If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop, Yes, And, Conducted Rant, and Conducted Story.
Group 2 (which is still lined up onstage from their Conducted Story) head over to one side of the stage; Group 1, head over to the other. We’re going to end class with some three-line scenes.
To do scenes, we need all the skills we’ve worked on so far. What things made our games easier tonight so far?
- Eye contact
- Being specific
- Say yes, and …
- React honestly
- Care about something
- Don’t worry about being funny
All of those things will make scenes easier, too. You don’t have to remember them all right now. If you get stuck, I’ll remind you.
(If people look nervous, I add:) Remember our Yes, And game? How easy it was to say yes to someone and add one small thing? That’s all a scene is. You’ll say something, someone will say “yes, and” to you, and then you’ll say “yes, and” to them. You can even say the words “yes, and” out loud if you want.
Someone from Group 1 will step onto stage and say a line, any line. You can be a character or you can be yourself, either way is fine. Someone from Group 2 will join and respond to Person 1. Then, Person 1 will respond to Person 2’s response. That’s it! Then cross to the other side so that each person gets a chance both to initiate a scene and to respond to one.
(From there, I let everyone go twice, once as the beginner and once as the responder, mostly without comment from me except “Yay!” when a scene was over. This gave me a baseline. Then, depending on the size of the group and what their biggest struggle was in the first round, I’d pick one of the following specific instructions.)
For the next round:
- The second person should care a LOT about what the first person says. Assume that what they say to you is important and that you should care about it more than anything. (This even applies if the first line was, “Huh, it’s Tuesday.” Find a way to care a lot about it being Tuesday. Be mad/sad/glad/afrad about what Tuesday means for you.)
- Be the same kind of character as your partner. (It’s easier to be silly if someone’s being silly with you.)
- Be an opposite of your partner. (Just for fun, as a contrast to being the same.)
- Feel the same way as your partner. (For some, the tendency is to want to cheer up sad people, calm down angry people, and get excited people to chill out. We do that in real life as we seek out stability, but on a stage, we want to see those bigger emotions.)
- No questions, just for this game tonight. (Not forever! Just for this game! I only gave this instruction if players were falling back on “Where are we?” and “Who are you?” and “How’s it going?” questions, and three lines isn’t enough space to have that kind of scene. “Where are we going to cast our spell?” and “Who are you to tell me how to raise my child?” and “How’s it going with the new job?” are excellent three-line scene questions.)
- Try making your scene the opposite of the scene that came before yours. (Was the last one loud, about two older men, and in the middle of the stage? Pick at least one of those things and do the opposite.)
(We’d do as many of these as we had time for. If the group was finding a rhythm and having fun, I let the scenes expand to five or more lines.)
(It’s possible for a scene to crash and burn — or, more often, not get off the ground at all — in only three lines. If that happened, I found a thing the players did well to praise, then told them I was so excited about seeing them onstage that I wanted to keep them there a second. The tone I was going for was, “Again! Again!” rather than “you screwed up, do it over.”
Then, I’d give them one thing to change when they tried again, and I tried to keep that thing simple, positive, and directly related to the lessons from earlier games or the game of that particular round of scenes. “Let’s see it again with the same first line, but this time, the second person is going to be sad WITH you instead of telling you not to be sad.”)
Yay! You all did it! An improv show is just scenes, like that, like you just did. If this was your first time in this class, you especially did an amazing job. The exercises we did tonight are like the improv equivalent of concentrating on breathing in yoga, or warming up your voice before singing in choir. You never get so good at yoga or choir that you don’t have to be reminded to breathe. So you’re welcome back any time. If you want to build on these beginning stretches, the classes and workshops at Westside are the most affordable in the area, and you get a chance to perform early and often. If you want to see some improv in action, we have shows every weekend, and I hope to see you there!
As you can tell, my whole approach to coaching beginners basically boils down to clapping and saying “Yay! You’re doing it!” a lot.
That’s partly because it is endlessly fascinating to me to watch improv click in someone’s head and gut. I’m genuinely excited for them. It’s worth cheering about.
It’s also because, statistically, some people in the room are likely to be scared out of their minds. People who are scared out of their minds have trouble listening, focusing, and responding honestly. I want to build their confidence by praising like crazy the things they’re doing well and mostly ignoring the things that they haven’t caught onto yet. I’ll leave those to their coaches when they sign up for a paid class. (That is, unless someone is being insulting or physically aggressive or otherwise That Guy, in which case I shut them down immediately. This didn’t happen often in this setting, but I can’t say it never happened.)
I want for beginners to come away from class excited to try again and excited to better understand what they were seeing when they watched a show. I was continually baffled and delighted at people who took the class 3, 5, 15 times. Some veteran players who were already on house teams came, just to remind themselves why they loved improv in the first place and to welcome other people in. Some players I met because they were frequent attendees of the Free Class ended up on teams with me at the theater, which is my favorite thing ever.
Free Class is no more right now, mostly due to scheduling and a sudden decline in interest. But Westside still has the lowest barriers to entry of any theater I’ve ever heard of. At lots of Chicago theaters, you don’t get to perform until you’ve spent thousands of dollars in a year’s worth of classes. At Westside, you get your first show after just 8 weeks. I don’t think that’s a thing anywhere else in the area. Stop by!