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Everyone has been to one of those improv shows. There are a couple of actors on stage doing something. It starts to get interesting. Suddenly, another actor gets up to participate in the scene. Then another gets up, because he has something to say. Then another. All of a sudden, no one knows what it was they were doing and another actor or emcee edits this cluster of chaos out of desperation!
So what happened? We've seen it work out with more than two actors on stage before. How'd this crumble and fall so quickly? We were all getting along so well!
First off, let's talk about focus. Focus and commitment. When you are on stage with one other person, it's easier to focus on what you are looking to accomplish. Supporting ideas, creating a strong relationship, working on creating something together. Some folks would say there is strength in numbers, but not in this case. In this case, numbers can weaken the structure of the scene by injecting a lack of focus and alternate agendas.
"The number of people on stage is inversely proportional to the commitment on stage." - Armando Diaz
Armando Diaz of the People's Improv Theatre (PIT) in New York once said, "The number of people on stage is inversely proportional to the commitment on stage." This means the more people trying to be in a scene, the less committed everyone is to that scene. Dilution. So how do we prevent this? The simple answer is to keep the number of people on stage to a minimum when possible. Let those people establish their deal without you tromping all over their good fun. They'll call out for help if they need it.
If you do decide to come in to a scene that is already there, your goal should be to heighten or clarify what has already been established. This is where listening comes in. "I have seen too many times when a two-person scene was going great and some selfish actor who could not stand the idea of a great scene going on without them in it, found some way to come into the scene and add nothing to it," says Ben Porter of the Off Broadway Theatre's Laughing Stock in Salt Lake City. If you feel the need to come in to a scene, do it because you heard something that motivates you to go in and help. Actors on stage that are not in the scene should avoid being passive or having side conversations. Listening to what is going on in the game or scene and using those details to bring in an element that has been mentioned before is like sharing an inside joke with the audience. If you come in as the character that was just being talked about and you exhibit some characteristic that might have been mentioned quickly by the actors on stage, the audience remembers that and the payoff can be huge.
Your goal should be to heighten or clarify what has already been established.
Also, listening helps you determine if you are being asked for. If the actors on stage are calling for a character you just played, be ready to help. Or if they are describing a character they are expecting, be ready to help as that character. Again, come on to help out with what has been created already. If they are not calling for you, perhaps you shouldn't come on. It's a very subjective thing to know if you are needed or not, but as Mike Brown of the Off Broadway Theatre's Laughing Stock in Salt Lake City says, "Jumping into a scene when you're not needed is for the sake of your own ego."
The same goes for coming on as a prop. It's fun to see an actor come on stage and be a box in the corner full of a son's second place trophies, but if you are going to do this, do it to heighten or clarify what is going on. Often, simple pantomime or gestures can take care of an object, but if you have something to add as an object do it without making the scene suddenly about that object. The payoff can come in reintroduction when later in the show that box suddenly reappears when that son is on a date with a hot red head. But again, do not take away the focus of the scene.
"Jumping into a scene when you're not needed is for the sake of your own ego." - Mike Brown
Now, this does not all fall on the head of the actor trying to help out a scene. The actors on stage need to stay focused on what they have created as well. When the box of trophies appears, the scene doesn't have to suddenly involve a lot of talking about the box. That box can create tension and turmoil with its mere presence, without ever being mentioned for more than a line or two. It can be very uncomfortable for an actor who is just trying to help and fade away to be called into the limelight and have the entire scene shift onto them. Maybe it can help the actors but it essentially restarts the theme and energy of that scene and tosses everything that was already created. Don't be afraid to let your fellow actors create a backdrop or ambience to a scene.
Heighten and clarify... then beat it, fade back, or support what is already there. Your ego might hate it but your fellow actors will appreciate it.
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