Improv 101 — Four Corners

When I think of Four Corners, my immediate thought is always “discount Four Rooms”. It does have significant differences–primarily the fact that it involves four performers rather than eight. It’s also one that blurs the line between scene games and hoop games. If I were to pick one, I would call it a scene game strictly because improvisers still have to build a scene and establish CROW, but the focus of this game isn’t the scene, it’s the hoop. It’s sort of hard to pin down because of it.

Here’s how the game is played. You get four improvisers and you have them form a square, with the two people in front playing as the current performers. At any point, the ref can call “left” or “right”, indicating that the square should rotate in the respective direction. “Whose left or right?” you ask. Well, technically this doesn’t matter as long as everybody’s on the same page with what each direction means. My troupe orients it to mean “the current performers’ left or right”. So when the square rotates, the new side of the square is an entirely different scene, though one person will always remain the same from the old scene (acting in an entirely different character and situation). The specifics aren’t imperative, but for this game, I usually get the following suggestions in order: Location, Occupation, Relationship, and Wild Card.

But here’s the important thing about this game: the primary entertainment value in the audience is through disorienting your improvisers. This game doesn’t force the improvisers to justify ridiculous lines like in Four Rooms, and the rule for this game doesn’t interfere with the way the scenes are played, so if left on their own, the scenes will pretty much all be boring, especially since it will only be two people per scene by necessity.

How is this game fun, then? Well, it’s the referee’s job to confuse the performers as to what is actually happening and how the square should be positioning. First, I let them each establish CROW, calling “Right” until every scene has been performed for about fifteen seconds. Then I start to make things interesting. I pick up the pace, calling for a scene swap every five seconds, or saying “Left, left, right, left!” quickly in order to confuse them.

Now, this is actually more confusing than it sounds. Your brain doesn’t have time to do math and eliminate the redundant directions, and on top of that if you’re standing in the back, not performing, and I call “right”, that means “clockwise”, and to you, this direction means left. Why not just say “Clockwise/counter-clockwise”? Well, because the entire point is to be confusing! You don’t want to make it easier for the improvisers to get their bearings! Plus, way too many syllables for a quick direction.

The most enjoyment an audience will get from this game is actually in between the scenes when the actors are trying to figure out where they should be situated. The one thing I have to remind actors is to try to eliminate downtime between scenes. If I say “Left, left, right, right, right, left, right, right, left” in one breath, obviously it’ll take time to puzzle that out, but the key is to make sure every direction is followed. Don’t just stand there thinking about it and ‘solve the problem’, because the audience wants to see you suffer. And if at any point the square breaks, and people are caught in the wrong position, go with it. Combine the scenes. Make a joke out of it and laugh at yourself. Even if the entire scene fails to be entertaining, I guarantee that will be.

In any case, this game is a good energy builder, but since it’s entertainment relies on the actors failing, this game isn’t performed very often. There are better games more suited to showcase skill or simply bring up entertaining and memorable lines.

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.)

Improv 101 — 90 Second Alphabet

90 Second Alphabet is one of my favorite games, but that’s less because its fun to play or watch and more because I’m good at it and we all like to show off every once in a while. This game is unusual in the fact that it’s usually only a two player improv game, where the most common number of improvisers for games is either four or eight. Just like Slideshow, there is a lot to unpack about this game, even though the baseline is really simple.

You have two people, and the idea is to perform a scene in 90 seconds where every line that is said begins with the next letter in the alphabet (with the speaker alternating back and forth, naturally). You get a location (any suggestion works), and a letter of the alphabet. If the letter is ‘P’, the first line in the scene must start with ‘P’, then ‘Q’, then ‘R’, and so on. This will continue until the actors go all the way around the alphabet and end on a line that starts with ‘P’, and the scene ends. That’s the whole game.

When I’m teaching this to new kids, I always tell them that the alphabet is considerably harder to remember on the spot than you would think. Many people who try this game for the first time need help remembering what letter needs to come next. Obviously, this game needs to be done quickly (since you only have just over three seconds per letter), so while 90 seconds is a target to hit, I don’t expect anyone without a good amount of experience to be able to perform an entire scene that fast. In my experience, the easiest way to perform this game is to have your two characters get into an argument. You want each of your lines to be very brief, so an argument with quick back and forth banter works ideally. Obviously if you don’t know your alphabet then going faster won’t make the game any easier, but this is something to consider once you’re comfortable with your knowledge of which letters come in which order.

