Here are a few exercises to help with the first Beat of an improvised play or scene.
The first beat of play in the moment is vital as you essentially discover what play you are in, what is your characters point of view and your relationship to your partner’s character. What follows are exercises, clues and cues to playing the first beat. Be aware these are exercises, and games and as such has rules, or formats. They are designed to help us discover what we need to know and offer what we need to give our partner. As exercise its worth following the rules and the format. In time once we have understood and absorb the games, they become principles; then we get play with more subtlety because we know what we are looking for.
“Being a good stage partner is being a good improviser”
So when the lights come up and we Look at your partner; everything we need is there, try to interpret what it seems like they are feeling, what you see, invent nothing, discover everything.
Look at them, look into their eyes. Judge them
What are they feeling?
How do they make you feel?
What are they offering you?
Is there a kinaesthetic response?
Look at their shape.
Use the nine viewpoints, they are a guide to help you be a better observer.
Viewpoints of time: Tempo, duration, kinaesthetic response, repetition.
Viewpoints of space: Shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture, topography.
Exercise 1: Maybe
In this first moment of initially assessing your partner’s character’s emotional state, try employing the Maybe Exercise. Make judgements based on the way they are standing or sitting, the shape they are in, their gestures - which include facial expressions, notice their unconscious movements make a rapid list of assumptions. Meanwhile your partner will be doing the same analysis of you. Do nothing consciously, both of you should just keep your shape, if there is physical movement, they are unconscious kinaesthetic responses not purposeful offers.
Maybe he’s looking up to me
Maybe he’s expecting me to have an answer to something
Maybe he’s worried
Maybe he’s feeling sorry for himself
Maybe he’s confused
Initially you can speak these ‘maybe’ statements out loud, so your partner hears them, but we want to get to a place where you play them in your head. All these assessments are maybes, any of them are possible, each one is an assumption you have made based on what you see and how it’s made you feel. Commit to the one that you respond to most strongly, trust it, it’s not wrong, but it remains a maybe until it's spoken, then it’s the truth.
The next step is to express a point of view about what you your partner’s shape has inspired you to feel. If they look confused, don’t say “you look confused”, but rather say “you’re going to figure it out.”
“The way to be a good stage partner is to stay in the moment and respond honestly.”
Exercise 2 - Repetition of the first exchange
You look at our partner, and in your head ascertain how they may be feeling. Your partner then creates a dynamic off your line; what we call ‘a push back’.
In the first part of this exercise both actors take a position on stage and hold their physical shape. Initially choose beforehand who speaks first (A) and who responds (B). (A) looks at their partner (B) and assesses (B’s) emotional state. A then says a line that expresses their point of view. B responds a push back line, which is a point of view that creates a dynamic to (A’s) point of view.
Next A & B repeat their points of view dialogue three times, or more times, keeping their shape and the same tone and tempo.
A: (Seeing B is looking helpless) “I can’t help you”
B: “You have to help me.”
A: “I can’t help you.”
B: “You have to help me.”
A: “I can’t help you.”
B: “You have to help me.”
A: “I can’t help you.”
B: “You have to help me.”
The objective, and the mindset, is to hold your shape and maintain you tone and tempo but give all your attention to looking at and listening to your partner. With the repetition, be less aware of the words you are speaking and more aware of what is happening emotionally. The purpose here is to notice when and how the scene evolves.
Exercise 3 – The Bridge Line the Push Back Line and the Sister lines
When first person who speaks (A) has defined their point of view (B) needs to tell their partner (A) that they have heard their point of view and then add a response their pushback line. For example:
A: (Point of View) “I can’t help you.”
B: (Bridging Line) “You can’t help me?” (Pushback line) “You have to help me”
Next, instead of repeating your point of view line exactly you reiterate your point of view by rephrasing it; repeating your point of view in different ways is what we call ‘the sister line’ In this sequence you are telling your partner you have heard what they have said to you by using a bridging line and repeating your point of view with a sister line, which does two things; it helps you hold onto your point of view and make it more certain your partner knows it too.
It looks something like this:
A: “I can’t help you.” (Point of View)
B: “You can’t help me? (Bridging Line) “You have to help me” (Pushback line)
A: “I have to help you?” (Bridge Line) “I don’t know how to help you” (Sister line)
B: “You don’t know how?” (Bridge Line) “You simply got to help me” (Sister Line)
A: “I’ve got to help you? (Bridge Line) “No, I don’t” (Sister Line)
B: “Now you’re saying you don’t have too?” (Bridge) “Friends must help one
A: “Friends help one another” (Bridge Line) “Maybe they do, maybe that’s why I
won’t help you.”
A’s last line “Maybe they do, and that’s why I won’t help” has caused B to stumble. Something will have happened to B, He will have changed his shape for sure. But this is something that will have happened kinaesthetically. This moment marks the end of the first beat because the scene is no longer about A not helping B, this scene is now about a misunderstanding about their friendship B has a new point of view:
B: (Pause) um ...er… What? We are friends. (Point of view)
A: You think we were friends? (Bridge Line) Maybe we were friends once (Pushback)
"Step into a scene already in progress"
Following from the first moment you move from one small step to the next, the first line spoken to the next, The whole thing is just following, following, following. If you miss anything at the beginning you miss the opportunity to discover the scene. If you behave as though the scene exists already, you find yourself in the right frame of mind to improvise better. Stepping into a scene already in progress relieves you of the pressure to provide exposition. You do not invent and bring stuff in from the outside; everything you need is in your partner.“
The lights come up, you notice that your partner is standing, holding on to the back of a chair, he looks anxiously pensive. You need to express what you see, but not too directly, instead of saying “I see you are looking pensive” but something like “the world’s hard, you can’t keeping carrying it on your shoulders”. Your partner looks a little more anxious, (he's feels this character is always anxious) He says, “Yep it is – I can’t help myself”. You say, “Worrying won’t sort it?” Your partner responds in a slightly irritated tone, “always the one with the advice”. You are both uncovering a shared feeling that you know each other well, that your behaviour towards each other is one of concern and affection, and it seems this ‘close’ long-term relationship could now be that of brothers, so you say “Then talk to Mum about it.” So you move on from one moment of discovery to another; one step at a time. These discoveries that you are ‘brother’, the anxiety, the slight irritation of the one, and the advisory role of the other is enough to carry through a one-hour show. Everything thing you need is here in your partner.
"Trust the scene will reveal itself, plan nothing, discover everything"
Starting with a prepared opening line or a character isn’t useful. Come on with nothing, but don’t think you’re starting with nothing, just believe that when the lights come up everything you need is waiting for you to be discovered. Let go of working or leading the scene, or of coming up with good ideas. Discovery is not about force and producing good ideas, it’s about receptiveness and response. It’s not about a leap from A to B (knowing where this leads) it’s only about the leap from A, the rest is an act of faith in the communication and trust between you and your partner.
"Discover by Elimination"
When the lights go up look at the information that’s immediately available to you. The only place you will find information is in you stage partner; anything not appropriate to your partner is invention. Look in their eyes, notice their body language, the shape they are standing or sitting in, their proximity to you. Does the person feel familiar to you or more like a relative stranger? Notice their perceived sense of status to you and the space they are in.Commit to what you think you know and respond. As the things you know increase, by process of elimination you will both discover who are, and how you feel.
The lights come up you see your partner is standing, holding her hands in front of her, her thumb stroking her knuckle, she's looking up and slightly to the side. She is pensive, is she anxious? Maybe slightly. It is likely at that moment that she’s a threat? Not really. Instantly, that eliminates tons of other possibilities about the dynamic of this relationship. The way She is standing suggests she is female that’s, 51% of the population eliminated. She is behaving in a way that she's comfortable being silent in your presence, she's no stranger, someone you know must eliminate at least 98% of the population,
Michelangelo described carving the statue of David as chipping away the fragments of stone that didn't belong to the figure; it is as if David was already present waiting to be released. The top of the scene is the same process, we begin narrowing down to reveal the play we are and the people we are playing a chip at a time. We pay close attention so we can keep eliminating possibilities until it appears we have always been these people in this space, doing this thing.
So I sense that my partner is maybe playing a close friend from the way she is standing, that's how it makes me feel, and most important of all, there is nothing to suggested she is not. I also feel my character’s status is higher than my partner's , she's relying on me in some way, contemplating something I've just told her. what I've just told her is important, it just confirms that we also have a long-term personal friendship. Enough to commit because this all only remain a 'maybe until I do. I say, "Come on Susan, trust my advice".
Eventually we will find a particular relationship, which has started as a more general one. My partner's character has become anxious, she says "I really don'y think I can" and I get a sense she’s done something wrong. I’ve discovered this from how she responded to me, and I'm also awareness of my own body language, I stepped back from her for some reason. This all sounds so slow (that's ok) and intellectualised (It isn't) We all have this inborn skill to recognise the feeling we have that something is wrong, that some unspoken undercurrent of feeling is going on.
"If you Tell the Truth you don't have to remember anything"
This concentrated attention to detail means there is a lot to remember. I have a shocking memory myself and learning lines is a real problem for me, but I find remembering less of a problem here because listening makes you better at remembering. People tend to stop listening when they believe they know what’s going to happen next – or when they know what they want to happen next. Pure improvisation is about not knowing what is going to happen at any point. Memory improves when you pay attention and care about what is being said.
"Finding the Heat and Weight"
The first things we are most likely to find at the top of the scene is the heat and weight of the relationship. Weight refers to what is already in the room; what is going on and what is the level of tension? For example: Imagine the look of your closest loved one, if she or he are concerned that you have 'been seeing someone else" – there would be a fair amount of tension in the room. Now imagine the look of the same loved one – thinking you are overdue for a haircut, the weight here would be much less..
Heat is the intimacy and intensity of the relationship – anything from complete strangers standing next to each other on a train to life long soul mates. You will eventually discover the associated relationship. Don’t mistake the heat of the relationship for the named relationship such as husband and wife, teacher and pupil, client and hairdresser. Father-son relationships could have the heat of casual drinking buddies or distant strangers. Likewise pupil-teacher relationships could be bully.
"Your Emotional Point of View"
There are apocryphal stories of how actors find a character; Alec Guinness would allegedly almost stalk people he thought had an appropriate walk for the character he was rehearsing until he could imitate it exactly. One physical attribute can stimulate all the rest, from gestures and stance to finding the voice, even the accent. If you want to adopt low status, turn your feet in and your body and mind automatically fill in the rest, you unconsciously get smaller in stature, your shoulders hunch, you walk with smaller steps, you stare at the ground and stop looking in other people’s eyes; you even start peppering your sentences with “ers” and “ums, and If people adopt a low status accent it’s commonly working class. This is the technique of working outside in. But is this a character? ` The manner is which people move or speak, play physically old or young is not essentially a character, it’s nothing more than a frame to hang a character on. It’s a characterisation and often an archetypal caricature. You have the skin but not the heart. You may know who or more accurately what you are playing but you probably can’t articulate it.
It’s more useful to discover an emotional point of view. Look at your partner and think about how they makes you feel about everything they are doing and saying; are you bored; suspicious, feel enmity, love, or think them funny. Attach an emotional quality. Ask if there’s anywhere else you feel that feeling and you may begin to discover who you both are and where. Perhaps you’d felt put down at work by a colleague, or by a teacher at school – there, already, is a feeling and two possible settings for your scene.
Because we start with nothing at the top of the scene we can only begin with being ourselves, if we don’t we are inventing and not discovering off of our partner. We might respond and adjust in the immediate millisecond when we look at our partner but the change isn’t generally huge as we are only moving a small step at a time. This means we tend to play close to ourselves, which is my personal preference anyway. It’s also useful not to play big external characterisations because there are occasions when we may have to play our stage partner’s character and if they have an impossible accent and complex walk and gestures it’s nigh on impossible to be convincing.
Our first public performance of what we are temporarily calling Speed of Life, a free form that dispenses with rules relying on principles and 'being in the moment, this means no format to give you scaffolding for a scene, no rules to help you find comedic opportunities; it's high wire improvisation without a net. without a net. We began The club nights, a monthly free performance to try new work on an audience and they are proving very useful, and whilst audience and performers perspectives are different there is general consensus about the success and learning of the evening. Club nights are open workshops that give us the opportunity and permission to fail in things we are not yet fully practiced in. From the first few minutes of a scene we were discovering, rather than inventing although there we recognised falling back on old habits, ‘blocking’, 'gags' and trying to be original. Having an audience present very quickly tempts players into pleasing them by trying to be ‘funny’ or ‘more interesting’. This leads us into inventing rather than discovering. The moment that happens the scenes became extreme, and less real and actually less interesting. In post performance feedback the audience, pretty well unanimously, said they were more interested in the relationships between the three men than the ‘murder’. We must learn to trust staying in the moment. The fact is, if we can retain our interest in the ‘other character’ so will the audience, or at least they are more likely too. It also takes the focus away from ourselves and any concern about the audience, both of which make us act and create rather than just ‘be’ and discover. The discussion with the audience was very informative, as is watching the video. Obviously our first performance has its faults, flaws and failures, it where we and how we learn, being an audience member of your own performance you more easily recognise the flaws. We shall hang onto the video and watch them gain, maybe a year on to see how we have advanced. Seeing and naming the good and bad habits allows us to develop the one and iron out the other. During performance I find myself assessing what I’m doing and getting ahead of the moment to control the stories direction. "No Jon, you must be in the moment." If we want to be truthful we must trust in the moment and allow the story to happen to us.
This is by far the most challenging improvisation form I know, so we should be somewhat pleased we gave it a shot and all feel prepared to keep working at it and doing it again soon. And doing it again and again and again. I feel there may be no end point, it's all journey, and that a good thing.
Post category:Improvisation Pointers / Performance Notes