Improv 101 — Side Note

This game is sort of an amalgamation of other improv games, twisted into its own unique thing of my troupe’s creation. It is similar to a second version of a game called Film Noir, which I haven’t gotten to yet but the list is getting pretty short. This game is actually a lot harder than it sounds, not because it’s complex, but because the improvisers have to know each other and the craft in order to make this game a success. A fair warning, though. There is a lot to this game, and it’s a pretty hefty post for one improv game. If that doesn’t scare you, read on!

Side Note is a low energy scene game for three to four people. It plays just as any normal scene would, except at any given time, an actor can step downstage towards the audience and address them specifically, while the rest of the scene pauses behind him. Imagine the freeze frame with the main character saying “I bet you’re wondering how I got here?” The game is like that, only it can happen at any time for any character, not just the ‘protagonist’ of the scene. Once they make a short comment, they step back into the scene and it continues as if nothing happened.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, think of it this way. You can’t tell the rest of the people in that scene with you to stop moving because you want to make a ‘side note’. You just have to start walking and hope they pick up on it sooner rather than later. It means you have to constantly stay aware of the people on stage (which, of course, you should be doing anyway,) and wait for likely moments where people will want to pause the scene. This is why it gets easier when you know your cast. You’ll become quite familiar with the moments in a scene they will want to comment on and even the things they might say, depending on the character they are portraying.

But here’s why this game is actually pretty tricky: It’s actually really hard to say anything meaningful and worthwhile in one of those ‘side notes’. This game has no rules to follow and no hoops to jump over. It has to be funny because of the scenarios you make for it and the things you say because of them, rather than the improvisers making ridiculous comments based on what circumstance the game has forced them into. That’s something that only a handful of improv games force you to do, contrary to popular belief.

When you’re making these ‘side notes’, you’re often telling the audience the inner thoughts of your character. Something they wouldn’t say out loud. This means that basically anything you say is the truth. After confessing your passion for professional tricycle riding in the scene, for instance, the character can pause to tell the audience that, in fact, there is nothing on the planet that they despise more than tricycles. Making a side note to say something completely opposite to what your character said in the scene will get you quick laughs, but it’s a gimmick. You can only do it once.

There’s a number of other things you can do, of course, but as I said, it’s hard. In improv you should never try to be funny unless you know what you’re doing, which will come later than you think. That being said, this game won’t make things funny, so this is the sort of circumstance in which you would negate that rule.

So here are my two tips for making this game work. The first is that in every ‘side note’, try to tell the audience more about the character or the scene. Something they might not have known about the situation if you were performing this scene in a different game. The second is that work with the rest of your cast. Have them help you make ridiculous things happen. And by ridiculous, I don’t mean pouring a truckload of rabid weasels into the Starbucks your scene takes place in. Don’t introduce things unless it has some relevance, or unless you plan to give it relevance as time goes on.

But this game works so well when the improvisers play off of the concept of dramatic irony. The barista at this Starbucks could be going through a sudden break-up, while the customer is making their way through a “How to Socialize for Dummies” book in their spare time. How do those things connect? I don’t know, but as soon as you introduce both of those concepts to the audience independently of the scene, they’ll have some expectations for how the scene will unfold. So here’s the thing. You can allow the scene to unfold predictably, or deny the predictable ending, but either way the pieces of information you introduce in the ‘side notes’ should eventually be relevant to the context of the scene. Making them all start stringing themselves together is not easy, but if you can do it right, this game can be phenomenal.

One thought on “Improv 101 — Side Note

  1. Side note:
    Devon: “Little did everyone know, I had the key to the safe in my pocket the whole time!”

    Everyone else: “We know you’ve had the key to the safe this whole time.”


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