As with most games, there are funny things you can do to “cheat” your way past the rules. Remember, you can only skip rules in improv once the audience is familiar with them, which means you can only bend the rule of the game after you’ve established how the game should be played. With this game, obviously letters like ‘Q’, ‘X’, and ‘Z’ will be tough to weave into a normal conversation. Typically the easiest way around is to address the other character by a name that starts with these letters. Alternatively, if the game has been going on for thirty or forty seconds, you can use “Excellent”, “Exactly”, “Exquisite”, etc. for an ‘X’ word, as long as you emphasize the ‘X’ part. The audience will understand that you’re cheating and won’t hold it against you. (This also works for “You” with the letter ‘U’, or “Why” with the letter ‘Y’ and things like that!)

Once improvisers have gotten good with this game and the alphabet, you can make it tough. You can play this game doing the alphabet backwards (a skill I’ve honed quite a bit over the years), or even skipping every two letters. (I.e. ‘A’ to ‘D’ to ‘G’ to ‘J’, etc.). If you’re skipping letters, you need to go through the entire alphabet three times in order to hit every letter. Now, obviously the only real “increase in difficulty” here is the fact that you’re changing which letter in the alphabet that would appear next in the scene. The game doesn’t really get harder.

Another reason that this is one of my favorite games is that it can be played on a whim. It requires no preparation, no audience, and no referee. You can play it alone with another person just as easily as you could on stage in front of a huge audience. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s simple, even if it’s tough!

Improv 101 — Forward Reverse

Another game that’s simple in concept and difficult in practice is the scene game Forward Reverse. For this game, you’ll need to change the way you interact with the other improvisers on stage in order to play the game well. As always, you want to establish CROW, so keep this in mind when doing any scene construction.

The rule for this game is that while performing, the ref can call “Reverse!” and at that point the scene starts playing in reverse. Every action you take, and the order of the dialogue, plays backwards. (You won’t be expected to talk backwards, too, of course. If lines are said in order of A-B-C, just say them in reverse order when playing the scene backwards.) On top of this, the ref can also call “Forward!”, and you’ll resume playing the scene out normally.

The ref will inevitably call ‘Forward’ and ‘Reverse’ on somebody numerous times to make them repeat dialogue, a big action, whatever, because its funny for the audience. This game ends up being funny primarily because the ref uses the actors on stage as puppets to dance at his/her will. If you do a cartwheel on stage, you better be prepared to cartwheel back and forth several times because the ref is certain to make you do so.

On top of building a scene and establishing CROW, many games require you to play a specific way. A game like this requires the actors on stage to make big actions. If everybody walks on stage and simply talks to each other, there’s nothing funny about forcing them to go back and forth. This means that every time I teach this game, I hammer down the rule that you want to be doing large things on stage. Exaggerate everything you pantomime. Make big entrances and exits on stage. Do huge things!

This also helps build the energy of the scene. With all of the reversing and huge actions, the stage should be a little energetic. We’re not making silly comments and answering questions while sitting down like Good, Bad, Worst. We’re running around and yelling and making a scene (pun unintended but permitted). This doesn’t mean that you should yell everything you say, simply that there should be big conflicts, big and overly dramatic characters, and something that you need to watch in order to properly enjoy it.

The easiest thing about this game is that since the ref is playing every part of the scene backwards and forwards, the scene doesn’t actually have to be very long. Start to finish, most scenes in Forward Reverse will be thirty/forty seconds tops. Now, one thing you have to consider is that every game I’ve ever taught should run for between three to six minutes. Forward Reverse can do that easily because the ref can milk specific parts of a scene. The scene itself will end up being very short, but the audience won’t even notice.

If you play this game right, the improvisers could very easily end up out of breath. It’s a lot of fun for the people on stage because they get to mess around and have a lot of stage presence without needing to be all that creative and think on the spot. It’s also easy for the ref to save a “bad” scene because, as I said, the scene is fairly short. As long as there are big actions in the scene, the game can do well.

