This week I wanted to geek out about some of the different ways you can edit scenes in an improv show. The edits you use can really help give your show a feel, tone and style to compliment your scene work. It’s very much like how a powerpoint presentation is made more entertaining by adding effects.
Actually, bad example. The effects in a powerpoint presentation are always the best bit.
The first edit improvisers learn and for good reason. Sweep edits are very simple and they clearly show that a scene is over. The improviser goes across the front of the scene and all the players on stage clear off to the side or the back, resetting the performance space.
Even though sweeps are probably the easiest kind of edit, there are a couple of aspects that are easy to overlook. The speed of the sweep should be somewhere between a jog and a run (genuinely just did some sweeps in my living room to see how fast I sweep, I’m so fucking cool it’s unreal). It’s a small but important detail, you shouldn’t be so fast you plough into something but quick enough to cut the scene at the intended moment.
It’s easy to let your sweeps betray any nerves or lack of confidence in your show if you do them in an apologetic manner. Keeping your head bowed, scrunching up your face as if to say “We don’t feel great about that scene” and going across with low energy feels so natural when the show isn’t going the way we’d like it to. I recommend keeping your composure and remaining relatively neutral when sweeping, although positive is fine too.
Sweeps are very vanilla and don’t particularly add much texture to a show but they are reliable. For added flavour, I quite like it when people sweep using an element from the scene that’s being edited. For example, a bear sweeping a scene set in a forest, a Frankenstein’s monster in a laboratory scene, a hipster in a coffee shop scene and so on. The sweep remains a clear edit but also add some character to the fairly abstract improv convention of someone running in front of the other performers.
I love French edits. When done well they look so smooth and they keep the pace up in comparison to the more staccato nature of sweep edits.
French Edits come from the tradition in classic French drama in which the arrival or departure of a character from stage signifies that a new scene is starting. In improv, this mainly consists of a character entering a scene who is clearly not part of the previous scene, signalling to the other improvisers that they are starting a totally new scene. Due to the oral tradition of improv, I’ve heard French edits defined with a number of other specifics but this is the definition I’m going forward with.
The difficulty with Frenching (cheeky) is that they need to be practiced before they look really good. As the French edit is a lot less obvious to the players than some of the more overt edits, sometimes the other improvisers on stage don’t realise that a new scene is being initiated. This can lead to a very clunky scene transition or the players will just think that a completely out of place character has entered the scene.
To make a clear French edit: I recommend initiating in front of the performers who are on stage, not making eye contact with them and making an offer that is clearly out of place in that scene. It takes some reps in the rehearsal room but it also has the added benefit for teams who want to raise their awareness of what’s happening in their show.
Along with potentially lessening the clarity of your edits, a minor thing you lose is the potential applause break between scenes that the sweep edit allows the breathing room for. However it’s a relatively small trade off and they are still very possible if you leave a bit of space at the start of each of your french edit initations.
Object edits are really cool and they look like magic when they are done well. An improviser comes into a scene, takes a mimed object from one of the players and uses it in their initiation of a new scene. It’s very similar to a French edit but it also comes with inbuilt connectivity between the scenes beyond any ongoing themes, games, characters or use of the suggestion.
They can be done a number of ways, the ones that come to mind are:
- Using the object as the same kind of object in the next scene.
- Using the object as the exact same object in the next scene.
- Using the objects physicality to create a new object in the next scene.
- Fairly easy and it’s a nice way of taking something from the previous scene to inspire something new. Probably best to try to make the context of the objects use fairly different from the previous scene for the sake of variety. For example, an apple from the Garden of Eden in the first scene is taken by an improviser, who then puts it on the head of another improviser and aims a bow and arrow at the apple. Can be played for laughs too, for example a glass of urine in one scene can become a pint of beer in the next which is then drunk by the improviser. I did that example in a show once and was delighted that the loose connection between two seperate glasses was enough to cause laughter and a grossed out response from the audience. Much less disgusting examples also work.
- This can be cool if the object is of significance. It could be a powerful artifact, an object of sentimental value or a myriad of other things. It’s also an interesting way to signify a time jump, with the object having been passed down the generations or has circumstantially found itself with a new owner. Thinking about it now, you could do some really cool shows around this concept, as long as the object itself didn’t overshadow the character dynamics in the scene work.
- I find this such a satisfying transition and the closer to the original mime it is, the more magical the result. This is very similar to Freeze Tag, in which an improviser takes another improvisers physicality and justifies it as something else. And just like in Freeze Tag, taking someone’s precious bone china plate in one scene and use the object work as a frisbee in the next scene is a lot of fun. Also pregnancy scenes and dance scenes, actually maybe that’s just Freeze Tag.
This is similar to object edits but with words. Taking the last line of dialogue from a scene and using it to start a new one can be a fun way to play. Finding a new way of delivering the line or finding a secondary meaning behind the line is recommended for variety and to inspire a totally different kind of scene.
The Science of Living Things experimented with verbal edits a couple of years back, trying to develop an edit that was called something like a ‘word throw’. Someone would end a scene by saying half a sentence while doing a mime of throwing something up in the air. Someone else would then come on to start a new scene, mime catching what was thrown in the air and then finish the line but in a totally different context. Some transitions might go like this:
Throw: For Christmas I want…
Catch: An entire leg! It was a terrible biking accident.
Throw: This is delicious, it reminds me of…
Catch: My cat Ignio, I bequeth my entire fortune to you.
Throw: Bees make honey and honey means…
Catch: Money! All six numbers… I can’t believe it!
It’s a good idea in theory but it never really caught on in the group. It created some big bold initiations but meant that the end of scenes would suffer without a definitive ending or big laugh. It also caused tricky issues with self editing in a larger group and would unexpectedly put a lot of pressure on the group when a scene immediately ended with a word throw which asked for some creative wordplay.
I do think there’s something there though and I’d love to play around with it again one day. Just off the top of my head, I think it would work in shows that have a small amount of scenes that get returned to, rather than loads of different one off scenes. It would take the pressure off coming up with an entirely new context between each verbal throw and the non-definitive endings wouldn’t need to be a problem if the players were transitioning between interweaving story threads. It’d be cool to workshop some ideas around this but that’s for another time!
I’ve barely scratched the surface, so what edits do you use? Teach me a new one and I’ll give you a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: LiamBrennanImprov@gmail.com