I was very lucky to guest with ClusterFox a few weeks back and it was such a treat to share the stage with them. As it currently stands, they start their show with a group scene to inspire the rest of the scenes, which has in turn inspired me to write about group scenes!
For the sake of this post, a group scene is when there are three or more players on stage performing a scene together.
Variations of Group Scenes
There are a multitude of shapes a group scene can take, I’ve picked three common and easy to manage combinations. These are by no means the only way to do them but they are the easiest to pull off and; in frankness, tend to be the most successful. Feel free to prove me wrong and share with me some alternatives! THEN FIGHT ME.
The performers split into two seperate groups for the scene. Everyone in Group A mirrors the energy, character and/or point of view with the other A players. Group B does the same. This allows the improvers to create two groups with two distinctive united fronts. Another way of thinking about this is creating two MEGA CHARACTERS(™), with each MEGA CHARACTER(™) being created by separate individuals with similar characters. Group A and Group B can then interact with each other, recreating a similar dynamic that’s commonly found in two person scenes.
In theory we could have a group A, B, C, D in a scene together, with all of the groups interacting with each other. Although not impossible, it’s extremely difficult to have three or more entities pulling the scene in three or more different directions. The scene will most likely lack focus and the number of accepted offers will likely take a nose dive due to the sheer number and diversity of them.
Odd One Out
Odd One Out can be played in a similar fashion to Two Groups, with the main difference being that one of the groups is replaced with a single improviser (the aforementioned Odd One Out). As above, the scene will be a great deal easier if the group mirrors each others character, energy and/or point of view with each other. The individual improviser will have some form of differentiation from the group which singles them out on their own.
The Backline Podcast described this differentiation in terms of the individual character being higher or lower status from the group, which is a really nice and easy way of defining the relationship between the group and the individual. If higher status, this character could be the leader, boss or the person the group want to impress. If lower status, this character could be bullied, more naive or viewed as weird by the rest of the group. There’s loads of other dynamics that would work equally as well but the ones I listed are probably the most common. These roles create an easy dynamic to play and is part of the reason why this style of group scene is so common.
To curb a potential pitfall: even if the individual’s character has more status or control over the other characters in the context of the scene (the boss in a board meeting is a typical example), that does not mean the improviser should have more control in the scene. It’s an understandable behaviour as it’s a tricky balancing act between controlling character and supportive improviser. To counter this, make sure that as the high status Odd One Out you’re still being affected by the other improvisers’ offers, this allows the scene to be influenced by everyone.
It’s also worth considering the number of lines and offers that everyone on stage is making during an Odd One Out Scene. While the individual will probably have more lines of dialogue and offers than any respective improviser in the scene, if you consider the the individual and the group as two separate entities in the scene, the two entities should roughly contribute the same amount. Of course this will be very dependant on the context and dynamic of the scene, so keep this as a rule of thumb rather than a definitive rule (which I’m sure you smarties pantses already do but God Forbid anyone ever takes what I say too seriously. Unless I’ve said I love you, I mean that MEGA SERIOUSLY(™)).
Peas in a Pod
Peas in a Pod is when all of the improvisers on stage mirror each others energy, character and or point of view. It’s the same style of play I’ve mentioned above but without a second distinctive group or individual/Odd One Out. This can be a really fun form of group scene, especially when the improvisers really build on and heighten the offers made by others in their group.
A tricky thing I’ve noticed with Peas in a Pod is that from the inside it can feel like nothing is happening in the scene. It’s very common for someone in the group to have a mini panic and think that nothing is happening on stage and make themselves the Odd One Out to immediately find something juicy to play with. It’s not necessarily a bad move but it can be a a real shame when a great Peas in a Pod scene is starting to develop.
In some ways, the best way to play Peas in a Pod group scenes is to capture the energy from your first few improv workshops. In the exercise Story Swap, improvisers are put into pairs apart from the story swapper. In each of the groups, one person will start retelling the events of a holiday they’ve actually had. After a sentence or so, the story swapper will clap to signal that the other person in the pair will start taking over the retelling. That person will not have been on holiday with the person (unless they did actually go on that holiday, in which case they will share a lovely memory together) so they need to take over from where the first person left off, building on what they’ve said but taking it in a new direction from the actual story. The story swapper will periodically clap (alternate the timings for the best results), so that the story is a pair effort based on accepting what the previous person said and building on it. After a few minutes, it’s common that the story has gone to the moon and back, all from just building on each others offers. Story Swap produces the best results when played without panicking about making the story ‘good’ and rather just just building on what was said and having fun.
We’re pros at building on offers in this exercise but when we’re in a Peas in a Pod group scene (or any scene really), we start panicking that listening, agreement and playfulness won’t be enough. Of course that’s not even accounting for the fact that we have a myriad of other jobs to do in a scene such as acting, directing, sound, editing, characters, staging and all the other crap you need to worry about as an improviser. If you want to get good at Peas in a Pod group scenes, I recommend going back to basics, being in super agreement with whatever’s happening on stage and allowing yourself to be taken along for the ride.
Bonus Tip: Take it Slow
One of the things that make group scenes tricky is that offers can get lost due to everyone talking at once, tripping over each other to get heard. Until you’ve found a rhythm between the cast on stage, take things slowly. If we do this, every offer can be accepted and built on which will create much slicker group scenes.
Slowing down is useful to drill at the beginning of the scene but you can always return to a slower pace at any point. It’s common for everyone to get excited when the groups developed a fun thing to play with and once again we end up tripping over each other and dropping offers. So slow down! Speed costs lives! The lives of offers! Improvise safely.
Bonuser Tip: Give the Audience One Main Point of Focus
It’s very easy to feel left out of a large group scene and end up doing your own thing in the corner so you feel like you’re contributing. Doing some object work or keeping a character tick consistent is great but only as long as it’s not splitting the audience’s point of focus in the group scene.
For example: say all the improvisers are sat around a table (sitcom table: only half of the table is filled so the audience can see) for a scene set at a restaurant. If one of the characters is talking and furthering the story or game of the scene, it’s not particularly helpful if one of the improvisers pulls out a gun and starts showing it to the other characters on their side of the table. They end up dividing the audiences focus between themselves and the character who is furthering the scene. However if that improviser instead mimes eating, has a silent conversation with a waiter for more wine or looks intently at the improviser who is talking, they are adding to the reality of the scene without pulling focus.
Group scenes are fun but tough! If you really want to challenge yourself and become a pro at handling a large number of people on stage, have a go at the Cat’s Cradle format where all of the cast are on stage the whole of the time. If you pull it off let me know!