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The Game of the Scene (Class Notes)

A few weeks ago I taught a class on Game of the Scene.

To collate some of the amazing ideas around Game of the Scene that I have devoured in my reading, and so that the students had something physical to take with them to keep thinking about the concept, I created the following handout.

So, in case anyone else would find it useful, here it is! Any feedback is totally welcome!! :)

The Game

Chances are, now that you are immersing yourself in the world of improv, the term ‘game’ has popped up a fair bit. Whether it’s ‘game move’ ‘follow the game’, or ‘damn, (s)he’s on game’, it should be clear that game is something that game players takes pretty darn seriously and for good reason too. Game, and more specifically ‘game of the scene (GOTS)’, is an important tool for creating sketch-like scenes that are good enough to be transcribed and slotted into a sketch show. GOTS scenes connect easily with audiences and tickle a powerful comedy itch.

The problem is that game has a lot of meanings in improv; interpretations that morph and change across improv styles, troupes, and vary even between individuals. So, to help in this matter, here is an amalgam of my own thoughts on game (Catherine Seed circa August 2016), to supplement the exercises we went through in class, crammed together with resources from my favourite improv sources on the interwebs and the paper books (if you haven’t perused the UCB manual, do so with immediate effect).

Game as a tool

There are many ‘games’ in improv. The most well-known are predefined games common in short-form improv (e.g. speaking in one voice, sit-bend-stand), made famous by shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway. Improvisers enter these scenes knowing the structure to follow. These games add a strong structural support to the scenes, and help to create patterns (and comedy thrives in patterns). The games create expectation by the audience, and every time that expectation is met, e.g. in sit-bend-stand, when one person moves from bending the other improvisers are forced to change their stance and the audience is tickled (metaphorically). This is obviously useful in improvised comedy, but in long-form improvisation we don’t have the security of predefined games we are privy to before initiating a scene. In long-form, we have to create the structure (the game) as we go.

In my view there are two ways in which we structure long-form scenes so that they are rewarding to the audience and players; through narrative and through game-of-the-scene. Each of these draws in the audience in different ways, and subsequently trains and requires training in different skills.

1. Narrative lets us follow characters through a series of events. We build the world (who, what, where) and then use ‘what happens next’ to create a story. Yes, and.. Is important throughout the entire scene. The characters are changed by the events they experience, and this is rewarding to watch. The audience experiences a rollercoaster of specifics and emotions through the eyes of the characters. Thus the patterns of the scene are often less defined and in flux. Comedic moments in narrative more often come from call backs and specificity, but these scenes can also incorporate pattern structure. Hence in short-form games, a pattern is added on top of the narrative scene and such scenes are often rewarded by more frequent comedic moments.

2. ‘Game of the scene’ lets us follow a single idea, to explore that idea into absurdity through the creation of one main pattern (and maybe some tangential patterns). GOTS begins with Yes,and… but this changes to ‘if, then…’ once the idea has been isolated and communicated to all the players. If, then.. forces the players to create a pattern which the audience follows. Creating patterns is the core of game of the scene. If, then… is a comedic magnifying glass which hones us in on the specific comedic idea. Changing the pattern (or game), while fine in narrative scenes, can halt a ‘game-of the scene’ scene. If the pattern is stopped, the scene stalls and you have to find a new pattern. Similarly, if lots of information is thrown out to facilitate call backs (which is very successful in narrative), this can weaken the game by adding more information than can be reincorporated into the pattern. A GOTS scene can be summed up in a simple idea, and most of the moves in the scene serve to explore and heighten that one idea (hence the similarity to written sketches).

Game as a map to the scene

Game of the scene (GOTS) can serve as a map to the whole scene in two ways; in the overall structure common to all scenes (see below), as well as the possible route (ideas to explore) within the scene. This is why I love using ‘game of the scene’ in improv. GOTS narrows down all of the possible directions that a scene can take, all the information you and your partner generate, into a defined set of key ideas for you to play with, reshape and explore. Furthermore these ideas tend to be those with the most potential from your initiation. This narrowing-down makes the next step in the scene so much easier…and a heck of a lot more fun. Finding a fun way to progress one idea is more liberating than being given the task of finding a fun thing from a whole universe of possibilities.