Improv 101 — Questions Only

A lot of people have heard of Questions Only, and it’s pretty straightforward, but as improvisers soon learn, it’s hard to master. We don’t typically perform this one, because a big group game that isn’t high energy makes it hard to fit into the lineup of a one hour show. That being said, it still very much has its place in improv practice, as long as the improvisers have broken the beginner mistakes of asking questions in normal improv games.

So, as I said, Questions Only is a group game. Conventionally, it’s an elimination game, but this only works if your cast is strong enough to know how to reply to things in the form of a question. (If an improv troupe is bad at this game, it’s more likely that they would simply take turns rather than play it as an elimination. Typically you’ll have two lines competing against each other. The two people that are first in line will play (and you’ll only ever have two performers at a time), and people that are eliminated step out.

But, as bad experience will show, it’s easy to banter. If you say “Where are you going?” and I reply with “Where do you think I’m going?” it doesn’t do anything. I didn’t come up with my own sentence, I just reworded yours. That isn’t improv.

The way to play Questions Only is to treat every interaction as a two person scene. Every scene should start off as ABA, and establishing CROW is still paramount to “winning”. In addition, and this is the hard part, every question needs to move the scene forward. For example, if you say “Where are you going?” I could say “To buy groceries, want to come?” Now, I have added something to the scene, and we now have more insight into our characters and location than before. Breaking the habit of asking useless questions is definitely the most difficult aspect to this game, but its the only way to make it entertaining to an audience.

An interesting thing about this game is that it is virtually autonomous. You can get suggestions from the audience for location or relationship, but it’s not necessary. Furthermore, the only thing the ref has to do is call people out when they mess up. He/she doesn’t point to people, doesn’t give them directions, or anything. As long as the improvisers know what they’re doing, they should be able to perform the game with enough entertainment value as to not need any sort of help or interaction.

The funny thing, is that you see this game played a lot by non-improvisers. I’m sure you’ve bantered with a friend or a sibling in the car where you only ask questions. This is simply taking it a step forward where you introduce characters in the context of a scene. It’s for that reason that this game seems easy, because everybody does it for fun, but is actually hard because of that non-intuitive rule of not asking useless questions.

This is a great example of this game being played right, but pay attention in the beginning where Colin simply repeats whatever Ryan or Wayne says. That’s an example of what not to do, but luckily he doesn’t do it enough to overshadow the humor!

Improv 101 — Freeze Tag (240)

Freeze tag is like the improvisation game that every one knows. No, I’m not referring to the game of tag where people freeze in place. Well, it’s actually sort of like that, but this is a popular game that’s simple and easy. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that even people who don’t watch Whose Line or never been to an improv show often know the basic structure of how this game works. Even many non-actors are familiar with this game. But even if you haven’t heard of it, lets talk about how this game is structured and how to play it so the actors have fun and the audience enjoys it.

So, this, like all the games I’ve talked about so far, is a large group game, meaning its meant to be played with at least six people. Unlike some of the games I’ve mentioned, however. It does have a limit. Typically, only two people will be performing at any given time, so if there are twelve performers on stage its very possible that none of them will go on stage because they don’t have enough ‘stage presence’. So, the golden zone, especially for a performance, is about six to ten performers.

The way that this game works is that you have  your performers stand in a line (or an slight arc as the case may be). When starting this game, have two performers step forward. Now, this game being so large in the theater community, there are a number of ways to play/begin this game (any popular game is going to have innumerable amounts of variations troupe to troupe). The way my troupe starts is with the initial two actors starting to flail. The ref/coach calls ‘Freeze’, making the actors stop flailing and freeze in place, and the scene begins. The actors must now justify, through actions and dialogue, why they are in the positions they are in. Remember that the actors should try to establish CROW in every scene they do. After the initial scene, we leave it up to the other improvisers on stage to call ‘Freeze’. When they do, the actors stop what they’re doing and the person that called freeze tags one person out, assuming their position. When they are done, they begin a completely different scene, (continuing using those positions and justifying them for this new scene).

As far as when the actors on stage calls ‘Freeze’ to start that new scene, that’s sort of up to you. The goal my troupe shoots for in this game is to establish CROW as quickly as possible in each scene and then call Freeze as soon as every element has been established. This can take anywhere from one to ten seconds, but generally this game is more entertaining when the scenes roll through quickly.

