– Welcome to my cafe!
– I would like an espresso, please.
– With or without herpes?
– Ehhh …
Here I present you with a 5-step guide that will help you turn absurd improv scenes into entertainment. We will create situations that are truly absurd, chaotic and difficult to handle, before introducing call-outs and the power of three. You will be left with very specific tools to handle absurd situations, and you’ll be able to turn any scene entertaining and engaging!
Before we get going I want to say thanks to Brian Palermo with The Groundlings Theatre and basically all the teachers at The Pack Theater, for your inspiration towards writing this article and coaching the topic.
Step 1 – Warm-up
All good workshops start with a warm-up that is directly tied up to the overall topic. Each of these three will do the trick, or all of them if you have time:
- Have everyone walk around randomly on the floor. If you’re afraid of certain pandemics, have everyone imagine they are inside a gas bubble, and that it measures two meters in diameter. If gas bubbles touch each other they can burst, and nobody wants that to happen!
- Keeping everyone walking around randomly, have them pass through levels of specific emotions. Establish a scale of 1-10 where 1 is neutral and 10 is maximum. Start with 1, then 4, 6, back to 4, up to 8, 10, then down again to 4 then 1. Use some of the following emotions: Mad, glad, sad, scared, horny.
- Have everyone stand in a circle. One enters the middle and is prompted with a random word from the outer circle. He or she then bursts into an energetic monologue about that word, while passing through the emotions of Happy-Angry-Sad-Happy at the direction of one person in the outer circle, typically the workshop facilitator. It shouldn’t last for more than 30 seconds per person as it is very exhausting.
- Have two and two perform a one word at a time story, while prompting them with strong emotions or themes. For example, one of them can tell the story as if it was a horror story, with great fear, while the other tells a romantic story with great joy.
Step 2 – Creating one absurd character
If you are working with experienced improvisers you might be able to just say ‘be absurd’ and they immediately adopt some weird perspective, body posture or start making weird sounds. Combine that with strong emotions and you might already have your absurd character unleashed. These exercises can help you get there faster and in a more concrete way:
- Have everyone walk around randomly on the floor. Ask everyone to select an animal and become that animal. Ask them to go to a 10, where 10 is being that animal a hundred percent. Let them all be their animal for a while, have them crawl around, make sounds, explore their new body and so on. They should not interact with each other. Then have them gradually transform back into humans. Remind them that a 10 is the animal, then ask them to go down to 8, 6, 4, back to 8, then have them settle at 5: Half human, half animal. They are now humans with strong characteristics from a specific animal. Finally, have them interact in pairs, for example as good old friends meeting at the bar.
- Have two and two do simple job interview scenes, but one improviser is asked to choose a gesture and a short sound. Those two are to be repeated every time the director claps his or her hands. This setup very quickly creates an absurd scene that both improvisers struggle to handle, hence perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the workshop. They might be frustrated, but leave them with a promise that at the end of the workshop they will have the toolbox to work it out and create something entertaining.
Step 3 – Creating and aligning two absurd characters
The group is now ready to create and multiply absurd characters in order to achieve absolute chaos. ‘Two peas in a pod’ is a very common saying in improv. The audience loves to see two improvisers aligning their characters, their energy, voice, everything. We want to have two absurd peas in a pod because if a scene contains only that it is very difficult to drive a scene forward without specific techniques.
- Have two and two on the floor do a scene where they are to collect signatures for a petition. The topic is given by the director or the rest of the group. For example, they can try to get signatures for a campaign to ‘abolish cheese now!’ The two are to alternate between talking with each other and addressing bypassers. No one is to approach them. Ask them to align their characters and perspective, and to create a small two-person team for this important cause. They address the 4th wall when trying to get attention. As director, emphasize strong opinions, justifications and high energy, as well as making eye contact and checking in with each other.
- Again, have two people create and align characters. Now they are two roommates looking for a third, and they are creating a video for Facebook to look for that person. The audience can provide what kind of house, boat or spaceship they live in.
- Again, have two people create and align characters. Now they are two characters running a YouTube channel that tests and evaluates specific products. The audience suggests the product and whether or not the two love or hate it. Have them present and interact with the product.
- Again, have two people create and align characters. Now we have a date scene, but the characters are defined by the dating site or app on which they met. The audience can suggest the name of the site, for example bro-vikings, stamp-collectors, wine-lovers, dungeon-date.com, and so on. The scene starts about one hour into the date. In a second variation they can use different sites as inspiration. As with all the other exercises, focus on eye contact, strong opinions and justifications, and making bold moves with high energy.
Step 4 – Creating and aligning four absurd characters
Not chaotic enough for you? Let’s go.
- Have four people on the floor. They are to play out a short scene, perhaps about 30-60 seconds, in which they do a simple activity, like gardening, cooking, folding clothes and so on. The director should choose this activity and ensure it can be fairly repetitive and ‘normal’, or even ‘boring’. The director then labels this group as the most [ADJECTIVE] family, and examples of adjectives include apologetic, excited, nervous, happy, aggressive, mad, scared, sad, horny, suspicious, ambivalent, strutting, flamboyant, controlling, demanding, hungry, religious, atheist, optimistic, and so on. Focus on heightening and aligning the energy that is put into each character. The scene does not, and perhaps should not, go anywhere. As director, tell them that doesn’t matter.
Step 5 – Scene work, callouts and the power of three
So, here we are; we have explored how we can use perspectives, strong emotions and body language to create absurd characters and difficult situations to handle as improvisers. What hasn’t been introduced is controversial and sensitive content, for example in the form of a character with a politically incorrect perspective. You will see though, that the same principles as the ones introduced below to a large extent apply in those situations as well.