Breaking down Game of the Scene

  1. Initiation and Base Reality (Yes, and…)

Ok, we’ve been here before. You guys know Yes, and…. We use Yes, and… (or agreement) to build the foundations of the scene (the Who, What, Where, and Why). Through collaborating, embracing and building on each other’s ideas, we can create a situation that neither of us playing could have predicted from the start. To do this we need to let go of expectation and notice information as it arises.

The first offer (whatever form it takes- verbal, physical or environmental) initiates the scene. We then build on each offer, agreeing to each other’s ideas, bridging them together into a strong foundation upon which the scene as a whole can be built. We discover where we are, who the characters are, and what is happening in this world.

As you will see, the relationship is a cornerstone of a good GOTS scene, and is established in this base reality. A good lesson to hone strong relationships is to focus on is establishing an identifiable dynamic between the characters. They know each other; they have had these interactions before. The beginning of a scene shows us what is normal in this world, and that includes between the characters. For my taste in improv (and this will vary between players), the strongest games play with or are played in concert with the dynamic between the characters. Failing to establish this places a ton of hurdles between you and a strong scene (imho).

A difficult note to take in GOTS class is to avoid trying to be funny. This seems counterintuitive. I have just said this structure is a sure fire way to get to the funny, so why would I advocate avoiding the drive to funny it up? Well, the most intense responses from an audience come when the characters are believable. And so the characters must behave realistically in the situation they find themselves in. Trying to be funny in the base reality portion of the scene often disconnects both the improviser and character from the reality of the scene, as well as the improviser from other improvisers around them. Playfulness between the players is amazingly compelling and anything that changes that can undermine the comedy. To paraphrase Steve Kaplan in ‘The Hidden Tools of Comedy’, drama helps us to dream of what we could become, while comedy helps us to come to terms with who we really are. Comedy shows the cracks and weaknesses of the human condition, and to do that effectively, you have to be immersed in the scene, be vulnerable and care about things. You have to react honestly to first discover that kernel of truth about the human condition which you can explore in the game. That doesn’t mean that we actively avoid making decisions that we know to be funny, but constantly pushing for comedy can get short-term ‘diaphragm’ laughs, and the expense of ‘god-I-think-I-may-actually-piss-myself-and-snort-at-the-same-time’ belly laughs.

Once we have established the base reality, we can identify the funny idea and play it with all the comedy skill we have. And we should. Our goal is to make funny scenes.

1 Identifying the key idea- The First Unusual Thing (FUT)

The central idea around which the scene is shaped, emerges from your base reality. During the process of yes anding, something will happen. A character’s reaction will feel strange, a wording of a phrase will tickle you, or a bizarre choice will pop out. It is these responses, this identifying what is unusual in the context of this scene, which we use to find the game. Often the game is based on a simple behaviour, or even better, a behavioural dynamic change that happens between the characters. As two of my favourite improv wisdom disseminators say, the unusual thing, and therefore game is ‘a repeated behaviour expressed between two characters. It is how we treat each other in a scene.’ Adam Cawley, and is based on ‘How were the characters trying to manipulate each other’ Will Hines. These are great phrases to keep in mind when you are focussed on identifying a strong game.

Another key mechanism for identifying the funny idea for the scene is seeing what you, your partner and the audience are laughing at. Often this will be unusual in the context of the scene. If the audience are laughing at it they have noticed it and liked it, therefore if you repeat and play with the idea, they are likely to respond in kind and repeat with laughter.

Premises

Not all scenes required organic discovery of the unusual thing. Sometimes the game is given in the first line of the scene, or is taken from a monologue. This is a premise. We will cover premises more in the future, but the process after identifying the premise or game is the same in both types of scenes, whether organic or premise. So let’s move onto that.

What can be unusual?

