The Secret To A Great Scene

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The UCB Four who pioneered this jazz.

Pre. S.  I’m not going to proof read this, so if you find a grammar mistake either lemme know or don’t worry about it.

There are a lot of rules of improv, but there not so much ‘rules’ as they are consequences of a great scene. One rule is to agree (also known as yes, and, also known as don’t deny). This is a vitally important thing for a scene to have because telling someone they’re your daughter and then having them come back and say “no, I’m your husband! You’re my wife.” really hoses a scene. Good comedians can joke their way around it, but the damage is done. Another rule is sticking with your character. It’s a kind of denial I guess, but if you’ve got an accent up top and then it melts away into regular you (a thing that I do almost EVERY time I try an accent), it can take an audience out of the moment and you’ve lost the momentum. Hmm, in writing the words moment and momentum, I genuinely never realized one is just an unsure version of the other. Reacting honestly is another important tenet, and so is “show, don’t tell” and so is blah blah blah. They’re all indirect results of exactly one thing: Everybody being on the same page.

Now right off the bat that sounds stupid or trite or unhelpful, but it isn’t, and if you still think it is, you’re a damn fool.

What does everybody being on the same page mean? Well, it’s the mutual understanding of what the scene is about. Not what the scene is, but what the scene is about. If everyone fully understands what the scene you’re currently doing is about, you are in the money. The difference between what a scene is and what it’s about is simple.

What a scene is: A collection of factual statements that can be gleaned from the dialogue, movement, and body language of a given scene. If you ask a robot to tell you what a rose is, he could say it’s a carbon based perennial plant. People seem to like them. They are exchanged for sex or forgiveness.

What a scene is about: The 1-sentence, deeper meaning behind the scene that carries with it inherent elements that can be acted upon. Here’s an example:

Example: A boy gets in a taxi and asks to be driven to the countryside. The taxi driver asks him why. The boy responds that he can no longer take care of his tax accountant, and wants to let him run free in the hills and meadows. He then pulls his tax accountant out of his pocket and the tax accountant says he’s sad to have to leave the boy.
What the scene is: A boy who owns a tax accountant. The tax accountant can think and talk normally. The tax accountant fits into the boy’s pocket.
What the scene is about: This scene is about treating tax accountants like pets instead of people. The inherent elements that can be acted upon are almost unlimited.
Elements to act upon:
The boy: do pet things to the tax accountant (feed him kibble, discipline him, take his collar off, ect).
The tax accountant: do actions that are pet-like. (Always be looking out the window, spin in circles before you sit down, short attention span, ect).
The taxi driver: It would probably help is the taxi driver also acted as if tax accountants were normally pets, but it’s kinda ladies choice here.

If everyone on stage in that scene understood what the scene was about, they’d never go wrong. They all must be fervent about the reality of that universe where one (and only one) thing was different, and that one thing was that tax accountants are pets. The scene can evolve and change and grow as it needs to as long as that ONE element is always agreed upon by the actors. You could cut to the accountant in a field with a few other ferrel accountants, or a bunch of accountants could get into a big fight and have to be broken up by a farmer, or you could have Michael Vick come kidnap the accountant from the field and put him in an accountant-fighting ring. All of this is fine as long as it fits into what the scene is about (A.K.A. the universe of the scene).


This scene is about a snake and the guy with the biggest balls in the world.

WARNING! Being on the same page has deeper implications. When you all know what the scene is about, you can’t focus exclusively on it. Take what the scene is about, and filter it through your characters so you can make honest choices that are both true to who you are on stage, and the scene. If you discover what the scene is about and just do bullshit nods to the audience about the scene, you’re going to run out of steam quickly. You know what the scene is about, but your characters probably don’t. That means you’ve got to internalize what the scene is about and show it through what you’ve got on stage. If this seems really heady and difficult, that’s because it fucking is. Governor Jack has been working on this for over a year and I’d say we’re on the same page under 50% of the time in scenes. Basically, it’s a big balancing act.

I hate to burst my own bubble, but this is harder than I ever thought it would be 2 years ago.
I hate to burst my own bubble, but this is harder than I ever thought it would be 2 years ago.

I want to close with something Mike Malayar said on the Denver Improv Podcast (a podcast that will hopefully get going again soon once I stop being a whiny idiot and start being more productive). We were talking about those magical moments of crystal blue improv that we’ve all seen. He said those are born from a beautiful balance between the internal acting and the internal directing. Imagine yourself on stage in character. That’s the acting. Now imagine yourself watching from above deciding what the next move should be based on what the scene is about or what the scene needs. The balance is when all the people in the set live in that space in-between. Like the weirdo on 16th street spinning plates. Everything has momentum and direction, and you are just making sure nothing falls. And that no one comes up and steals your plastic bucket full of change.

You may be thinking, “Hey Rollie, that was an awesome blog post.” Is that what you were thinking? Thanks! I really appreciate that. But if you want to read an actually awesome blog post, check out literally anything from The House That Del Built written by Rachel Klein. The girl makes writing about improv an art. Okay, I’ve wasted enough of your time. Lemme know if you have any bones to pick or questions to bone.

Rollie Williams