Improv 101 — Story

Story, or as it may also be known, Story Story Die, is a group game that is simple in concept, but can actually get pretty difficult once the cast has experience with it. In this game, a bunch of people stand in a line while the ref/coach points to them. Whichever actor is being pointed at is the one narrating a story, and the idea is to have one cohesive narration regardless of how quickly the ref moves their finger.

This game works best with at least six people, but can work with up to about twelve before things get a little boring. This is the first of a sub-genre of group games, however: elimination. Whenever somebody messes up, they are out, and can no longer play. The ref or coach gets a suggestion of a book that has never been written (Typically you’ll get a title like The Lost Shovel or The Little Engine That Couldn’t because people aren’t very imaginative). Then, starting with chapter one and speaking one at a time, the improvisers will narrate the tale of insert possibly clever title here. When somebody “messes up”, they are out, and that chapter concludes, starting over a new narration sequence with chapter two, until finally you only have two people left (which will usually be around chapter eight or so).

So, what constitutes as “messing up”, you ask, oh theoretical reader? There’s a number of ways. The idea here is that the actors are reading from a book. If an actor says something that doesn’t make grammatical sense with what the person said before it, they’re out. If they stutter or mess up their own sentence, they’re out. If they take too long to say anything (hesitation), they’re out.  They can also be eliminated by a number of additional rules to make the game harder as the game progresses (rules you can also begin with depending on how skilled the cast is).

The biggest rule to establish if the previous ones no longer work is the cutting of stalling techniques. “So”, “Decided to”, “And…”, “uhhh…” that sort of thing. With this rule, if an actor says or does anything that doesn’t add to the story, they are subject to elimination. My favorite phrase is “… and so they decided to….” because that can provide an extra two seconds to figure out what you’re going to say and it makes use of nearly every common stalling technique. Nearly everyone says it at some point in their improv career.

Lastly, when all else fails, you can eliminate letters themselves from the game. “No more words that start with the letter C”, or even “No more words that contain the letter E at all“. It’s hilarious to watch somebody struggle with talking with multiple rules like that in place. For my group, typically the final two improvisers will have two or three letter eliminating rules like that, usually making it impossible to say a main character’s name, or even mention and important plot object (say, a shovel). The best part about this rule is that you can pile more and more on, and regardless of how experienced the cast is, it will always overcome them eventually.

This game is pretty fun and my troupe has a lot of inside jokes from past runthroughs. It’s easy to play, but it forces beginning actors to really start thinking and getting into an “improv” mindset where other games do not.

Improv 101 — Basic Acting (205)

Today we’ll be continuing to define some acting terms, but instead of simple definitions, this post will focus on all of the major problems that beginning actors (especially improvisers) have, and how to fix them. This is all the stuff that will bar your way from becoming a professional actor, since most of these are amateur mistakes that can usually be buffed out within a few months of regular practice. But first: things every new actor most learn.

Notice how the person on the right is standing. You can see his entire person, though he is clearly facing the other two. The person to the left, however, is standing at a profile–you can’t see anything his left hand would be doing.

Cheating out is probably the number one thing that one must always be aware of in every scene or game you play. This refers to your body position on stage, meaning that you should virtually always be facing the audience for whatever you do. It draws attention away from the actor when you aren’t facing them, and if your back is to them, they can’t see your face or anything you’re doing. Generally, when you are speaking, look towards the audience. If you and another actor are talking to each other, both of you should be facing the audience slightly as if they were a third person in the conversation, making a small circle as you with with two of your friends. (There are instances in which you want your back to the audience, but for the most part, just don’t do it.)

Projection is simple enough, yet even some experienced actors seem to have difficulty with the concept. All projection means is that you must speak loudly (and clearly) enough for the entire audience to hear you. You should never assume that you’ll be able to use a mic on stage, especially since its extremely common for mics to be turned off or not even work when you do have them (which is basically never the case with improv). So, basically, an actor must learn to carry their voice. This also goes along with stage acoustics. Some theaters are able to keep your voice strong as it goes through the audience, but an actor shouldn’t rely on that, either.

As far as rookie improv mistakes, there are three big things that virtually everyone messes up at first. To start off, improvisers should learn to not ask questions. While asking “Why?” and “What are you doing?” can be typical for a conversation with somebody you know, it should never be done on stage. Every action an improviser takes should add something to the scene, and open ended questions like the examples do not. Instead of asking a question, establish what they are doing for them, and even continue the scene. For example, suppose somebody seems to be pantomiming pushing a broom. The audience can probably tell that its what they’re trying to convey, so asking “What are you doing?” does nothing and puts everything on the other actor to justify where the scene is supposed to go. Instead, add something: “Honey, I need you to stop sweeping for a second and take out the trash, it’s really piling up.” Now all of a sudden you have a scene: that of a child doing household chores with a parent giving them more (where tone of voice in that quote can more readily establish who the speaker really is). This also sets up for conflict as perhaps this child is fed up with doing so many chores. Now, after only a single line, you have a setup for a good scene rather than a stage with two people on it.

Along the same lines, denial is a huge roadblock to some beginning actors’ scenes. This simply refers to denying what another says to be true in the scene. If somebody claims that you are sweeping when really you were intending to pantomime mopping or vacuuming, it can halt the scene if you simply say “I’m not sweeping.” This once again leaves the other actor to justify their own action of why they claimed you were sweeping. If somebody runs on stage and says “Oh my gosh, you’re on fire!” and you reply with “No I’m not.” it’s probably obvious how the progression of the scene can get difficult. If somebody is endowed with being on fire, that person, in the continuity of the scene, is now on fire. Now it is up to them to justify what happens next or why they didn’t act like they were on fire before (since perhaps the character they are playing didn’t see it.)

Lastly, improvisers should be aware of their stalling techniques. Most actors have at least one, and they are a means of halting the scene in order to buy themselves more time to do whatever it is they need to. In games that involve a lot of talking, common stalling phrases are “so”, “uh”, “and”, “decided to”, etc. These are beginnings of a sentence that are unnecessary for the context of the message. “John and Mary decided to go to the store,” is slow and does not move the scene forward. Simply deciding to go doesn’t mean that they are going, so now the action of going must also be established. Instead, the phrase should be “John and Mary went to the store.” This now puts the scene immediately into the store and allows for the action to continue. Nonverbal stalling techniques usually has to do with body language. It can be shifting feet, playing with hair, etc. (Mine personally was sighing when I didn’t know what to do).

That concludes the majority of things actors should be aware of before they get started. Next week we’ll start talking about actual improv games!