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)
"Live an interesting and observed life and brings it to the stage"
Play the game of observing people. When you see them in the street, if only for a moment, fill in all the unknowable blanks. Observe these people I saw on the tube.
Look at the picture with the woman and child. Has something just happened? How is she dealing with it emotionally? What is she thinking? What about the boy? What about the gentleman on the left, is he connected to the other two? What’s he thinking about?
What if I told you they are together?
What about the couple in the other picture? What is their relationship? What is their status in relation to each other? Is he trustworthy? Is something bothering her? Most essentially ask about each one “What is he or she feeling? How do they make you feel?” If we lead an observant life we can bring that mindfulness to the stage in the service of our scene partner. An improviser needs to watch, listen, read… and think. Our responses and reactions are coloured by our thoughts, it benefits us to practise having some.
"Rules are things you have to do, Principles are things you get to do"
Play in the moment has no defined format and no rules it has certain principles above about it's a mindset that says we are discovering an already occurring in the scene. The less you do, the more you will notice and the more it will seem like you are uncovering what is already happening, you are not writing your own story, it is happening to you. Through discovery you can stumble onto stuff that is more interesting than if you try to invent something new. The less you try to put stuff on the scene, or control the story and the more you listen to your partner the easier it becomes to follow the show. The understanding is that if you are following something pre-existing. Therefore, the scene must already exist. It isn’t a magical, creative process as is much a logical one of discovery. Play in the Moment is free form. The 'free' meaning no rules
In short-form and format shows like The Harold, Armando, La Ronde there are rules, Rules are specific things you must do for the game or the format to work. The rule to establish “who, what and where” at the top of the scene may be essential in short form, but ultimately it is artificial. We just don’t speak in these expositions like “Sir I’ve been working in your baked bean canning factory for fifty years now, and as my employer I think it’s about time you gave me a promotion.” Expositions get in the way of creating scenes we want to be like real life. In free form Play in the Moment the answers to who what and where will reveal themselves in time, or may not, the where may not matter, nor the named relationship. If you simply improvise honest scenes an emotional relationship between two people will be emerge and that is what the scene is about. If we behave honestly, we don’t have to remember the rules. Our only task is to reveal what is already occurring, that’s why we pay attention to the scene and especially our scene partner.
Rules have come from noticing the characteristics that good scenes consistently tend to have. Keith Johnstone observed that scenes involving arguments often bombed; they went nowhere, whereas scenes in which people agreed moved forward. Thus terms like ‘blocking’ and “accepting” and the rule “Yes…and.” But if you were to literally saying “yes…and” at every exchange it would become irritating. Yes…and is a distillation that means you accept the reality of the scene. So in this form, to be helpful to your partner and the development of scenes you do need to fundamentally consider the principles of accepting the reality of the scene. We do however throw out the artificiality of the rules, forget them in a way and trust that your experience of playing them over the years means they are now instinctive. Replace them with the following mindset: Agree to the reality of the scene and don’t contradict the established reality. Play at the top of your intelligence and use all you senses to attend.
Play with Honesty not for Laughs"
“Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes”. Del Close
It’s not our goal to be funny or even entertaining. Our goal is to be honest in the moment trusting that it’s the best tactic to produce something of quality. Will it be entertaining? Probably yes, if we stay honest.
There are a multitude of Impro games and formats that are set up to produce comic effect, the Armando certainly being one of the best. But with this improvisational form we’re not trying to be funny, neither are we trying to not be funny, we’re not even trying, we re just being human to produce something like life and genuine. Is real life funny? Yes often. Audiences certainly laugh at the familiar, things they recognise in themselves, things that are genuine and real. Observational comedy is the bread and butter of stand up. Audiences respond also to being surprised, what better way to surprise and audience than with genuine honesty?
The kind of impro we are attempting here isn’t so commonly played perhaps because fear is the hurdle to honesty is fear. You fear that an honest reaction won’t be enough, or fear that the evenings bombing if you’re not getting any laughs. Gags create laughter but improvisers also know they also kill stories; knowing that so many improvisers cannot resist making gags only because the audience reward them with laughter. If some audience will laugh at gags that destroy the scene, why even consider it. Don't think audience judgement is always right, nor that laughter is the first consideration when evaluating the success of a show. Of course we performing for an audience, there is no theatre without them. You will hear their laughter and their silence and someone leaving even only for the loo, but you mustn’t allow them to lead you, they are not in the scene you are trying to discover. They will be with you heart and soul only if you stay focused and true in the scene, It’s difficult to not to want to give them more of the same when they are laughing. It’s difficult not to imagine they are bored when they are silent. It will throw you the moment you make any assessment on how the audience is doing. This is all playing into your fears. Hopefully audiences encourage you by their attentiveness and interest, but your focus on the job in hand which is listening to you stage partner. But if something is funny because that’s the way the scene is going and it seems truthful then it's justified, so don’t run away from it; equally don’t shy away from something that’s making you feel uncomfortable.
You have to confront your fears head on to play honestly, don’t panic or bluff or doubt. It’s helpful to develop a calm, attentive openness to discover the scenes you’re in. Remember you find the scene in your partner so try and get out of the way yourself and not mess up the scene with your own inventions. Your only blueprint for a good show here is putting your energy into the moment with your partner. Think about what is the next thing to do which would be most useful and interesting and true to this moment.
Very seldom do I hear silence in impro. Yet when you stop talking in can draw an audience in. All too often impro is people simply talking on stage when good impro is not so much about talking as listening. Listening is all there is. The more words we use the less they mean. Just stop talking and see what happens, or speak sparingly. You don’t always have to respond with words, respond with silence; thinking is a perfectly valid response. An audience will connect to scenes that have real life conversations. Fight through the fear that you are not doing enough; trust that you can find something quite beautiful in creating something from nothing and discovering moment by moment. This is about trying to represent real life on stage. Scenes need to move at the pace of real life, and than includes silence, pauses and time to reflect.
"Follow the Fear"
Fear based moves on stage are to blame for most of the missteps. Fear is an enemy but also a friend. Not only are improvisers better served by not succumbing to their fears, but also by actively pursuing them, tackling the seemingly scary topics, and making bold, committed moves. More often than not, brave efforts create great theatre. The whole point is to get out there with nothing but one’s wits and whatever confidence you can summon. Improvisers best meet their audience expectation by following what may be the less comfortable path, walking on stage without a plan. As a result, there is this interesting relationship with fear, as it is a route to all improvisational evils it is at the same time marking the way to interesting drama..
“Follow the fear” principal is aiming to follow the truth of a scene, even if it means breaching uncomfortable waters. Ignore the fear of not entertaining the audience and doubting your abilities in order to dedicate yourself to the frightening prospect of not knowing where the scene will lead. The search for honesty requires us to quell the fight or flight response constantly threatening to put the kibosh on many good stage moments. Instead of fight or flight, we suggest you do neither. Neither battle more bolt from the fear, but pay attention and see where it leads. Problems arise when we forget to pay attention, look at our stage partner, or listen with our whole selves. Forget the fear and to just do the next little thing. And the major reason we forget his fear. It’s natural to feel fear on stage but the audience doesn’t want to see the player suffer. The characters yes but not the players.
"Performance and Audience Time Keep it Short"
Remember that stage time and audience time a different. Time on stage seems much shorter to the performer than it does to the audience. On stage if you feel you’ve done ten minutes in reality more likely to have been about 15 minutes. We have all experienced occasions when we get absorbed in something and after what you think is an hour, look up at the clock and see been two. It’s same thing here, the form demands total absorption. For a 40 minute show, when players think they have done 25 minutes it's probably time to stop.
"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.
"Look and Listen to your Stage Partner"
Look after each another.
Your stage partner is the most important person everything you need is there.
Artificially imposing facts on scene doesn’t feel ‘real’
The scene is about the relationship between the characters.
The first principle is: Behave and respond honestly in the moment.
In order to maintain that first principle, you have to be absolutely and singularly present in the moment; bearing in mind you need to know what has happened as well as what is happening in this moment. What is already established has significant on what is happening. Follow this ultimate principle the scene will work emerge. So instead of ‘play the game” and “obey every rule” just be in the moment
Staying in the moment is the most effective way to serve your stage partner and create the best scenes. Stay in the moment and respond honestly. Simply put – ‘look at your partner’ to know what to do. Behave genuinely, respond honestly so your stage partner knows what he or she is to you. You can help your partner by giving emotional emphasis and being more specific with your details. Be clear and slightly more explicit about what you are seeing in them and how they make you feel. Even when you are not in the scene stay attentive to what the others are doing. Even when you are on the ‘back line’ your head is still in the play. If we play with this sense of constant participation you will be much more present and ready for the timely edit or character that’s being called for. You will also build trust; your partner needs to know that you will always be there when they need you.
Listening is more than paying attention to what is said. You listen with all six senses from the moment you come on stage. You have to notice and engage each other’s gestures, energy, tone of expression, and what might be the underlying thought behind the words. The words are only one of clues to help you discover the scene that’s unfolding. Listening in this way is an art, and it’s far more intense than we can sustain in everyday life and it will lead to more honest scenes. Put your energy into paying attention rather than making stuff up, and you will discover everything you need is already there. When we come onto an empty stage we know nothing, our partner is the only source of knowledge so we better pay attention to them. Everything we need is in them. Their face, more specifically their eyes are the first place to look. Do they look kindly, threatening, frightened or confident? Do they seem familiar to you? We have instinctive responses to body language – use them and react truthfully.
How do you know your partner has heard you? Communication doesn’t happen without listening; a message is not delivered until it is received. Looking at them is a good start to knowing if your message has been received. Is there recognition in their eyes? We know someone’s heard when he or she is changed by it. When we genuinely listen we respond, we take in the information and are affected by it.
In a good scripted play nothing is wasted, so you should aspire to miss and forget nothing in improvisation; it may be impossible but you should reach for it nevertheless. Our attention goes and we miss things when we think ahead instead of being present in the moment. Problems arise most often when we miss something. You cannot think your way out of the problem when the problem is generally overthinking; the answer is not to do more thinking, the solution rests in keeping our attention on the other person. And that’s why we listen with all parts and senses to everything happening on stage.
While we are aware of our partner we should also be aware of the messages we’re giving. We have to be aware of what our body, face; eyes are saying as well as how they are being received. Assessing others and ourselves should be in the minds from the moment the lights go up; it’s that moment you begin to learn everything, and we don’t stop learning until the lights go down.
"Play to the top of your intelligence."
Our job on stage is to be attentive and play to the top of our intelligence; in the time we are on stage we should give 100% of ourselves to our partner. There is no benefit in not being at least as smart as you are. Why would you deny bringing your full intelligence to your performance? Sometimes people mistake being dumb for being funny, others believe that they will look foolish if they make mistakes while trying their best; they figure it’s far less scary and acceptable to make a mistake if you’re acting like an idiot. Playing to the top of your intelligence may make you feel vulnerable but do it anyway. It’s this old ‘fear of failure’ thing again. If you are being courageous and fail with grace it’s OK, but remember do it with grace and people won’t laugh at you, but with you – and love you for it
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