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7 Ways to Ruin an Improv Scene

3:50:00 PMPaul

1. Blocking -Not accepting the scene.

Whether you just started Improv or a seasoned veteran the concept of "YES, AND" is one of the few constants in this medium. Blocking is when you refuse to accept the scene and characters around you. It's OK for things to change but there must be a reason behind this change. There is a (thin) line between illogical and absurd.


Me: I never would have guessed the Moon could be so cold! [shivers]
Not Me: We aren't on the Moon! We're on Uranus!
Me: Oh.
Not Me: Why are you talking?! You're a cat! No, a unicorn!
Me: Damn it.

As soon as that happens it derails all momentum of the scene and it makes no sense. It shows a lack of trust in your partner and the audience can't get into the story you are trying to build.  There is no rule against finding a portal to Uranus on the Moon or the Moon Wizard turning someone into a cat but it has to happen within the premise of the story you are trying to build.

2. Wimping - Refusing or holding back information.

This is an easy one to overcome and it's not too common. Every scene has to have a purpose, no matter how absurd. When your character is asked a question or when it's your turn to help build a scene you have to try and fit as much as you can into a short amount of time. Holding back information not only puts more pressure on the rest of the players but it really stalls the story you are trying to tell.


Me: Hey, Jim! I haven't seen you in forever! What are you doing here at the ER?
Not Me: I don't know.
Me: I think I twisted my ankle doing some sweet-ass karate moves.[laughs] Do you still work in the area?
Not Me: Why do you ask?

Commit to your choices, your characters, and the scenes. Don't hold back.

3. Pimping - Giving other's your ideas.

I've done this for games that include first timers or audience members who don't necessarily know how to move along the story. It should be avoided when performing with a group. Trying to control a scene alone is a sure fire way to upset the people you are performing with. 


Me: This is my first-time skydiving. I feel like I'm going to throw up.
Not Me: Well, Dr. Frankestein you shouldn't worry because you have wings!
Me: Oh We ...
Not Me: You're the instructor! You should be pushing me! Ready?! Go!!

Let scenes organically happen. Accept what is being established around you and feed off of your partners.

4. Gagging - Ruining the scene with silliness.

Before there's an immediate objection, silliness is the foundation of improv. However, it needs to happen naturally in order for the audience to share the same journey you are taking them on. If you interject a random nonsense into the scene it derails everyone's train of thought and makes everyone adapt to your idea.


Me: I think there is at least 12 dead outside. The zombies got most of them.
Not Me: I'm glad we're safe for now, we should probably barricade the door.
Me: Good idea. We can probably use those chairs over there.
Not Me: Maybe we can use these dead babies from my magical backpack! Ew, they smell! Farts!
Me: Sonofa ... 

This is also described as "bulldozing" in some of the material I have read. It's a perfect descriptor as you crash into the scene for a little spotlight. Improv is about sharing, helping, and building a story together not one giant gag.

5. Bridging - Not getting to the point.

In most shows, you only have a finite amount of time to build a story on-the-fly with your partners. Within that period of time, you have to introduce who you are, what you are doing, a conflict, and a solution. This does not give time for a lot of superlatives. If you're an Olympic swimmer in a scene you have to skip over the stretching, swim cap adjusting, and warming up. You have to establish that you are a swimmer, you are there to swim, something is happening, and how you are going to solve it.


Me: Well, Bill what's the situation down where you are at with this Tornado Warning?
Not Me: What I've learned from going to 4 years of meteorology school is that you can't quite predict these things exactly. You have to account for air pressure and different temperatures in the air. My old roommate - who used to only drink tomato juice - used to tell me that Tornados were like a wild horse ....
Me: Is there a tornado coming or ...
Not Me: It's too soon to tell. I'm outside of this diner where I enjoyed the best slice of pie I think I've ever had ...

Imagine Grandpa Simpson and his stories. Stick to the established scene. Too much information will bore the audience. Short games especially need to have all penetration and little foreplay.

6. Narrating - Excessive Narration.

Although some games exist that require this exclusively, most games in Improv are more showing than telling. You should always refrain from saying what you are doing. It's unnatural and it will keep the audience from suspending reality. Miming your actions, reacting to the other characters, and scene can speak volumes for itself.

Me: Can you come over here and check out this fossil? It might be the biggest bone I've ever seen!
Not Me: Sure I'll just walk over these rocks and grab my canteen and I'll be there in a second!
Me: I think this is a rib-bone from a T-Rex! We are going to be so rich!
Not Me: I'll dust this off and see for myself! I'm going to open up my journal and compare it to my notes! 

Speaking like this is unnatural and when you use actions instead of words, the audience pays more attention to you and the details of the scene. You can accomplish more with less.

7. Limping - Refusing to be physical.

Improv is a physical form of comedy. You have to move, adapt to a scene, interact with your partners, and (in my case) take falls. When you are in a scene you have to not only embrace it with your mind but also with your body. If you are on the back of a garbage truck, you have to hold on to the grips, deal with the wind, and the uneven road. If you are a ballroom dancer, you have to dance! Standing there in one place and merely reacting to a scene instead of being apart of it takes a lot away from your performance. 

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