Improv 101 — Replay Countdown

As I’m recalling this game and all the things that go into it, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that it’s a pretty simple game; especially in regards to the ones that I’ve gone over in the last couple of weeks. But when I was thinking that, I also remembered that when I was first learning this game with me and my fellow inexperienced improvisers, this game was hard. We simply could not play it “successfully”, and though we loved it when it turned out well, we couldn’t make the entertainment consistent enough to risk putting it into a performance. That memory makes me truly realize how much I’ve learned in this field, because the thought of ‘not performing a game successfully’ isn’t even a concern I have when I’m performing these days.

Reminiscing aside, there’s a reason my troupe thought this game was hard, and that is because it demands lots of high energy and big action. Dialogue will kill you in this game. Replay Countdown is a scene-based team game, and it’s rule is very simple. First, perform a normal 3 minute scene. Then, perform that same scene in half the time: 1 minute and 30 seconds. Then, perform it again in 45 seconds. Then again in 20, then 10, then 5, until finally the actors condense that entire 3 minute scene into a 1 second scene.

As you can imagine, this game gets pretty hectic. And you can probably understand why dialogue doesn’t work in this game. Once you’re performing in under thirty seconds, you have to go so fast that you have to cut out so much dialogue it’s not even worth it. If you perform the scene using primarily big actions, however, such as large stage entrances and exits, you can convey those much more quickly.

And that’s actually pretty much it. This game also requires that you establish all of CROW, because without it, a 3 minute scene can’t work. So if you can perform one in that time frame using mostly big action, you’re golden.

Here’s a number of things you should keep in mind as you’re playing, however. First, you need a ref (preferably with a timer, as well), but here’s the key. You don’t actually need to time it. As long as the ref calls “scene” at a point that makes sense, the audience will believe the correct amount of time has passed. They’re looking for entertainment, after all. Nobody is going to say “Ah-ah-ah! It’s only been two minutes and forty seconds!” because that just kills the fun. So the time frame is malleable.

It’s so malleable, in fact, that you can start with any given time limit. All that really matters is that you cut the time frame in half every time. Here are some time slots that work well, depending on how long you want the starting scene to be.

5min > 2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s
4min > 2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s
3min > 1.5min > 45s > 15s > 5s > 1s
2min > 1min > 30s > 15s > 5s > 1s

Generally, 3 minutes is the best starting point because most improv games run from between 5-7 minutes, and you’ll get more time than you’d think in between scenes. Starting at 3min will generally make the game take around 7 minutes start to finish.

Here are some pro-tips that make the game a bit easier. A good thing to remember is that the game won’t be funny the first half. You’re just performing a normal scene initially, after all, so humor will be in short supply (but don’t try to force it in!). When performing the scene a second time, don’t cut out any dialogue. If you cut out the blocking and all the beats of the original scene (all the time where nothing is being done or said), you’ll be left with roughly half the time, and it will be right on target. So just do the same exact scene, only make things happen quicker without paraphrasing. The third time you perform it, that’s the time to start paraphrasing dialogue and having people enter at the same time. By the time the scene is less than 30 seconds long, you’ll have all actors on stage most of the time, trying to talk over each other, and the audience will love it.

If you’re playing this right, the last four times you perform this scene will make your heart rate go through the roof, and you’ll be out of breath by the time the game is over. Make sure it isn’t hectic the first two times you perform the scene, though! If the energy doesn’t ramp up as the game progresses, and instead remains consistently high, you’ll leave the audience exhausted!

But really, the main thing with this game is to just half fun and do big actions. As long as you can make those happen, it’ll be enjoyable for everyone.

Improv 101 — Basic Rules

(Explanation for this new type of post at the bottom.)

To start off, let’s talk about bad things that inexperienced actors do. First and foremost, every actor, not just improv actors, need to be aware of some very basic rules. These aren’t all of the rules, of course, but one can never be taken seriously as an actor without mastering the principles of beats, blocking, and pantomiming. Next week we’ll get into things beginning actors do wrong, but its important to know the structure of the stage before we get into “how to act”.

Beats are what actors call moments of pause or change. If a character stops for a second to think about what they’re going to say, or takes a moment to walk across the stage for something, these are beats. They can be used for a great many things. If a character goes off on a tirade and needs to lower the energy of the scene, its important to take a beat, a moment of silence, to let the audience calm down and perceive that change of mood. For improv, beats are also useful to let the other actors on stage know that you are done talking. In many plays and scenes, beats can be manipulated and moved around to change the tone of a scene. Adding in lots of beats in a monologue will make the scene take longer and diminish the energy of the scene. A hyperactive character, then, would take few beats and bring a lot of energy to the scene.

Blocking, though more used in conventional acting, is the actions you as an actor take on stage in order to move the performance along. Rarely do we see a scene where the two characters stand center stage and talk back and forth without moving. In any given scene, most characters move around. They stand up, walk across the stage, pick something up, pantomime an action. A beginning actor may believe that it is the director’s job to establish character blocking, but in reality the actor knows the character best, and thus would know what specific actions he or she would take in any given scene. Regardless of what it is, though, it should have a purpose. there must be a reason that character is taking action, even if they are simply pacing because they are nervous. Blocking at its core is the choreography of the scene, and should be used in order to convey mood and characters. A character that jogs around the room and jumps is somebody full of energy, and brings an air of levity to the scene. By contrast, a sulking. closed off person with no blocking can send a tone of stagnation and perhaps defeat or sorrow.

The third basic rule of acting is pantomiming. Pantomiming is simply the specific action an actor is doing, without using any props. If one pantomimes sweeping, one would pretend to hold a broom and push it across the stage (the type of broom would be determined by exactly how you are sweeping). In improvisational acting, actors virtually never have props to use (nor even chairs), so mastering how to pantomime is essential. When pantomiming something, an actor must always be aware of the object’s space and weight. Pantomiming sweeping with two clenched fists looks silly, because it does a poor job of implying an object is there. The goal of pantomime is to get the audience (and necessarily the other actors) to perceive an object to be there. Pantomiming can also be done with large objects, such as a car or refrigerator, but in such cases it is imperative that every actor on stage is aware of the location of these things. Since they are too big to move, it breaks the cohesion if an actor walks through the car as if it had stopped existing.

With the use of the new website, now is the best time to make some changes to the blog. From now on, Sundays will be reserved for a new category: Improv 101. (This will be the only post on my Weebly site in which this category will be relevant, so instead I’ll simply label it as an “About Me” post.) So, that this new category will entail, aside from the obvious fact that Reviews will now only be reserved for once a week posts, is an explanation and little instruction kit for how to play each game. In the following weeks I’ll be covering specific games, how to play them, and what to watch out for.