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Improv Initiation Fiesta: An Improv Exercise

July 14, 2014 10:43 PM
Posted by Aaron
 
Improv Initiations

In my experience, one of the hardest things to teach is the improv initiation or what happens in the first three lines of dialogue. It's hard, not because initiations are inherently difficult, but because they can be virtually anything at all- a line, an action, anything at all. Which means you can't tell anyone what they initiated was wrong. And when ANYTHING can be right, what's there really to teach? Right?
Strong Initiations

In improv, we always talk about STRONG initiations, since we can't really say "right" or "wrong" initiations. A strong initiation usually defines the characters' environment, names the characters, and let's us know how they are feeling. That gives us a good starting point for exploring these two characters' relationship. Throughout all my training as a player, this is what I was taught, but I never really got taught HOW to include all of that crap into an opening line or an opening action.

So I set out to teach my students how to actually initiate a scene. Now, I started by doing what every instructor I had ever had had told me, and talked about strong initiations, and what they were, and I got the same results. Awkward lines that just said who and what they were, and how they felt, and where they were, and their scene partner's name.

"This is a nice..Starbucks..it makes me happy to be here with you, Dave."

"As your doctor, I get upset when I see you do unhealthy thingsBeatrice."

And other lines like that. Lines that contain all the information you need but still feel hollow, still feel like they are missing that "strength" they are supposed to have.  That's when I realized it wasn't what I had always thought- that new improvisers are not good at initiating. It was that that the instruction was missing something.
The Sombreros

So I made a new exercise. I didn't even give it a cool improv name. I wasn't sure it would work, so I just called it my initiation exercise. What I did was I gave myself an object as a suggestion, and then I did what I do every time I initiate a scene, I started initiating. But this time, I only came up with my first line, and then tried initiating a new scene with the same suggestion. After I wrote all those down, I went through them and took out all the specifics. Then, I wrote down all the vague things, and threw them in a sombrero.  Then, I pulled out another sombrero, and I did all the second lines and reactions I could think of, and went through and took out the specifics again.

So the the lines in the initiation hat looked a lot like this:

    "Start a scene in the location where you would find the object, but don't use the object"
    "Use the object, and say something personal about the other character"

And the lines in the reaction hat looked like:

    "Be very excited about what your scene partner said"
    "Take whatever was said to you very personally"

I had my students pick a slip of paper and gave them a completely separate suggestion. Then, I had them go at it, still remembering to add in their names, feelings, and locations.

The results were awesome. During this huge long exercise, my students and I were laughing almost constantly. From the opening line to the last line, we were engaged, we were interested, we were having fun. The great thing about it, was that even though I had given the students this vague idea of how to say the line, I never told them WHAT to say.

Afterwards, I talked to them about the exercise, asking them what they thought about it. (I never tell my students when I make up my own exercise. I always act like I've learned it from some wizened old improviser on top of a mountain somewhere. That way if they don't like it it's not my fault.)

What they said they liked most was that it made them think of new ways to use the suggestion and that took scenes in new directions. They liked that they knew what their reaction was as soon as they walked onstage.They thought it was neat to see that any suggestion and any reaction could go together, and that it almost always made a decent scene. The oddness of the line, or the way it didn't match up with the emotional reaction that responded to it, actually defined the characters. Once they had that emotion and those characters that had that line, the rest of the scene came easy.
Suggest-O-Brero?

In closing, I really wish I came up with a name for this exercise, because it really really worked. It's now one of the exercises I will use over and over again with my students. I would suggest anyone to try it in their classes or rehearsals. If somebody could come up with a cool name for it let me know in the comments below, 'cause good exercises always need a cool name.
 

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