Now, there are a number of things to take into consideration when playing this game. If you’re just having fun, it’s probably best to just experiment with what works for your troupe. This game is super malleable so just play it and figure it out as you go. When I’m teaching Freeze Tag, I try to steer my actors towards “easy” scenes. For example, any action and position can be justified by establishing it as yoga. It literally doesn’t even matter what position it is. Any position can be justified through yoga, exercise, or dance moves. It’s a bit of a cop-out to use any of those for a scene in Freeze Tag because it means the actor didn’t have to really think about how they could make an interesting scene out of it.

Lastly, once your troupe knows the game well, you can cut the two person requirement. This opens the game up to a lot of new possibilities, but adds a lot of rules, as well. I personally prefer playing it this way, but its a bit complicated for beginning actors to grapple. The simple explanation is that improvisers can now enter scenes without calling freeze, becoming a third person on stage. They can also leave the stage, leaving two or even one person. When one calls freeze, all performers on stage freeze as normal, but now that person can tag more than one person out. When this happens, the improviser chooses one person to assume the position of. If your actors have a problem with entering a scene without knowing how to leave, tagging multiple people out is an easy fix. They can even tag everybody out and start a new scene off as a monologue.

Primary thing to remember: this game is super simple, and if you want to play an easy game that actually requires improv (meaning not Bippity Bippity Bop, Zip Zap Zop, or 185, a game I’ll talk about next week,) then this is the game. Learn what works and mold how you play accordingly!

Improv 101 — ABA

First on the list of warm-up games is ABA. I would argue that this is the most important game for any improviser to learn, because this sets the building blocks for learning any game moving forward. This isn’t really a “game” in the sense that you would ever see it performed, it’s just for practice so that the actors can learn how to start scenes without scripts.

The game itself is simple. It only requires two performers and each run-through typically only takes about fifteen to twenty seconds. One person, Person B, starts on stage, pantomiming. They can be pantomiming anything at all. The other, Person A, walks on and says a line. Person B responds to this line, and Person A makes one second a final statement. “A-B-A”. At that point, the game is concluded.

The goal of this game is for beginning improvisers to learn and practice the basics of establishing a core scene concept designated by the acronym “CROW”. This stands for Characters, Relationship, Objective, and Where. The scene must establish ‘Characters’, involving who the two characters are individually without the other person. (Saying two people are sisters is referring to relationship, not character.) If a scene involves a mother and son, the characters could possibly ‘six year old child’ and ‘middle-aged woman/mother’. ‘Relationship’ is who the characters are in reference to the other. This could be siblings, mentor-student, coworkers, things like that. ‘Objective’ refers to the conflict of the scene. Are they trying to get to school on time, land a plane, or somehow fly a kite on the moon? Sometimes the characters have different or even opposing objectives, and that’s okay. This could easily bring more tension (and therefore conflict) to the scene. ‘Where’, of course, is simply the location in which the scene takes place. Most often you want to be as specific as possible. Don’t say ‘house’ if you can say ‘in the kitchen’ etc.

What many beginning actors learn is that a lot of CROW can be established through implication rather than statement. If B is pantomiming something and Person A runs on stating “Honey, honey, no! Not on the walls!” then, regardless of what else is happening in the scene, we can infer all of CROW just from that one line. A is a parent, B is a child (mingling Character and Relationship here). The objective is to have fun (the child) and stop the child from ruining the house (the parent). Obviously, this would take place in the house. The coolest part about that is the fact that both characters each have one more line even though they’ve already established all of CROW. This could then be used to further the scene and perhaps fine out the details. What exactly is the child doing to the walls? Where’s the other parent? Things like that.

Ideally, most scene games should start off as “ABA”. When you’re performing longer games, establishing CROW is important because if we have characters with no objective, there is nowhere for the scene to go.

The key thing here is to practice how scenes work. Remember that pantomiming requires space and weight. Don’t forget that there is a stapler in your hands and suddenly make it stop existing. Don’t deny what the other person is doing, and especially don’t ask them what they are doing. If you don’t know what they are doing or don’t know how to come on as an appropriate character, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk on and establish them as flying a plane when they were really pantomiming chopping carrots or reading. Now suddenly they have to justify why flying a plane looks like whatever action it is they were doing.

Remember, the beauty of improv is that while there are limits to what you can do to “succeed” on stage, there will still always be several ways to get there. There’s a way around every roadblock you come across in a game.