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 and Yes, And.
(Assuming the class had at least 6 people, I split them into two groups. The bigger the class, the less I could rely on them to be able to split themselves up evenly. With more than 12 people, I had them count off.)
First group, line up on the stage. Second group, you get to take a seat; you’ll be the audience this time around.
Those of you on stage, take a step forward, away from that back wall, so that you’re in a nice line.
(Left to themselves, new players will hug that back wall.)
I’m going to give each of you a word. Let that word will make you think of a story from your life or an opinion you have. You don’t have to talk about that word the whole time, but use it as a jumping off point.
For instance, if you gave me the suggestion “Brazil,” I could give you a few facts about Brazil. I know that they speak Portuguese, and the capital is Rio de Janero, and there’s that big statue of Jesus, and then I’m out of facts about Brazil. I have nothing else to say. But if I use it as a springboard, I can tell you about an always-expanding group of friends who used to get together to watch at least part of the movie Brazil every week. I can tell you stories about Thank God It’s Brazil Friday – TGIBF – all day. After awhile, we switched movies, and it became Thank God It’s Boys From Brazil Friday, TGIBFBF. I’ll never run out of stories about those friends, and they’re all more interesting than half-remembered facts from 5th grade geography.
(I really gave some variation on this example almost every week. Sometimes I used Africa. Same core group of friends, different pop culture obsession. The point of the example was to avoid a person spending their whole rant saying, “I don’t know anything about this word” by giving them permission to talk about something else if they wanted.)
For the purpose of this exercise, you are yourself, not a character. Don’t make up stories for us. Honest memories or opinions are best.
(I intentionally used the word honest instead of true to avoid confusion. I wanted to discourage fact-checking. I’d rather someone share a strong opinion that’s incorrect than a list of true things they don’t care about, and I’d rather hear a mundane but honest story than a fantastical invention. I’ve written more about the relationship between honesty and truth in monologues here.)
You don’t have to decide when your story begins and ends. I’ll take care of that for you. I’ll conduct you, like a choir. (I wave my hand up at a person.) Say “blah blah blah.” (I wave my hand down to cut them off.) Now stop. (I wave my hand at two people at once, who both say “blah blah blah.” Then I stop them one at a time.) See how that works? You may be talking alone or at the same time as other people. Here are your suggestions!
(I gave each person a word, and I tried make sure those words were unrelated. Usually, they were all images from the Mountain Goats or Tom Waits or some such thing. If my brain was tired, I grabbed words from article titles in my Pocket. At first I took suggestions, but that sucked up too much time. If I knew I was working with a more experienced player, I sometimes gave them more outlandish or arcane words to challenge them to connect them to their lives.)
(I have each person speak on their own for about 30 seconds or one beat of their story. After that, I almost always had two people talking at once. Having more than one person speak at a time helps the shy players feel like they can blend in, and it keeps the more outgoing players from hogging the spotlight. I varied it between stopping and starting a person a lot and letting someone go for a couple of minutes straight. I especially did the latter if the person seemed like they were telling an anecdote they’d told so many times that it sounded rehearsed. I wanted to see what would happen when the mental script ran out.)
What made that easier? What tips would you give the next group?
- Remembering something that really happened. YES. Anything that’s happened to us is fair game for us to use onstage.
- Not worrying about being funny. Right! Because, honestly, we couldn’t follow what you were saying anyway, since more than one person was talking at once. A stand up-style joke with a set up and punch line wouldn’t work well here, since you didn’t know when you’d be cut off. Being honest is easier, and it’s more fun to watch.
- Tuning out the background noise. We have to do that sometimes. This theater doesn’t have a bar, so we don’t get many hecklers, but there are still coughs and people who forgot to turn their phones off and shuffling around in the audience, and it helps to be able to tune that out.
- Listening to the people around me, especially when it wasn’t my turn to talk. I saw that! You were finished with the story you first wanted to tell, so you let someone else’s story inspire you when it was your turn again.
- Not worrying too much about if I was using my suggestion enough. Sometimes you’ll get a suggestion that you have no idea what to do with. I’ve got some pretty big cultural blind spots, especially around sports. (I’m pretty sure someone has given me something like “Peyton Manning” and I’ve said, “I knew a kid named Payton once, and one time Payton’s little brother … ” and just told you stories about this kid I knew.) All the suggestion is for in an improv show is to prove to the audience that you didn’t script the show ahead of time. Feel free to discard it when it’s not useful to you — better yet, as you just did, follow it until you find something useful.
Audience, what was most fun to watch?
- When someone was mad/upset/excited/animated. So basically, when someone cared, whether that was a positive or a negative emotion. I could see you in the audience, and your eyes were all drawn, not necessarily to the loudest person, but the person who cared the most about what they were saying. You do not have to try to be funny or clever. If you try to be funny and fail, you’ve lost us. If you are honest and care about what you’re saying, we’ll stay with you whether you’re funny or not.
Second group, you have some pro tips now. Switch places!
I recently used this exercise in a middle school improv class I’m teaching, and I gave a kid the suggestion, “shampoo.”
He said, “Shampoo. I use shampoo to wash my hair. It’s blonde. Sometimes people ask if it’s natural, and it is. I love nature. My favorite stuff is in nature. My house is in the woods, and …”
That is exactly the kind of association I was looking for. He talked for about a beat until he found a way to tell stories about something he loves: the woods around his house. A+, kid.