The natural instinct, when walking on stage, is to start an improv scene the same way you’d start a real-life conversation. And that results in a specific kind of scene as described by Greg Hess on Improv Nerd:
“Most scenes, I think, go: first minute is trying to figure each other out, second minute is like, oh this is what’s going on, third minute you finally get somebody to be like “I’m leaving you, Diane” and then your teammate edits.”
That’s the life cycle of so many scenes—a lengthy buildup, a huge moment, an explosive reaction (from both the improvisers and the audience), and an edit. And while one laugh at the end is great, what if it could come at the beginning instead? And what if you could use that early laugh to get ten more as the scene progresses?
It all comes down to how you start an improv scene.
The impulse to start slow comes from a good place—you want to give your scene partner time to introduce his or her idea. You want to build something together. You don’t want to drop that big bomb or confession at the top of the scene because it might mess with what your scene partner’s got going on. But taking your time to discover who you are, where you are, and who this other person is takes the air out of the room. It leads to a slow build and you won’t figure out what’s really going on in the scene until the end.
Here’s the truth: your scene partner is thinking the same thing on their side of the stage. They are avoiding a big reaction because they don’t want to mess you up. And since everyone is trying to defer to everyone else, it’s up to someone (you) to get out there and make something happen.
This is how to start an improv scene that kicks ass every time:
If the first line is emotionally charged, like “Let’s get divorced,” it’s easy to figure out who you are, the relationship between the characters, and your point of view.
Often, the first line is not so informative. It’s something like, “Take a seat.” And so you have to make some assumptions. Where are you? Who are you? What’s happening? What does it all mean? Maybe you’re about to be interviewed for your dream job. Maybe your dad caught you sneaking out and you’re about to be grounded.
Once you’ve made the appropriate assumptions and decided who and where you are, you have to invest in the scene. You have to determine how you feel about the situation and react emotionally. If your dad is about to tear into you for sneaking out, are you defiant? Apologetic? The one thing you can’t be in an improv scene is apathetic.
Discover Your True “Want”
As the scene evolves, dig deeper into your character and figure out why they’re reacting this way? What do they want? Why do they want it? It’s one thing to want to move to New York. It’s another to want to move to New York because you’re 35, still living in your parents basement in Tennessee, and they insist on a 10 PM curfew.
Following these three steps will shortcut a lot of the set up and get you right to the “I’m leaving you, Diane” part of the scene. And rather than ending your scene right there, you’ll have two and a half more minutes to live in and explore the fallout.
Now that’s an interesting scene to watch.
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