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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Starting Point For An Improv Scene 

Updated: Mar 29

Practical Exercises You Can Do By Yourself To Practice The Beginning Of An Improv Scene


Starting point for an improv scene
Starting point for an improv scene

PREFACE: Just on the off chance that you are here not to become an improv comedian, but instead to cheat on a New York Times crossword puzzle (no judgement, I totally get it) a seven letter word for "Starting point for an improv scene," the answer is PREMISE. You're welcome. On to the main blog post!


MAIN BLOG POST: It's easy to think of the beginning of an improv scene as being limited to the first line of dialogue (or initiation). I think it is a little more than that. Here are the ingredients of what I would say goes into the starting point for an improv scene:


  1. A suggestion or prompt (even if that suggestion or prompt is nothing, such as "Work off of how you're feeling" or "No suggestion".)

  2. The initiation

  3. The response to that initiation 

  4. The initiator's response to their partner's first line of dialogue (I might have just written. the first three lines of the scene.)

  5. Agreement on a base reality that includes who the characters are, where they are and what they are doing

  6. An in the moment connection between the performers ie the scene is about the relationship between the two improvisers, not made up scenarios, gags, imaginary props, or imaginary characters or events offstage.

  7. Possibly (only sometimes) agreement on the funny part of the scene (what it is, why it is funny, how to continue playing it.)


Without these seven elements, I'm not sure your improv scene has really started.


Obviously someone else provides you with your suggestion or prompt, so luckily there is no need to worry about practicing coming up with suggestions.


Initiating, on the other hand, can be practiced easily. This post on Improv Prompts provides some opportunities to do just that. But why be stingy when I can easily include a similar opportunity right here?  


PRACTICE INITIATING OFF OF A SIMPLE SUGGESTION

Below are some simple suggestions. Grab a sheet of paper (or your phone) and write 10 initiations, one for each suggestion. I've tried to pick fun words you haven't heard too often as a suggestion.


For this to work you need to initiate quickly without planning or forethought. It's okay to give yourself as much time as you would feel comfortable giving yourself onstage. Maybe you could give yourself a few extra seconds more than you normally take onstage, if you think the pressure of in person performance leads you to rushing?  


But don't take a half minute! 


Okay, enough blather.  Below are the suggestions, see what you can do with them!


ROBUST


BANKRUPT


SILLY-PUTTY


CRESCENDO


EUPHORIA


DAPPLED


DECIMATE


CAT BRUSH


ATWITTER


BUDDING


Great work! Now review your initiations in reference to the initiating guidelines here. 

 

What you're looking for is not one error, but instead trends. If you ask one question in ten initiations, that's probably okay. if you asked seven questions, well that indicates you are using questions as a crutch.  


PRACTICE PUTTING THE SUGGESTION INTO YOUR SCENE PARTNER  WITH YOUR INITIATION

Here are some suggestions to practice initiations with. These simple suggestions will be more run of the mill than the last exercise, but I am going to ask you to do something a little more complicated with them.  This exercise will allow you to practice an element of #6 (connection between scene partners) on the list of ingredients baked into the starting point for an improv scene.


Once again, you'll want to grab some paper or your phone in order to record your initiations off of the below suggestions. You will also, just like before, want to review your initiations in reference to the Initiating Guidelines in order to look for trends. However this time, I want you to pay very careful attention to how you use the suggestion.


Instead of cramming the suggestion into your scene or cramming in a ham fisted reference to something obviously connected to the suggestion, I want you to put the suggestion into your scene partner. Here is how you do that.


Once you have a suggestion, ask yourself what qualities you associate with the suggestion and then attribute those qualities to your scene partner. For example, if I was working off of the suggestion "Tennis Ball" I might initiate with a line like:


"Brad, I am so glad I hired you to be my office manager, you're always zipping around the office!"

 

I might initiate that way because I think Tennis Balls zip around when you hit them with a tennis racket. I've taken a quality of the tennis ball and placed it inside my scene partner. I've given it to them as an improv gift. Now my initiation serves to closely connect me to my scene partner.


Compare that initiation with this one, which I would say is much more common among beginning improv students:


"These are my new tennis balls for our game later today. Brand new!"


While this initiation has a strong point of view and some fun things in it, it has nothing to do with the other person in the scene. Because of that it is in much more danger of being a scene that is about everything other than the actors in it.  


Note, the qualities you associate with a suggestion do not need to be true or generally agreed on. For example, if I thought tennis balls were disgusting, wet messes, because I have found many tennis balls in puddles, then I might initiate with something like:


"I love you Carol, even though you are often a disgusting wet mess, I've grown to love the inner you. Marry me."


Even though tennis balls are normally not disgusting or wet, I've nonetheless initiated my scene with a strong connection to my scene partner. I've given them a gift, something to react to and to play. This scene is much more likely to be firmly about me and my scene partner than the example I gave before it. And this is true regardless of the fact that most audience members will not understand the connection between my initiation and the suggestion.


Okay, enough blather.  Below are the suggestions, see if you can't use them to inspire initiations that define some of the base reality (Who, Where, What) and also puts the suggestion in your scene partner.


BICYCLE


RADAR


NURSERY


FIR TREE


NOTEPAD


STOPWATCH


CAN (like a tin can)


SLEIGH


BUBBLEGUM WRAPPER


MONOCLE


Great work! That's twice! 


Now review your initiations. How often were you able to use the suggestion to inspire a gift for your scene partner to react to or play?  


If you weren't successful very often, what could you change? Are you taking the suggestion too literally? Are you focusing on everything but your scene partner?


If you were often successful, how did the rest of your initiation hold up? Did you suddenly start adding problems or questions into your scene? Did you forgo adding elements of the base reality when you easily could have?


RESPONDING TO AN INITIATION INSPIRED BY A SUGGESTION

Initiating is great. But as I stated earlier, the starting point for an improv scene (at least the way I'm defining it) is more than just the initiation and suggestion. Since both scene partners are 50% responsible for the scene, at the very least we must hear a response to the initiation before we have a sense of what scene we are watching.


Let's practice responding to simple initiations off of a suggestion.  Below are some examples, the suggestion is in all caps and the initiation follows in quotes.


You'll want to respond quickly and to write those responses down.  You should be looking to YES AND the initiation and to firm up any pieces of the base reality that feel shaky or missing to you.


Enough blather!


BAKERY 

"Wow, these cupcakes look amazing! I'll take one of each flavor, please."


HOSPITAL 

"Doctor, I hope you'll agree that it is time I leave this hospital bed and return home.


COFFEE SHOP 

"...And those are our specials, hon. I can give you a few minutes or take your order now."


SCHOOL CLASSROOM 

"I can't believe we have a pop quiz today. I totally forgot to study."


OFFICE BUILDING  

"Morning, Frank. The Baxter needs to be audited and I think you're the accountant for the job."


CAR DEALERSHIP

"Hi, I wanted to introduce myself to the top salesperson here. See, I'm interested in that blue sedan over there."


GROCERY STORE 

"Babe, I think we're out of milk. Let me grab a carton."


WEDDING RECEPTION 

"Congratulations! You look stunning!"


MOVIES 

"I hope we can find seats together. It's pretty crowded tonight."


SPACESHIP 

"Excuse me, I hope you don't mind me sitting here. This is my first time on a spaceship and I'm a little nervous."


Holy Crow! That's three times you've done a great job! (If you don't like these enthusiastic encouragements, I get it. I don't really like writing them. But I started this post tis way, so I'm going to see it through.)


Okay, so how did you do? Were you able to YES AND the base reality offers from the initiations? Were you able to add or firm up elements of the base that felt weak to you?  


Which was your favorite response and why? How could you make your other responses similar to your favorite one?


 No need to keep this all so cerebral. Go ahead and try to make your responses to the below suggestion/initiation pairs similar to your favorite response above.


This time there is a little challenge. Building out a full base reality is critical when establishing the starting point for an improv scene. The below initiations have been carefully constructed to be missing at least one of the three components that create a base reality: Who, Where and What.


Your challenge in this exercise is to generate a response that Yes Ands the initiation while also adding at least one piece of missing base reality information.


Blather, begone!


RESTAURANT 

"I can't decide between the steak or the fish."


