This week, I wanted to share a diagram that was first introduced to me and my classmates by Will Hines in a post-workshop pub session. The diagram shows a common structure found in many game based longform scenes. It really helped me gain more of an understanding in playing game based improv and hope it helps you too.
As a caveat, at the end of the day the diagram is for learning purposes and is by no means the holy grail which shows the full artistic complexities behind improv. Also, very useful if you’re a big old robot like me who loves diagrams!
A typical game based improv scene
1. Base Reality
2. Unusual Thing
Let’s go through the sections
1. The circle is the very start of the scene and is the time when the players establish a context. When most successful, this is based around agreement between the improvisers on stage as well as setting up details that will be carried throughout the scene. Different theatres use different terms for this section, Will’s theatre the UCB would use the term ‘Base Reality’ but universally ‘Who-What-Where’ is a pretty good description for what this is.
2. The diamond signifies the first ‘Unusual Thing’ in the scene. After establishing a context in the scene, the players can now look towards discovering or creating something that sticks out from that context. The unusual thing that sticks out from that context will; in theory, be the starting point for establishing a game that drives the scene forward and will create comic potential for the players.
3 and 4. The horizontal and vertical lines that look like a staircase in the diagram are ‘Exploring’ and ‘Heightening’ respectively. Alternating between exploring and heightening is how improvisers play the game of the scene. The first vertical exploration line is the justification of the unusual thing, as in: why is this unusual thing or unusual behavior occurring? The first horizontal heightening line is an increase in the absurdity of the unusual pattern of behavior, the idea being that it furthers the funny idea increasing the comic potential. Everytime there is an increase in absurdity (heightening), the improvisers make sense of this new level of absurdity (exploring) so that the next level of absurdity (heightening) has a solid base to build from.
A lot of schools would term this as a ‘jump and justify’. The jump is a bold offer made by the improvisers and a justify gives the reasoning and logic behind the offer. The difference when we’re specifically talking about game is that all of the jump and justifies have come from that first unusual thing. Most of the moves made in the scene are made to develop the funny pattern of behavior, otherwise known as game.
Once a scenes unusual thing has been heightened and explored a number of times, that is when a scene gets edited.
Here’s an example of a scene following that pattern:
- Mike begins pressing buttons and talking to an offstage Houston character. Rick talks about how his boyhood dreams have come true and how much of an honour it is to have landed on the moon with Mike. They embrace and take their first steps out onto the Moon.
- Mike is unimpressed with the moon.
- Mike says he feels disillusioned and based on films he watched as a child he expected more. Rick tries to convince Mike about the incredible sight of seeing the Earth from space.
- Mike says the Earth looks it is CGI and how much crisper it looks in movies.
- Rick tells Mike that it’s better than the movies, as it’s the real thing, if anything it’s movies that have got it wrong. Mike feels cheated, he said even the space flight wasn’t as exciting as the movies show it to be.
- Two improvisers walk out as aliens greeting Mike and Rick. Rick sighs from exasperation, even the aliens don’t look good.
- Rick is at his tether, he cannot believe Mike is unimpressed. Mike argues that they’re stereotypical greys with big eyes, they don’t even look like ones from Predator and that was in the 80s. He argues real life has been a disappointment in comparison to what he was presented to in movies.
- The aliens promise the two astronauts immortality and infinite wealth before Rick interrupts telling them not to bother.
- Rick shakes Mike, they’ve gone above and beyond anything that could be expected, surely he can’t be unimpressed? Mike argues back that based on the track record so far, infinite wealth is going to be a disappointment and he couldn’t think of anything worse than living forever in a universe that has cheated him. Rick says he gives up on trying to convince Mike.
- Mike says that the conversation he’s having with Rick would be much more dramatic if it was a movie.
While the diagram shows a common structure, it doesn’t show what might be considered ideal lengths of time to spend on each section. You might want to spend a long time establishing a context between the characters before finding an unusual thing and only playing with that briefly. Likewise, if you favour fast play, you may want to quickly establish a context so that you can get on with creating an unusual thing and spend most of the scene playing game. Neither of these are stronger choices and should be dependant on your teams play style, tastes and whatever you’ll have the most fun with.
Practicing Base Reality and Unusual Thing
If you wanted to practice playing game in your rehearsals here are a few exercises you can do to practice establishing a strong base reality and finding an unusual thing. I wanted to share some Heightening and Exploring exercises too but I had to stop myself as this post was getting way too long! I do forget I’m not writing a BOOK sometimes, it’s a BLOG. Silly Liam.
Three Line Scenes: Also known as three line initiations. Two players establish a context within three lines total, these will often include who both characters are, where they are and what it is they’re currently doing there.
Base Reality Scenes: A more advanced version of Three Line Scenes. You are no longer restricted to three lines and instead you spend the whole scene establishing a world. Another way of thinking about it, is to do a scene where nothing unusual or surprising happens. I love doing Base Reality Scenes as it takes the pressure off of the performers and trains them not to panic at the beginning of the scene. The performers sense of whenever an unusual thing happens is also super heightened, anything outside of the strong context they’ve created sticks out like a sore thumb. From my experience, improvisers love this exercise. Treat yourself and give it a go in your next rehearsal!
Confessions: Check out my post on confessions, a confession essentially works as an unusual thing in a scene.
Patterns: An abstract way of noticing unusual things but it’s a great warm-up for the mindset. Get everyone in a standing circle, have everyone raise one hand and name a category that has at least several different answers, such as Australian animals or breakfast cereals. One person points to someone else in the circle who has their hand up and names something from that category and keeps their hand pointing at that person. The person who has just been pointed at, points to someone else and names something else from that category while keeping their hand pointed at this new person. This continues until the last person, who points at the person who started the pattern before naming one more thing from that category. This way, everyone has had a go at adding to the pattern and the random order will help prevent planning ahead. After finishing the pattern, repeat it a number of times in the same order it was first delivered.
After this, discuss as a group if any of the things named stood out from the rest of the pattern and why. This emulates the discovery of an unusual thing in a scene’s base reality.
No one should be looking to intentionally break the pattern but likewise they shouldn’t spend more than a couple of seconds coming up with their answer, which will usually create unintentional breaks to the pattern. This unintentional breaks in the pattern shouldn’t be apologised for, in fact they are exactly what we’re looking for! Much like when an unusual thing organically sticks out from the context of the scene, these ‘mistakes’ should be celebrated and actually make it easier for us to find an unusual thing in a scene. Having said this, I bet the first time you play this game, someone will apologise for making a ‘mistake’ that will allow you to actually play this game brilliantly! Thanks to Mike OT for introducing me to this game.
Boy, I found this week’s post tricky to write. I changed what it was about four or five times. I’m glad I got to share the diagram though, diagrams are cool! Got any favourite diagrams, improv or otherwise? Send them to me and I’ll post them up on my bedroom wall. LiamBrennanImprov@gmail.com