It is important to note the importance of context in identifying the unusual thing. For example, a drug dealing character may be ‘normal’ in a gritty city crime drama scene, but would be unusual in a tellytubby scene. Conversely, a having a screen in your belly is normal for a tellytubby, but would be unusual and maybe quite alien in a crime scene. This again, is why listening skills are so important. We need to be listening intently to understand the world we are building, and to identify what feels like a shift in that world, that scene.

Generally, unusual things may be grouped into interesting, unique, and unexpected ideas and actions. The unusual thing may be in a characters reaction, their point of view, the world as a whole, or in the specifics of the environment. Each of these give different games that we can build.

Is there just one unusual thing?

‘…if you wait until there are two or three different unusual things, the scene can be too hard to manage. The scene will often lack clarity because the players will bounce from one thing to another each stressing different unusual things.’ Kevin Mullaney

There is good reason to focus on establishing one main game, but multiple games will often come into play in any given scene. The key difference is that there is usually one strong game between all the improvisers, but that individual characters or pairs of characters can have their own tangential game to play. I find it useful to see these as a playful addition to the scene, as playing them at the expense of the core game of the scene will make the scene very difficult and confusing for both players and audiences.

2 Framing and communicating the FUT

‘If someone in a scene does or says something unusual for the circumstances, I’d encourage their scene partner to pick at that, to question it, to treat it as strange, to be sceptical of it’. Kevin Mullaney

As an improvisers on stage, identifying the game is not purely on your shoulders. The game is decided by all improvisers in the scene. One improviser gives the premise, and the other decides that it is unusual and reacts. This is a mental handshake between the players agreeing on what the scene is about. Once you have identified the game, and agreed to it, you can play the hell out of it, knowing that you have a group mind focused on a single funny idea. When done properly, GOTS is one of the most supportive types of scene. This does not however mean that you know what will happen in the scene, as every player will advance a game in unique and surprising ways.

In class, we framed the unusual thing by repeating the line that seemed unusual. Framing is an active decision and action to tell each other what the game is; to communicate the game. This is a useful tool in a scene and can also be supplemented by sister sentences. Sister sentences are a tool I first came across in a workshop by Dave Razowsky. Sister sentences involve rewording a sentence to include the same important information, but avoiding simple repetition. Razowsky uses this to amazing effect to create a very specific and precise idea which is then explored in the scene.

If your partner has made an offer that you think is a good unusual thing, your job is to react. How you react communicates what the dynamic of the game is. The most important question to ask, is does your character find this normal or abnormal? By treating it as normal, you can explore around it. In contrast, by reacting strongly to it, you heighten immediately. Again this helps us to map out the scene dynamics.

Next, you smash the beat again. I know you are keen to explore and create something funny, but one of the best things you can do in a GOTS scene is to repeat the idea and unusual thing once. This serves firstly to tell your scene partner what the game is, but also communicates this to the audience. If they missed the first time, smashing it again gets everyone on the same time. It also has the propensity to allow a slower building game with more steps; it highlights your action to heighten the game in subsequent moves, and is a personal favourite game type for me.

‘the game of the scene is a f***ing misnomer…that sounds like there was a game there and we were too stupid to find it. The games of the scene are anything you do more than once, that become characteristics or facts.’ Susan Messing.

When we first started playing game, I remember thinking that I kept identifying the wrong game, that others were noticing something different than I was. But that was true for all of us. We were all seeing slightly different things as being unusual. There is no ONE game you should be looking for. For some awesome insight into this, head over to this blog.

3 .Justify

Justifying the choices in the scene is integral to maintaining and building the game. This means exploring the reasons and logic behind the unusual thing. Doing this, and providing a justification helps to rein in the risk of going to crazy town.

4. Heighten and explore

So, we have built a base reality, something unusual has happened, and we have communicated to each other that this is the idea we want to explore, and have smashed the unusual thing once more. How can we go about doing this exploration? The exploration and playing phase of the scene is built upon the phrase if,then…(If this is true, what else is true?). We want to explore around the unusual idea, so we use that as inspiration for each game move. If, then… creates a pattern around that idea, and requires us to play a juggling act, to keep that idea in the air. We use it to create more detail, more action, more stuff! Do the unusual thing more and harder. More implies building on something which is in contrast to again, which implies mere repetition.