LIBRARY 

"Psst! Hey, check this out. I think I found something behind this bookshelf."


JUNGLE 

"Alright Brad, stay close and keep your eyes peeled. We don't know what might be lurking around."


DETECTIVE 

"Look, I know we don't always see eye to eye, but right now we need to put our differences aside and work together on this."


TIME MACHINE 

"Wait, you're telling me this thing can actually travel through time? I thought it was just a prototype!"


BIRTHDAY PARTY 

"Happy birthday!"


HAUNTED HOUSE 

"I don't think we should be doing this. This place gives me the creeps."


TRAIN STATION 

"The train's delayed again! Ugh, I should've brought a book."


BEACH

Watch out for jellyfish! I got stung last time and it wasn't pretty."


POLICE STATION 

"I'm here to pick up my friend. They got arrested last night."


PARK 

"It's so relaxing to people watch with you. Thanks for being my best friend!""


FAMILY DINNER 

"Pass me the salt, please.


LIBRARY (Again. It happens.) 

"Shhh, this is a library. We need to keep our voices down."


BUS STOP 

"Looks like it's going to rain. I should've brought an umbrella."


Spectacular work! Your work on these solo improv exercises has changed my life and my understanding of reality.


How did you do anyway? Were you able to clock when a piece of information was missing? How about sneaking it in (or firming it up) if it wasn't there (or was shaky)?


Really go over your work. Sometimes pieces of the base can be missing when they seem to be there.


Think about the initiation off of POLICE STATION. It's fair to assume that the scene is happening in a police station, and I'm not saying you couldn't execute a scene that way. But the initiation never clearly stated where the scene was happening. If your line didn't either, then you are at risk of an audience member or teammate not understanding. 


If you decide not to verbally (or maybe nonverbally) establish that you are indeed inside a police station in your first few lines, but to simply rely on the suggestion coloring everyone's impression of the scene, fine. But that should be an intentional choice. And you're living in danger of your scene partner or a teammate misunderstanding and labeling your scene as occurring in a nuclear submarine or some other unhelpful location.


I want to look at one last scenario in this post.


Say you have some initiations with varying degrees of the base defined, but a funny thing included too. In this round write initiations that YES AND, add or firm up elements of the base reality, and honor, explore, highlight or define the funny thing (ie don't ignore or ruin the funny part.) 


Here you go. Very little blather at all!


CARNIVAL

"I don't know bro, you're my best buddy and I know you disapprove. But I think I might go ahead and buy that clown costume."


GYM 

"I'm going to work in here. You ever see someone curl 35 pounds?"


PET STORE

"Excuse me, do you have any talking parrots? I could really use a new gossip buddy."


AMUSEMENT PARK

"I can ride this coaster with my eyes closed!"


DENTIST'S OFFICE

"I guess brushing every day isn't a replacement for a healthy adult relationship. Or maybe I'm wrong."


AIRPORT SECURITY

"Okay shoes, belt, phone and wallet are all on the conveyor. And my pelt goldfish isn't metal so it's staying right where it is in my pocket."


SUPERMARKET CHECKOUT LINE

"Before you get started I just want to say, I like.it when my cashiers scan my food really fast."


ZOO

"I notice none of the monkeys have phones."


FOOD TRUCK FESTIVAL

"Nah, nothing for me. I used to be a truck driver, see? To me this is all very disrespectful."


TOY STORE

"Excuse me, are there any special procedures for major purchases? I'm a very large Star Wars fan."


HOLY HANNAH!  You got through all of those? You're so amazing I have to end this blog post!!!


Okay but before you go, how did you do?


How hard or easy was it for you to add in missing pieces of the base?  How about avoiding fights about unfunny elements in the scene or avoiding questions?


What about the funny part, how did you approach that? Did you Voice of Reason or Match more?


Did you make sure to at least react to that part of the initiation, so that it would be highlighted for the audience and your scene partner?


FInal challenge, if you completed the last exercise, please email me your responses at terry@radicalagreement.com. I'll use those to tack on a third line exercise later.


Hey, and if you found these exercises useful, consider taking a multi session class with RA. Those are even better!


Thank you for reading my thoughts on the starting point for an improv scene.


Terry


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