intellectually discussed this matter multiple times before and obviously that wasn’t working (and I don’t think the student in question is particularly unique in this regard; I think many students struggle with the concept).  And two, once you start reacting to funny offers in your improv scenes you'll no longer wonder why it's a good idea to do it, you'll feel it! 


You will sense that the comedic potential of your scene increases dramatically when you react. 

A clever comedian slipping a joke by an officer of the law!
Even trained police officers can sometimes fail to detect and then apprehend jokes using the cuffs of reaction!

The problem of calibrating one's reaction to comedic offers is one that many improv exercises try to address. This post is about a new exercise I hop will join their ranks.In order to offer students the opportunity to react in rep, I created a little exercise called The Slip which is designed to reward players for reacting to comedic offers and also designed to help players realize how obvious or hard to detect their offers are. 


In The Slip, both players are trying to make comedic offers that their scene partner does not react to. They are trying to slip those comedic offers by their scene partner! Each time they do, they score a point. 


The way you “catch” a comedic offer in The Slip is by reacting to it, either with a Voice of Reason reaction or a Matching reaction. You can also simply frame the offer in such a way to indicate you are Matching or Voice of Reasoning, but I think that’s harder (we’ll see some examples below).


So when you make a comedic offer in The Slip, you are on offense. And when you react to a comedic offer, or fail to react, you are on defense.


Students get confused by reactions. They often feel that by having a blase non-reaction they are accepting their scene partner’s offer; by not confronting the offer they are accepting it in accordance with the precepts of Yes And. Fair enough. 


But when a comedic offer comes and we have a ho-hum reaction to it we're essentially rejecting that offer, because with a ho-hum reaction that offer will not become the focus of the scene. Instead it will become a throwaway and the players in the scene will look for something else to focus on. 


So reacting to a comedic offer, whether you're saying yes to it very emphatically as a Matching character might. or saying no to it as a Voice of Reason character might, either way you are helping the comedic potential of the scene and you're saying yes to the comedic offer your scene partner has shared.  It's so critical, it's so important to the success of your scene, reacting to comedic offers. 


Anyway, let's not waste time, but jump right into our first sample scene of The Slip being performed. Below is a video of this match of he Slip, followed by a transcript with thoughts on the play interspersed.


MATCH ONE - THE SLIP


Suggestion: Textiles


NANCY

You know babe I'm so glad that we're living together but uh I don't know, why are there so many rugs all over your apartment?

<<Nancy wastes no time, inserting a comedic offer into the initiation. Her romantic partner has too many rugs in his apartment!>>


ELLIOTT

Nancy, you know that I love rugs! You know that I want rugs on the wall, rugs on the floor and I'm thinking about putting rugs on the ceiling.

<<Elliot notices the offer and catches it by taking on the oddity as the result of his psychology and then heightening quickly by establishing there are rugs on the walls and also a plan to put rugs on the ceiling. We don't know why yet, but it is still good defense, we're tied at 0-0.>>


NANCY

I know but like I it's a good way to you know redecorate I mean you got a lot of things going on but uh it's just it's just it's like suffocating. I feel like I'm suffocating with all these rugs.

<<Nancy reacts negatively to the rugs playing defense successfully in case the heightening moves needed to be reacted to (which they do). Good defense. 0-0.>>


ELLIOTT

Oh no, it's just the opposite, look we can we can even use our Dyson vacuum upside down. I even got the special one, we can vacuum anywhere. Look at how much fun I'm having vacuuming the rugs.

<<Elliott is on an offensive roll, offering vacuuming upside down as a comedic move. 0-0, but things are heating up.>>


NANCY

Look yeah, I, I can see that you're you're having fun vacuuming all your rugs. I mean and you're, you're definitely like getting a good workout you know vacuuming the ceiling uh but like man, you, you, I think you, I think you have a problem I think I think you've got a problem problem with buying too many rugs.

<<Uh oh! Trouble, Nancy almost doesn't react. "I mean, and, you're, you're definitely like getting a good workout you know vacuuming the ceiling," feels like a ho-hum reaction in which Nancy is saying she doesn't agree with Elliott, but only disagrees a small, unremarkable amount; she can see some positives in what he is up to. But in an impressive act of athleticism, Nancy defends hard at the end of her line, suggesting she thinks all the rugs add up to Elliiot having a problem. Good defense. 0-0.>>


ELLIOTT

Too many rugs? How how can we have too many rugs/ I mean there's still areas of the ceiling and areas of the wall that you can see.

<<Another comedic offer, Elliot attacks Nancy suggesting any structural surface without a rug covering it is a failure. Will this comedic offer slip by?>>


NANCY

Babe, rugs on the ceiling? Really that's not what they're meant for.

<<No! Nancy bats this attack away from the basket and follows it with a surly finger wag, Get that stuff about rugs on the ceiling out of here, cause Nancy is reacting to it!>>


ELLIOTT

I know but it'll prevent the ceiling from wearing out.

<<A last second attack reveals a possible justification for Elliot's actions, he doesn't want his walls and ceilings wearing out.>>


NANCY

I know, I know, but like it's just I'm getting worried about you like, man, you're so tired all you do is vacuum.

<<A fine bit of defense by Nancy. It might have been more on point if she had reacted to the idea that a ceiling without a rug on it is liable to wear out faster than a ceiling with a rug on it. A harsher judge might have allotted Elliot a point here, but not me! I think Nancy's broader reaction is enough to keep the scene on track.>>


ELLIOTT

Well I got to keep our place looking nice. I, I, I don't want our our rugs to look worn down.

<<Scene over, Tied Match, 0-0!>>


I think it is worth noting that I loved watching this scene! The exercise took the players a little bit out of their heads and they were able to improvise faster and more easily than typical. Reacting takes us away from our heads and places us into our scenes.


MATCH TWO - THE SLIP


Suggestion: A Mummy from Egypt


EVAN

Wow, Honey I think it's great that we're at the Natural, Natural History Museum together. I mean this is a beautiful place and this is a great way to mark our fifth year anniversary.

<<A subtle start by Evan, no comedic offers, but lots of distracting interesting details he can hide an offer in later.>>


FAITH

Yeah I think it's fun, I'm glad you thought of it.

<<Faith hits back with a sophisticated Yes move. SHe adds no info but expresses a positive energy towards Evan. It feels like these players are feeling each other out, looking for an opening.>>


EVAN

Oh thank you so much and what I think we need to do is, why don't we take off our clothes, wear loin cloths and pretend to be cave people and then stay stuck and people would think, "Oh look they're frozen from 200 years ago."

<<There it is, a big offer from Evan, he isn't playing around with this extremely comedic offer. Lets see if Faith can defend herself against it!>>


FAITH

Are you crazy?

<<She sure can! Now some might say accusing your scene partner of being crazy is a bad move and there are good reasons for that opinion I won't get into now. That said, for this exercise, I think this line satisfies the basic requirement that Faith react to Evan, either in a Voice of Reason or Matching capacity. Strong defense!>>


EVAN

I'm not crazy at all. I'm normally, normally like this. I thought this is a great way to make our relationship you know popping, you know sexy! Ooo! Me being still, we're being still together!

<<Okay Evan has been stopped, but he regroups and re-attacks with the same strategy, this time heightened. In fact his heightening move also serves as a powerful justification Faith will need to wrestle with if she hopes to defend against this assault: That pretending to be wax figures is sexy and a way to keep their relationship "popping".>>


FAITH

Okay, here's what we could do. You do it. You do it and I'll watch people's reactions but I won't be doing it just you.

<<Score! Faith reacts but not to the comedic offer, instead to the fictional plan. Her character says, "Go ahead and do it! I don't care what you do, I won't participate." Tis is the opposite of what we want in our scenes. What Evan does needs to be very important to Faith, she needs to react to it. 1-0, Evan is up!>>


EVAN

That's a very mean thing to do. You're just going to watch people? No I want us to be the together. We got to be together because us doing it together is, it's our love blossoming.

<<Evan reacts negatively to Faith's idea of him pretending to be a cave man by himself, possibly an act of defense against what he saw as a comedic offer. Ten he pivots and attacks, "pretending. to be wax cave people together is our love blossoming.">>


FAITH

Yeah but I'm so bloated today, not a good day for me to be naked in public.

<<Non sequiter that counts as a counter attack, but lets Evans comedic offer slip by by not reacting to the idea that pretending to be wax figures is a form of love blossoming. 2-0! Can Evan defend against the comedic offer that wen deciding whether or not to be naked in public, it depends on how bloated you are.>>


EVAN

Being bloated is a good thing. That means they know, "Oh look they preserve, they even preserved how bloat, how bloaty she is!" That's what people would say!

<<This feels like a good reaction but I think it is a little off. It doesn't MAtch or Voice of Reason, it sort of lightly agrees that bloating is very important, but then it offers a new comedic premise rather than addressing Faith's offer. The game is getting tight, 2-1! Plus Evan has made a new comedic offer.">>


FAITH

Hmmm, this is uh I don't even know how to react to you. I think you've lost your mind finally. I've been waiting for this to happen.

<<Perhaps not the best worded reaction, but on point. It addresses Evan's new comedic offer, that people like to see how bloated people in the past were when visiting museums. Good defense.>>


EVAN

Yes ,yes, I, I know, I know this is your goal. You're trying to get me crazy. You're trying to have all these people at the national museum look at me. They all know my plan, now I won't be able to get it past them. thanks a lot.


<<SCENE OVER< EVAN WINS 2-0!!>>


Another scene that I love. I hope these examples helped you think about wy and how reactions in improv are important to the comedy we are creating. I have two more scenes to add. Either those will come as a separate post or I'll update this one in a few weeks.




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2 Comments


george.king.514
Jul 02

I watched this camera n mic off..I agree wholeheartedly with the first one. But on the second one Faith became Buster Keaton with her deadpan face and eyes. Her words didn't match her expressions but if they did she would've hands down won.

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gordon deng
gordon deng
Jul 01

This was a really difficult concept for me to understand, and it took me almost a year and a half of doing improv jams to finally start understanding that the comedy comes from unexpected or surprising responses. Learning what makes a surprising or unexpected response is really really really hard. Watching a lot of improv and getting a lot of practice is the only way to get better at this . As a beginner, wacky things just seemed normal to me because those were the type of scene I was exposed to. If a scene starts out wacky, then it's even harder to make something surprising...not impossible, just really really hard. A: If you're late to work again, th…

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