On Wednesday night, our new troupe decided to play “from the back line.” This means that instead of standing on the sidelines (i.e., “in the wings”) when not in a scene, we simply step to the back wall and await our next entrance. Nobody ever leaves the stage.
This was a pretty unusual way to improvise in Austin.
In fact, I can’t think of a single show I’ve seen played from the back line in Austin. Every show is played from the sidelines. Of course, certain shows lend themselves to sideline playing—especially the more “theatrical” improv shows in which a bunch of improvisers lingering against the rear wall might be distracting or inappropriate.
Let me entreat you, dear friend: If you’re doing a run-of-the-mill improv show—as most are—play from the back line! Come with me, comrades, and I will lead us gloriously into a future Elysium where stages DON’T EVEN HAVE WINGS, IT’S JUST MORE STAGE!
Here’s why I’m evangelizing for this method of staging. Here are three advantages of playing from the back line:
1. More Quicker Edits
When playing from the back line, you can typically end a scene in progress by taking a single step forward. That’s fast, homey! Try it now. Stop reading, stand up, and take a large step forward.
Wasn’t that fun? And did you notice how it took literally no time at all? That’s how fast you can edit (read: end) an improv scene. Playing from the back line means you can halt a scene on a dime. And ending a scene when it demands to be ended … it’s one of improv’s, and one of comedy’s, most sublime moments. Timing is, as the Jamaican bobsledders know, everything.
Editing from the sidelines takes longer than editing from the back line–even just milliseconds longer. But within those milliseconds, the “moment” can fade or the button gets undercut with additional lines from the improvisers.
2. More Better Listening
Allow me to drop a truth bomb on your heads: Improv requires you to listen. Listening is, um, kind of a big deal.
For some of us, however, “listening” isn’t a preternatural talent. You know how some people have “bitchy resting face”? Well, some people have “not listening brain.” Improv is a constant reminder to zip your lip sometimes, and focus less on saying something interesting and more on hearing the other human being you’re with.
Still! Listening—really actively eagerly listening—is hard in an improv show. Especially if you’re having an especially self-aware evening. Listening requires you to shut off your thinky brain for a moment, and your thinky brain generally revolts against any interruption.
So we need all the help we can get to listen, to hear. Standing along the back line helps.
3. More Deeper Intimacy
I’m loathe to lapse into purple prose when writing about improv. And discussing this nebulous art form using nebulous poetics strikes me as prissy and unhelpful.
And above all, I want to be helpful.
That said, there is something magical about being physically close to drama. When you’re on the side lines, you’re separated from the immediacy—the undeniable here and now—of improv. You’re lounging, away from the action, watching it, judging it, looking for cracks into which you can insert yourself.
You’re in the show, but you’re out of it somehow.
By being along the back line, however, you’re a part of the show even if you’re not in this scene.
Playing from the back line forces you to arrange your body in a “listen-y” manner. You can’t sit on a bench. You can’t make wild faces or laugh at your troupemates tooooo loudly. You have to be on your tiptoes, because (a) you have to be ready to edit, and (b) the audience expects you to be.
Frankly, it fires you up!
There are some downsides to playing from the back line. For starters, you might find yourself growing self-conscious back there. You might feel on display, as if the audience is dissecting and judging you from head to toe. They’re not, trust me.
They barely even know you’re there.
They’re too busy watching the scene happening in front of them. And again, playing on the back line isn’t appropriate for all shows. I’m thinking here of those genre-prov shows I adore so much. If you’re trying to create a fully realized world onstage, then no, random improvisers loitering around the stage might not fit.
But otherwise, try it out! Of course, this technique is used often in NYC and Chicago and elsewhere.
In Austin, we’re almost exclusively sideline players. I’d love to see that change, if for no other reason than it’s something new.