In the following exercises the director should set two and two performers up in scenes that combine a premise from the list a bit further below, with an exercise objective.
Step 5.1 – Straight-absurd
The first objective is to have a straight character cope with calling out absurdities, so to begin with we’re going to work on the straight-absurd relationship. This means one performer should evolve into an absurd character, and the other should evolve into a straight one. Who becomes what needs to be worked on as well, but it typically arises some way in the first 20-30 seconds. As a director you can help initially by pointing out who is the obvious absurd character. The one playing the absurd character then builds on everything he or she learned in the previous exercises, ie. heighten everything, have strong opinions and clear-cut justifications, and repeat. The straight character is to keep straight regardless.
Now, the recommended premises to use are:
- Interview, for example for a job. Have the interviewer start on stage and the other come in as an interviewee. It is very important here that the director should always bring performers back to focusing on their motivation: A straight interviewer really wants the candidate, and a straight interviewee really wants the job. This creates a status difference.
- Transaction, for example buying and selling coffee at the cafe. Other than that, same as above. Motivation: A straight buyer really wants the product, while a straight seller really needs the money.
- Teaching. Motivation: Absurd teacher adds absurdity, an absurd student ‘just doesn’t get it’. Straight teacher relies heavily on having the absurd student understand, while a straight student relies on learning. Focus on creating stakes.
- Negotiation. This should be an equal status situation.
- Strangers meeting for example on an exhibition, on a train station or airport, and so on.
In order to make these scenes work, the straight character needs to have an internal conflict between the motivation and the desire to call attention to the absurdity. At some point the straight person needs to react though, and perhaps even aggressively, so as to attack that which is ‘wrong’. Let’s label it ‘doing a callout’. The absurd character should find a way to be positive and optimistic, and is not to be affected and turned into having negative emotions. It’s also important to note that whoever becomes the straight person has the opportunity to place the absurd person in a location where he/she ‘shouldn’t be’, and also assign a role that shouldn’t be associated with the established absurd perspective: A grown up man who just wants to play with Lego should not be the President in The White House. Despite having very clear justifications, the absurd character doesn’t have to make any sense, and can always just repeat whatever he’s into or needs; ‘I really need to play with Lego right now, I’m soon finished with my fire station’. As you might discover the absurd person is an exaggeration of a flaw, e.g. unwillingness to face a serious situation, while the straight person is an exaggeration of the reaction to it, ie. what the audience perspective is, or becomes during the scene.
Alright, so we have a strong persistent absurd character facing a troubled straight character with an internal conflict. As you might notice it’s not enough to do these callouts for a scene to advance and succeed. The audience wants more, the improvisers need more. One way to tackle this situation is to double-down on both sides. Have the characters develop equally strong into each direction; straight gets strict, absurd heightens. Then introduce stakes. If, at the end, the absurd interviewee is thrown out of the office, he or she shouldn’t be satisfied. Now we can play with the power of three in comedy. The absurd character can drop back into a straight character to regain the trust of the straight character, in this case the interviewer, as well as the audience, and the scene can continue. After a beat the absurd character can drop back into absurdity. The interviewee can again insist on solving all tasks backwards with her toes, and the president can suggest sending Lego men to the frontline. The straight character should again consider the inner conflict, but react if necessary. At some point, and typically after three so-called absurd ‘hits’, ie. absurd beats within the scene, the director edits the scene. The audience gets their satisfaction from the fact that the absurd character never learned, and the straight character failed to break through, but at least the story was a rollercoaster.
Another way to tackle the situation is to make it personal and about the relationship. I typically say that if I find myself being Adolf Hitler in a scene I will focus on my character’s wound and need; perhaps he experienced a lack of love and attention from his parents. Once I have that as part of my underlying perspective on the world, I would look for the Eva Braun of the scene, and explore their relationship. Perhaps we would get to explore a completely unexpected and interesting story.
If a character persists on a ‘wrong’ perspective, the straight character needs to sense and adopt the audience perspective. By increasing the stakes the absurd character eventually feels invited to step down from the absurd perspective, perhaps again make it personal, and possibly start opening up on personal wound and need: A high status bully needs love and attention, a Lego-loving president needs to get an apology from his parents for his lost childhood, a racist needs to acknowledge he or she is just scared, and perhaps a sexist is simply insecure. These are very challenging topics and themes to handle in the context of improv, but if you as a director, coach, improviser or group, feel ready, then why not start now, before you suddenly end up in a scene you didn’t want and didn’t know how to handle.
Step 5.2 – Absurd-absurd
After working on the straight-absurd relation it’s time to try out an absurd-absurd situation. Basically we’re now going back to having two absurd peas in a pod (see Step 3):
- Everything in the exercise should be done in the same way as above, but the straight person is ‘created’ by one of the absurd characters taking a step back (physically and mentally) and making a call-out on both characters and perhaps the whole situation. Again, they can play with dropping in and out between straight and absurd, or explore personal and sensitive aspects such as wound and need.
At the end here I would like to recommend being aware of who defines what is considered ‘absurd’ or ‘wrong’. In some cases it might be obvious, while in other cases it might represent a personal view of some members in your group. Talk about it! In some cases it might kill the scene if the absurdity is called out. If an improviser in a two-peas-in-a-pod scene makes a call-out on their characters with animal traits, we the audience might miss out on what could have been a really interesting scene. In other words, be aware of why you want to make the call-out, and how it relates to your personal comfort zones.
That is the end of this very long guide on how to work on absurd situations in improv. Please send me a message if anything is unclear, you disagree with something, or if you have a different perspective.
The specific exercises are based on my Google Sheets resource bank, which you can gain access to for free by clicking here.
Interested in setting up this workshop for your team or your local improv community? Reach out today: