The scenes that never were

In my two years of teaching improv, the class I’ve taught most often is Intro to Long Form. In it, students learn to improvise scenes based off of true personal stories (a format referred to as Armando in improv circles). I love teaching this class because students get to know each other through sharing their stories and these stories provide jumping off points for super fun scenes.

There’s an exercise I use in class to work on generating scene ideas that I call Plates of Ideas. I have one student tell a true personal story and then the other students write down three ideas for scenes based on the story (each idea goes on a separate slip of paper). They then place these slips of paper on plates marked 1, 2, 3–the numbers corresponding to whether this was their 1st, 2nd, or 3rd idea. Then, one student will draw an idea from a plate and initiate a two person scene based on that idea. Much scrutinizing of handwriting and hilarity ensues as this process is repeated for a series of scenes based on the initial story.

There are a number of things I like about this exercise. 1) Writing down three ideas stretches the imagination, encouraging students to go beyond their first idea for scene starts based on the story. 2) Sometimes students will draw similar ideas for scene starts, but we’ll see the scene play out in different ways based on the choices the improvisers make. This is also a good opportunity to point out we don’t necessarily want to see three scenes in a row about toaster ovens in an improv set where somebody tells a story about a toaster oven. 3) Finally, initiating scenes based off of other’s written ideas gives students the opportunity to honor and build on their classmates’ suggestions. A willingness to support the ideas of others is one key to success in improv, and this exercise gives a taste of what that support feels like.

We never get through all of the ideas students have written down for scenes so at the end of the day I have a lot of little slips of paper left piled up on the plates. I love reading through these ideas after class and thinking about the scenes that never happened.

Part of the magic of improv comes from knowing at the end of a set you’ve just created something that will never be repeated because it was all made up on the spot.

Another part of the magic comes in the beginning of the set and during it when there are so many possibilities for what will happen next. Each moment in an improv set improvisers are making choices: to initiate a scene based on idea or not, to react one way versus another, to walk on in a scene or edit it, etc. Improv sets are determined both by what happens and what doesn’t happen on stage (action and non-action).

Improv scenes that do happen are an expression of idea made tangible for a brief moment in time. Ideas for improv scenes that never happen are either not expressed or bantered about in the green room afterward, e.g. “I had this great idea to play a piece of toast.”

The scene ideas on slips of paper left over at the end of my class represent an impossibly small fraction of all the improv scenes that never were (basically zero in a mathematical sense). Reading through them serves to remind me of one of the things I love most about improv–how full of possibility it is.

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