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by Darren Held

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I occupied myself with thinking profound improv-y thoughts. Lucky you!

See, I was pondering the concept of information and how best to give the audience and my scene partner all the information they need. Obviously, dialogue is one way, but it’s overused and not always the best way. For example, I can say “I am chopping this tomato, and boy am I mad about something.” Or I can do angry-space-work chopping while glaring daggers at my scene partner. No words, and yet the audience instantly gets the same information. It’s faster than dialogue and more visceral because the audience experiences it with you, rather than just listening to you tell them about it.

So spacework and emotion aren’t just things you do in an improv scene to make Darren happy; they are actually important ways of adding information. Who knew?

As far as dialogue, it IS useful in getting out the who/what/where/relationship information at the top of the scene.

  1. Who: Giving your scene partner a name may seem unnecessary, but think about all the information a name can convey: Andromeda, Dr. Barnhardt or Buford all tell us something about that character. Sure, Jim and Mike and Ann are fairly generic – but you can challenge yourself to use names that are themselves labels.
  2. What: It may seem perfectly obvious to you that you are typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, but if you don’t label it and your partner says you are massaging a bunny, then you are, in fact, massaging a bunny. Sometimes spacework just isn’t all that clear, and letting the audience know exactly what you’re doing helps them get involved in the scene. If they’re confused, they’re not relaxed and ready to laugh. Spell it out.
  3. Where: You might think being uber-specific about your location would be limiting, but it’s actually the opposite. If neither partner labels your location, you could literally be doing anything on earth. But think about that Google-map thing that you can zoom… When you see the whole planet, there’s not much detail. But zoom into the U.S. and you get a little more detail. California, even more. Long Beach, even more. Zoom to street view, and you can see all the details like the fact that I haven’t mowed my yard this week. You want to give the audience as much detail as possible and, beyond that, you want to make it as easy as possible on yourself and your scene partner. If we’re just on earth somewhere, I don’t know what to do and the audience doesn’t know what to imagine. But if we’re in the bathtub in my house, that tells us all a lot about these two people, gives the audience a specific location to see in their mind, and gives me and my partner very specific choices about what we might be doing.
  4. Relationship: A lot of times the players give each other names but don’t make it clear what their relationship to each other is. But getting that information out early cements the scene and gives the audience a context for what’s happening between these people on this big day. If Buford and I are in my bathtub massaging a bunny, the information is going to differ if we’re brother and sister (don’t be gross; we’re dressed. In overalls. Duh.) or if Buford is my pastor or if I’m Buford’s boss. If you feel like you’re having a hard time adding information that moves the scene forward, make sure the relationship is clear – having that context will help you know what to say or do next.

All right, that’s all I have time for. I need to get out of this bathtub and get this bunny to church before Buford’s next service starts.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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