Improv 101 — Chain Murder Mystery

One of my personal favorites, and an easy game to teach to beginners is Chain Murder Mystery. This isn’t a warm-up game, or a large group game, but is the first of dozens of a category I haven’t talked about yet: ‘hoop’ games. These are very loosely described as games in which there is no scene per se (meaning CROW is not established or necessary), but the actors are required to jump through hoops, or rules in order to play correctly.

As with most team games, (games that don’t involve large groups of eight or more), Chain Murder Mystery works best with four people. The idea here is to play a game of improvisational telephone. The actors must each convey three ideas to each other using only pantomime and gibberish. So, three actors leave (where they will not hear or see any suggestions), and the coach gets suggestions from the audience of a location, occupation, and murder weapon. (As far as suggestions for murder weapons go, take things that can’t easily kill people, like a crumpled piece of paper, or a broken heart. It’s more entertaining to get abstract stuff than “a tire iron” or something).

Once the suggestions are given, the improviser that remained in the room will have ninety seconds to accurately describe each of those three suggestions to the next actor. (Indicate
which idea you are conveying by using three specific pantomimes: Stomp on the ground for location, tap your chest for occupation, and pantomime the psycho holding a knife above his head for murder weapon. That way everyone knows what you’re doing when you transition to the next idea). After the ninety seconds are up, the newcomer will pantomime killing them with whatever they thought the murder weapon was. The next person comes on stage, and they now have sixty seconds to convey the same three ideas (though those ideas may have shifted a little because it’s hard to be completely accurate!) When the timer’s up, the person pantomiming gets murdered, and the process repeats one last time, only now the improviser only has thirty seconds to get those same three things across. All-in-all, only two actors will ever be on stage simultaneously with this game.

When the third and last person gets murdered, the improvisers line up and take turns saying what they thought the location was, starting with the last person on stage. This should get more and more accurate as the guess get closer and closer to the first person that performed. After that, everyone says the occupation, and finally the murder weapon.

There are a few extra things about this game, though. It’s very simple, and honestly hard to mess up with how entertaining it is. With most games, though, there are things you have to keep in mind in order to play it effectively.

First, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, this game is most entertaining when you give your actors complicated suggestions. Don’t give them “the mall” for a location, give them “the mall during a zombie apocalypse”. Don’t give them “doctor” for an occupation, give them “telepathic heart surgeon”. Admittedly, those are incredibly difficult to accurately pantomime in thirty, twenty, or ten seconds, but that’s not the point. It is not the improviser’s goal to successfully portray all three ideas across all four actors. That’s boring! The real entertainment of this game is watching as each person pantomimes radically different ideas from the last person because they don’t get what the other person was trying to say. Complex suggestions do all the work for you in that regard.

Lastly, do not repeat actions. It’s something of a pet peeve of mine, but every beginning improviser does it the first time they play this game. If somebody is given the suggestion of a bowling alley, and they pantomime bowling, you are not allowed to pantomime the same action. There are two reasons for that. The first is that it’s a cop-out. If you’re copying what they did, it means you didn’t have to really understand the location, and you’re just trying to skip the responsibility of thinking how to transfer the same message. Second, it’s boring for the audience. They don’t want to see the same actions over and over again. I don’t care if there’s only one way to pantomime bowling alley (which, by the way, isn’t even remotely the case). Don’t repeat actions.

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.