My elementary school P.E. teacher was Miss Paula Pitts. She wore a tight blonde perm and the same giant blue shorts every day. Miss Pitts’ P.E. class lived up to her surname. She was relentless. Considering the intensity of our exercises, I assume Miss Pitts was training an army of eight-year-old super soldiers. For chubby, asthmatic Andrew (that’s me!) it was torture.
But there was always a one-day respite from the cruelty Miss Pitts inflicted: Scarf Day.
Glorious Scarf Day! I longed for Scarf Day every year, and when it arrived, usually toward the end of the year, I would actually look forward to that 35-minute hellscape deathmatch that was Physical Education.
On Scarf Day, we got to juggle bright fancy scarves.
It really was that simple. Somewhere in the depths of our school board’s curriculum some kind soul had inserted a mandatory day of juggling wispy silken scarves. This unknown hero was, I assume, a former chubby wheezer like me. He or she remains to this day a reminder of the kindness humanity can conjure.
In fact, I adored it. The scarves were almost lighter than air—so they’d float forever, giving even the most uncoordinated child plenty of time to catch them and then flick them back upward. It’s juggling for dummies.
And the best part? Because the hot pink and electric green scarves stayed afloat for an eternity, the juggler had plenty of time to embellish his routine. The juggler could do little spins between his throws. The juggler might switch up the order of the three scarves. The juggler might throw his arms wide to demonstrate that he wasn’t afraid of dropping the scarves. No, on Scarf Day, the juggler was no longer a pasty dumpling sucking on a rescue inhaler. On Scarf Day, the juggler let his newly found flair for performance bloom in full.
The juggler would put on a fucking show.
So what does this have to do with improv?
Last night I was part of the debut of JTS Brown at ColdTowne Theater. There were 14 people in the 40-minute show. And it was fucking glorious. We were all scarves. But we were also all chubby juggler hands tossing those scarves back up into the air. We refused to let any single scarf touch the filthy ground. NOT THE FILTHY GROUND!
And to be fair, in a show that big, which moves at that pace, we weren’t scarves. We were bullets. Ever try juggling bullets as they’re being fired out of a gun? It’s tough. Just ask my uncle, Timothy Handhole.
Which is just my way of saying: We had a really great debut show last night. It wasn’t perfect. In a show that moves that quickly with that many people, perfection—whatever that is—is elusive. But it was a funny show that the audience guffawed at constantly. We never let anyone simmer alone. The supportive atmosphere was in full effect. We did some short scenes, some long. We were an amorphous blob at one point. We rocked the house the way houses get rocked: fully.
And I couldn’t help but see each of us as a bright fancy scarf.
Because here’s the thing: When you’re in a scene with a lot of people—five or more is a good number—your focus must simultaneously deepen and widen. Once there are at least four other people contributing speaking parts to a scene you have to hop onto your tiptoes (literally) and put your head on a swivel (figuratively). Your goal becomes to keep all of the scarves afloat. No offer, no suggestion should be left behind. No move shouldn’t be, at the very least, acknowledged. Everybody has to adopt a sort of fighting stance so they’re ready to strike at any moment.
And because you’re now spreading your focus across multiple players—like so much syrup on stacks of pancakes—you’re given less time with each one individually. Which means you have to glean as much as you can from each second.
In a two-person scene, you don’t have to “figure out” your partner’s character instantly. You have plenty of time to move slowly, to “figure it out” together. There’s no rush.
But in a large scene you have to take as much as you can from each interaction, and then immediately move on to the next one.
There are a few things I’ve learned that can help you
MANAGE A LARGE SCENE
Let your offers endow other characters. Endowing someone—“Hey there Frank, nice fake leg you got yourself there!”—does two things. It tells the audience something about the character; and it tells the improviser something about the character. Win-win.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Shut Up.
This one’s hard for me because I still tend to fall in love with my ideas, and I’m guilty of sometimes coming on too strong in a scene, i.e., I talk too much. I’ve gotten much better at this, and I’m more quickly able to recognize when I’m going overboard and fall back. But the big key is not being afraid to shut up. Just shut up sometimes. And the more people onstage? The more you should shut up.
3. Master Strokes
In conjunction with the previous tip, here’s one I’m stealing from Dave Buckman: “master strokes.” If you shut up a bit, when you finally do say something it’s going to get more attention and the audience will (likely) enjoy it more. So let your moves be “master strokes.” Like a famous painter who doesn’t just start throwing paint on a canvas, but who considers each stroke individually. The painter wants to communicate as much as possible with as efficient a move as he can. Be like the painter. Let your moves, your offers, your physical movement be masterful. Show some maturity up there, bozo.
It’s an oldie by a goodie: Start scenes that require groups of people. Last night, for example, the very first scene was a two-person romance (played with absurd tenderness by Alex Baia and Michael Jastroch). So when it came time to do the next scene, I decided we need (a) a bunch of people onstage and (b) a new energy.
So I stepped onto the stage shouting “Soldiers! Line up, soldiers! Get in line!” Everybody knew what was going on, and everyone supported the move instantly. Groups are everywhere, and they’re a great way to quickly organize a herd of improvisers. “Alright, gather around everybody, it’s time to think up the new ad campaign for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter…”
The title of this post is facetious, of course. Last night’s show was … well, I wish every improv evening was like last evening. Electric crowd, focused troupe, a daring format that is executed well. Metric tons of fun were had by all. There’s not a jerk among that cast of fifteen, and I hope you’ll come see one of our other three shows in May.