We can accelerate the scene, enhance the scene and explore it using ‘if this is true, what else is true?’, ‘if this is true, why is it true?’ and ‘if this is true, what is my characters’ reaction?’. We want moves that explore what we already know and expand it. If.,Then.. is a great way of doing this. If this is true, what else is true can be used to explore the character ‘if this is true about my character, what else is true about them?’, their history, behaviour, the story or the environment.

As we go through the scene our choices should heighten. I boil that down to ‘make it more’. Increase the emotion, and/or the stakes, and or the speed, and or the specificity etc.

See this fantastic post on how to find different ways to play the game, without merely repeating the idea.

Most good scenes have an element that is building during the scene. Whether the emotion is heightening, the specificity or something else, how do you finish? I usually rely on four options; edit, resolution, change, and ‘rinse and repeat’. Option 1 is that you edit on the final, biggest heightening event. End on a high and edit on a laugh. Option 2 is resolution. Is there a question that needs answering, a discussion that needs resolving or a story that needs concluding? Find an ending. Option 3 is to change emotion or have the character change their point of view. If this change is precipitated by the events in the scene, this will be very pleasing to watch. Changing the emotion also opens up the possibility of beginning a new game with that emotion. The final option is my favourite. In option 4, ‘rinse and repeat’, the unusual behaviour is resolved, but just at the end of the scene is brought back. This is also called ‘resting the game’. A call-back and game move all in one. Bellissimo!

How can I practice game?

Building on ideas means honing your ability to remember as many offers that were made as possible. We train this often in exercises such as…Levels, Big booty and Add one.(In Add One, one person lists 3 things. The next person in the circle repeats the three things, and adds on 1 thing, repeat et infinitum).

We can also practice how we describe the game;

We can practice the use of POV- point of view. Start by stating a strong point of view. Use that point of view to see how the character may respond to different situations. How might that POV be reflected in their character, physicality, behaviour, hobbies, environment etc.?

And finally, watching sketch comedy is a great way to hone your game. For an example breakdown, see this site. Kevin Mullaney explains sketches with so much clarity. Search around his blogs for more…

A final note on individual variation in game

We have gone through the structure and training involved in honing GOTS scenes. But there is one more observation that I want to make clear. The way you phrase the game changes what the game is. Each of the players in your team will hear the same information differently. This is why listening is so important, and so hard. Train to take in what is happening in the scene, rather than what you think should happen. Identify what the other players are playing with, and then support them in that move.

Also be aware that while the first unusual thing narrows down the idea to explore, it does not show what the pattern is or will be. As in mathematics, you can’t predict a pattern from a single digit; you need a series of numbers to see what pattern is forming. Some may be very simple- 3,4,5, some may be steeper, 3, 6, 9, some may be complex 3,2,4,2,5,2,. The same is true in improv scenes. Be aware of what pattern is forming, try to understand it, and add to it. And don’t be made if someone doesn’t seem to be following the game ‘you initiated’. You didn’t…the game is still being created as the scene progresses.

Resources

-The Backline Podcast

Formula (pertinent section is 22.55min-30min) http://backline.podbean.com/e/66-improv-is-not-a-formula/

Game of the Scene http://backline.podbean.com/e/14-game-of-the-scene/

-http://ferniecommaalex.tumblr.com/post/85160156374/ferniecommaalex-once-youve-identified-the-game

-Will Hines’ Blog

1. http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/game

2. http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/gamereally

3. http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/post/9879522488/accept-offers-unusual-things

Steve Kaplan https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Tools-Comedy-Serious-Business/dp/1615931406

-UCB Manual: http://ucbstore.com/books/the-upright-citizens-brigade-comedy-improvisation-manual

-Kevin Mullaney http://kevinmullaney.com/2014/06/13/game-of-the-scene-examples-in-tv-sketch-comedy-portlandia/


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