A good improv scene is a little like a game of 301.
You begin with 301 points, and throw darts to deduct their totals from that sum until you reach 0, on the dot. The last dart thrown must land in a double ring; that is, if you’ve got 20 points remaining, you must hit a double 10 to end the game. If you bring the score down to 1, or below zero, that shot is considered a bust, and it doesn’t count. Precision is required. Consider 0 to be the end of a good scene, a scene in which clearly defined characters have interacted in a clearly defined relationship.
The first dart thrown is the initiation, and you want to get as many points as possible – you want that initiation to be powerful. But if it’s not a triple 20 – the highest single shot possible – no big deal… as long as you’re hitting the board, adding some kind of information or behavior that contributes to building the scene. Pull out two chairs, sit down in the passenger side and say “You’re going too fast.” At the very least, your partner knows that the two of you are driving somewhere (or you could be in a boat, or a plane, who knows!). That might be a single 19, while a single 20 might be: “You’re going to fast, sweetie.” Just a little bit more information delivered in a single shot, a slightly better defined relationship. The same line might become a double 20 by infusing it with emotion. “You’re going to fast, sweetie!” delivered with sincere fright, or perhaps a touch of anger, will make it clearer to your partner how your character feels. Parents might call their children “sweetie,” as might grandparents. Couples might call each other “sweetie.” The second dart thrown will add points that make the relationship clearer; either “I’m barely above the speed limit, Mom,” or “You’re gonna have to move faster if you wanna be my girl,” or some such response would do the trick. Then you’re job up on stage is clear.
Keep throwing darts (responding appropriately to your partner, adding more details to the scene and to the relationship), keep track of your score (remember what’s happened, what’s been said and done), and aim for the double ring to end it (play economically with the information and behavior that’s been discovered already; stick to the behavior you’ve taken on; it doesn’t take much to add too much).
Charlie Whitcroft is a member of The Boss, and Theory of Everything at The Magnet. He studied philosophy and creative writing at The New School.
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