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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Long Form Improv Scene Work Notes

Updated: May 22

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will look to capture what it is like to perform a scene and then get notes in long form improv class. I'll share actual snippets of scenes and then provide notes on what I noticed could be improved.


The other day I used my recent post on prompts as a light lesson plan for the 4 PM Free Improv Session.  I thought I would end up noting initiating skills but instead found myself thinking about what our improv scenes are about. 


You could say I’m thinking about game, but I don’t mean it that specifically. 


What if we said I’m talking about a scene’s dynamic. How would a layperson who had watched the scene in a live show describe it to someone who hadn’t seen it? That’s what I mean.


Here’s what kept happening. I’d give a prompt, two students would successfully initiate a scene off of it.  I think every scene honored the prompts and every scene either found or explored something funny.


But they often focused the scenes just to the side of what I think were the most promising parts. The scene’s dynamic would take that on instead of the much funnier alternative.  Let me give you a sample scene we can look at.


This is actually from the class.  I gave this classic improv prompt: You are two airplane pilots flying a jumbo passenger jet, seated in the cockpit.


PLAYER 1:

We have three fuel gauges and they are all different.


PLAYER 2:

Yes they are, Captain.


PLAYER 1:

(Startled.) Wait, wait, I’m the Captain?


PLAYER 2:

You’re The Captain,


PLAYER 1 

Oh!


PLAYER 2

…and I’m the copilot, remember?


PLAYER 1

Oh! Oh! Oh! I thought we switched before we got on the plan. Okay, alright I’ll be Captain, where are we going? I thought I saw in the itinerary that we were heading to somewhere in Omaha.


PLAYER 2

Cape Canaveral. We’re headed to Cape Canaveral.


…And the scene continued.



Player 1 & Player 2 in their long form improv scene
Player 1 & Player 2 in their long form improv scene


So obviously we had some pretty heavy negation here. It starts with Player One disputing the title of Captain, forcing Player 2 to double down on a negation they didn’t start and insist Player 1 was the Captain while Player 2 was the Copilot.


Not surprisingly once there is one negation we find more, because they always come in bunches in long form improv, don’t they?  


What was the dynamic of this scene?  I’d say it was Dumb Captain careens about the cockpit to the dismay of their competent copilot. Fair?


Here’s what I was told when I took improv classes at UCB.  Don’t be a dumb character, play every scene at the top of your intelligence.  Have every character be as smart as you are.


There are lots of reasons for this advice, more than I’ll get into now. But one great reason for this advice is that Dumb Captain, feels a lot like Dumb Chef, feels a lot like Dumb Rental Car Attendant, and so on. If we play dumb, we end up playing a common dynamic for improv scenes that feels tired and without the possibility of providing surprise.


I think it is worth noting that this dynamic is born from the negation. Once Player One subverts Player 2’s decision to label Player 1 as the Captain, we are firmly in a Dumb Dynamic. We have to be, a smart person would know if they were Captain.


And yes, we learn as improvisers to say Yes And to each other, but that is not why I am focused on the placement of this negation. That negation slows the scene down and asks us to explore Dumb Captain.  What if it had come just one line sooner?


The first line, I’ll remind you, was “We have three fuel gauges and they are all different.” This line feels full of promise for a long form improv scene. Unlike Dumb Captain, I’ve never wondered about whether plans have multiple fuel gauges and whether they might or might not be identical.


It feels much more fun than Dumb Captain and in fact the class laughed when this initiation was used.  A negation here, maybe something like, “I addressed this before Captain, each gauge is measuring a different aspect of our fuel. Temperature, Volume and Viscosity.”  


This negation would have the same effect as the one that actually happened, it would slow down the scene and ask us to focus on whether three fuel gauges were appropriate or not. I’d much rather be in that dynamic.


This all happens because a negation mirrors many of the same qualities a voice of reason reaction features. It can count therefore as a reaction. When Player 1 initiated about the three gauges (and we know this is true from the class discussion) they were making an offer. It was never reacted to.


We could match or we could voice of reason, but we can’t ignore.  


Okay, let's look at another one. This time the Prompt included a half funny idea: A lifeguard is telling a swimmer to stay between the swimming flags, but they are using a clown’s horn instead of a regular lifeguard whistle.


PLAYER 1:  

 Um, uhm, Lady? Sorry. (HONK HONK) Can you hear me?


PLAYER 2:

Yes, I can hear you. Sounds like we’re at the circus.


PLAYER 1:

No, we’re not, lots of people say that. I left my whistle at home. I Just need to guide you back into the safe zone, right now you are outside of the flags. (HONK HONK) Can you hear me?


PLAYER 2:

You mean I can’t stay at the circus?


Okay the scene went on from there, but I think we have enough for our initial analysis.


Our prompt has a very clear base reality in it and also a half funny idea. I like how Player 1 initiates, it feels like a theatrical, interesting start to a scene, the sort of thing that does well in long form improv. It could probably be a little clearer about who is who, but Player 2 picks up on everything, including the funny bit with the horn.


Player 2 does react to the horn. And I’ll say it is enough of a reaction but that it could have been bigger and more spot on. It is a little off, complaining about it sounding like a circus instead of investigating why a horn is being used. I’m less interested in a fake character’s fake outrage than I am in the actual funny idea that a scene partner has suggested (granted one that was embedded in a prompt).


I’m saying it is enough of a reaction because Player 1 has no problem carrying on. They understood that Player 2 had clocked the funny bit and reacted to it, so they double down, say some more filler base reality stuff and then honk their horn. Again Player 1 repeats their question, “Can you hear me?”


Here we take a much sharper turn, Player 2 asks, “I can’t stay at the circus?” Whoah, they are delusional. Now Player 1 needs to react to that, they can’t ignore it and we’re stuck playing Delusional Swimmer.


Guess what, delusional swimmer feels a lot like delusional postal worker, feels a lot like delusional manicurist, feels a lot like delusional accountant. And the scene chose that when we had Clown Guard right there for us.

  

I wonder if the reaction to the first line had been more firmly placed on the presence of the horn (ie the rationale Player 2 had for bringing it) and not on the character’s imagined slight, if the scene’s dynamic might have avoided the Delusional Swimmer fate.


Again the sharp turn that locks us into a dynamic comes from a type of negation. If the negation (or a matching reaction) had been focused on the horn, our scene would likely explore the horn's presence and eventually be about why the horn was there. Instead it was focused on whether the base reality was real and that lands us firmly in a delusional dynamic.


Last one.


Prompt was a Premise Prompt: Two surgeons in the middle of a surgery and one of you wants to leave some things in the body because everyone loves Easter Eggs.


PLAYER 1:  

How’s the blood pressure?


PLAYER 2:

We seem to be doing well, I’m going to tie this off here.


PLAYER 1:

No no no no, not yet. I’m just thinking, what would be a nice surprise that someone would like to have?


PLAYER 2:

There are so many things in terms of leaving surprises.


PLAYER 1:

Easter eggs! Just bare with me. (Inserts an Easter Egg into the patient.) This one should fit.  You can tie off now.


PLAYER 2

Okay, I had no idea what you were doing there because this does have to be tied off and I didn’t understand.


PLAYER 1: 

It is okay that I put an egg in there, right?


PLAYER 2:

Yes that is going to be a problem. It will cause infection!


Okay, so this one played out interestingly. The offer is made in line three by Player 1 and Player 2 certainly hears it. In fact they have a matching reaction to it.


But the matching reaction was too light. Player 1 doesn’t notice it and the scene stalls.  When player 1 actually puts an egg in a patient, the biggest move of the scene, you would think there would be a reaction. But no.


The dynamic has been set. Sew whatever you like into the patient, it will be met with nonchalance.


Now that’s actually not true in this case. Player 2 chooses to flip points of view and start having Voice Of Reason reactions. As soon as they do the scene comes alive and starts having better reactions from the other students watching.


And that’s not because the scene needed a Voice of Reason.  It is because the offer needed a reaction for it to truly be accepted.


So in long form improv we control what our scenes are about with our reactions. When we have a strong Matching or Voice of Reason reaction, we are saying here it is, here is the funny thing the scene can be about. This is what our scene is about.


Once you get good at having reactions to offers and sending that message you have to also work on being selective about where you have them and what they are aimed at. You are applying your sense of humor when you react in an improv scene. You are choosing that scene’s dynamic.

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