Two people enter the stage, facing each other, looking at each other, and three seconds feel like a year as they initiate their scene:
– How are you?
– Good. Ready to … ehhh … do yoga?
In this article I give you specific advice on how you can improve your scene initiations. We will work on organic and premise-driven scenes, and with the techniques presented your team will have its creativity unleashed and the fear of walking on stage will be mitigated, hence making it more entertaining and engaging for you and the audience!
Before we get going I want to say thanks to basically all the teachers at The Pack Theater (LA) 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. Have people stand on two lines along the left and right side of the stage. One from each line steps onto the stage and they do a short two-person scene. As a director, edit the scenes at 10-20 seconds. Continue doing this for 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the group.
This warm-up is good because of two reasons: Firstly, as a director and instructor you get an opportunity to assess the current level of fear, trust and drive to be creative and interesting in the group. Secondly, you can open up for reflection and discussion on their experience with staying positive, not asking too many questions, and their ability to establish the platform, i.e. the what, where, who and circumstance of the scene.
The rest of the workshop will continue with these two lines of improvisers along the left and right side of the stage, and the scenes being played out center-stage.
Way of initiating – Action!
The first way of initiating a scene is by having one improviser go out and make a physical choice or action, preferably including some kind of object work, and preferably in some way repetitive. In this way the scene can continue for a bit without relying on a new choice or someone entering. The improviser initiating the action should not seek eye contact with any of the other improvisers at the back or side of the stage. This is essential as it sends a signal that ‘I don’t know what this scene will be about, but I’m taking responsibility by doing something rather than nothing’, or, ‘I am saying A, and once you’ve understood what A is, you can come on and say B’.
The improviser should start off with high commitment, preferably a positive attitude, and be good at what he or she is doing. It makes it more interesting for the audience, and it becomes easier to introduce a problem or a tilt later in the scene. For example; if you start by cooking food, be the absolute best chef in the world, because why not!
Whenever the idea of that first action is demonstrated and understood, the second person, improviser B from the other line of improvisers, can enter the stage and make one of the following choices:
- B joins the scene and replicates whatever the first person is doing. As soon as they are in sync and they both understand to a certain degree what is happening, they can start speaking. They should make sure to establish the platform, as well as make explicit statements confirming what they are doing. Eye contact is important here for the scene to develop further.
- B steps out and does something that feels natural in the universe established by the first improviser A. For example, if A was folding clothes, perhaps B can start packing them into a suitcase. Then, again, focus on the platform and to check in with each other.
- B steps out and does nothing else but pick a position on stage that is very different from that of A, preferably further up- or downstage. As they both feel and lean into the tension it creates, ideas should start coming to their minds of what is happening in this situation, and dialog can start.
Way of initiating – Statement!
The second way of initiating a scene represents a development on the first. The first person enters, makes a physical choice, establishes an environment, and makes a statement that holds a few bits of information as well as an emotion. There should again not be any eye contact with the other improvisers, and the second improviser shouldn’t feel obligated to step on stage immediately. This could look like in the following examples, where improviser A steps on stage, B joins at the appropriate time:
- ‘What a wonderful morning!’ is said by A while pulling away the curtains and starting to set the table for breakfast. B joins with ‘Indeed, honey, and finally we have a Sunday off together!’
- ‘I can’t find it!’ is said by A while searching frantically through drawers. B joins with ‘You are too late, my old friend, I’ve already handed it to the police.’
- ‘Aha! I have found the holy grale!’ is said by A while arriving deep into a cave. B joins in, seemingly out of the dark corner, with the statement ‘Well then, here we are my old nemesis.’
- And so on.
Way of initiating – Premise!
Where the first and second way of initiating a scene enables a more organic development, the third way is premise-driven. The big difference is that improviser A now demands something from improviser B, and that is signalled with immediate eye contact. After eye contact is established, improviser A makes a statement that holds all information necessary for B to make choices regarding the character, and to come up with a response. This could look in like the following examples, where improviser A steps on stage and walks across to B:
- ‘Step inside Madame President, we have prepared the satellite photos for you!’ is said by A while inviting B to step into an imaginary room. B responds with ‘Excellent General. Our search for life on the Moon is very important!’
- ‘Frank, I’m so happy you could come over and have a look at my car!’ is said by A while indicating a large vehicle at the center of the stage. B responds with ‘Of course, John. That’s what good neighbors do!’
- ‘Doctor, you are here, the experiment worked!’ says A, as B responds with ‘I am glad you called. I can hear you but I can’t see you, so it must have worked very well!’
- And so on.
Hope you enjoyed reading about scene initiations. 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: