Improv 101 — Actor’s Worst Nightmare (355)

Actor’s Worst Nightmare is another one of my personal favorites, but requires some specific things in order to play properly. Many improv games require nothing but enough square feet to perform on, but there are a few that require materials (ex. Blind Line requires strips of papers with quotes on them).

This game is a scene game of four people where three of the improvisers have scripts or books, and the fourth person must justify everything that everybody else says. The improvisers with the scripts can only speak using lines in the books they are holding. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the person with no script as the “anchor” because they need to be the anchor (focal point, main character, etc.) of the scene. The other improvisers will be “script-holders”.

This game is played like any other scene game: all of the aspects of CROW must be established, and the anchor has to make everything the script-holders say make legitimate sense given the context of the scene. It sounds simple, but the scripts the improvisers have can be anything from Beauty and the Beast to Othello. This game typically works best if every script-holder has a different kind of play/work, however.

One person should have a script from a contemporary play or scene: this allows them to talk “normally” and interact with the anchor without any trouble. The second person should have a script that is not conversational. This typically means giving them a Shakespeare play, but anything old can work (Greek plays serve the same function). Obviously it will be more difficult for the anchor to justify why somebody who says something like “Cowards die many times before their deaths” (quoting Julius Caesar), so that’s something to keep in mind. The third script-holder can have something weird. I’ve given people biology textbooks, children’s books, or simply fantasy novels. This is the hardest role for a script-holder, because while they have the potential of being the funniest character in the scene, something that is not a script makes finding a line that serves as appropriate dialogue can be quite hard.

This game is largely a trial for a good anchor. Since the game focuses entirely on them, the success of the scene is entirely dependent on the skill of the anchor and how well they can justify the rest of the scene. This isn’t to say the script-holders have it easy, simply that the audience will never be focused on them. As the anchor, one needs to think as a puppeteer. The other improvisers on stage need to listen to you and follow directions.

Let’s say somebody walks in and quotes Shakespeare. The anchor can reply with “Sally, you know I can’t understand you before you have your coffee, leave me alone”. This sentence serves several purposes. It justifies why ‘Sally’ said something weird, it establishes the relationship between the two characters, and provides a setting as well as giving a stage direction: telling Sally to leave. When she returns later on in the scene, the anchor can now comment on how she still hasn’t had her coffee, creating a running joke throughout the scene.

As the anchor, one is also not allowed to ask questions to the script-holders. One should avoid asking questions in improv as a general rule, but in this game, the script-holders have no easy way of responding to any question you give them: since they can only say what’s in the book they’re holding. This is why giving them stage directions is so important: following orders doesn’t require a response.

As a script-holder, there are a few rules of thumb to make everybody’s life easier. First and foremost, for any script, you should stick to one character. If you have Julius Caesar, don’t say a line of Brutus’ dialogue, then a line of Cassius, etc. Try to stick to one character, because this gives the character in your game a much clearer personality. (If you make a stage exit and return to the scene, you can return as a different character. You can even come on saying the other half of the scene you were just quoting. Very few people would even notice it’s the same scene.)

The script-holder should also stick to talking to the anchor. Dialogue between script-holders is very difficult because your lines are so restrictive, so while it can work, it’s best to avoid doing it too much. Along the same lines, though, any lines can be used for anything given the right inflection. Remember, your only restriction is the words that you’re saying, not the way you say them or the actions they’re accompanied by. “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”, for example, can be used as both a stage entrance or exit. (Now, I realize this line translates to “Why are you Romeo?” not “Where are you, Romeo?” like many people think, but it still works.) Pro-tip: the use of names from any script is a good way to define characters in this game. For example, the anchor can reply “I’m right here! You must be going blind!”

As long as all the actors on stage are listening to each other and following these rules, the game is easy (for the script-holders, at least). It’s guaranteed to be a blast, but the anchor will probably have a stressful time if they don’t know what they’re doing (hence the name of this game.)

2 thoughts on “Improv 101 — Actor’s Worst Nightmare (355)

  1. I didn’t realize this was going to be about a game when I read the article name. Then I realized what was happening.

    I like this game.


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