An instant play can be improvised by assigning characters and selecting a location at random. Make up a set of character cards and a set of location cards. Let each actor select one character card out of a hat, then select one location card for the group. Each actor must decide why he or she is in that place, and what he or she wants there. Advanced students can be instructed to create an objective and other techniques from formal acting classes.
Variations in the basic structure can be added in subsequent sessions. For instance, one character can be secretly instructed to stage a stick-up, have a heart attack, pick a fight, or introduce some other surprise. In another case, characters may be introduced into the scene serially or in small groups rather than have them all start on stage at the beginning. The workshop leader can also introduce surprise elements arbitrarily by instructing, “A hurricane has begun,” “The whole town’s been blacked out,” or any similar circumstance.
Characters and locations can be any kind imaginable. The best location is a place that would naturally attract many and varied people, such as a drug store, beach, airport, library, diner, hospital, and so on. The mix of characters should be as broad as possible to avoid stagnant situations: jockey, child, reporter, bum, dancer, cop, teacher, prince/princess, and others.
This exercise is a variation on Situations and makes a good ice-breaker and a great end-of-workshop finale. The characters are the same odd mix, assigned secretly by the teacher. One difference, however, is added. One character is designated the host or hostess of the party, a second is a spy and a third is an FBI agent. The party-giver is the only one of these three whose role is known to the others. The setting is a “Greenwich Village” party where anyone can show up, and anything can happen. The object, obviously, is for the spy to identify and neutralize the FBI agent before the agent identifies the spy. When either of these scenarios happens, the party’s over. The other guests, not part of the spy thriller, must simply establish their characters and enjoy the party. Part of the fun of this exercise is that it can be a real party, with refreshments supplied by the group. If the teacher joins in, it’s a terrific way to say good-bye to the class at the end of the workshop.
Since physical adjustments can affect character and even help create it, one good beginning exercise that helps break the ice is a way of instantly developing a physical characteristic that inspires a character. There are two ways of starting this exercise off. One is to gather a large pile of random costume and clothing pieces from stock, including shoes, jackets, coats, and so on. An alternative is to have members of the group contribute a piece of their own clothing to a pile. In either case, each actor selects a piece from the pile and puts it on. It need not be worn in its intended fashion: a shoe can be a strange glove; a jacket, a new skirt. What is important is that the new piece of clothing should alter the way the actor moves: a jacket too tight, shoes too big.
With their new attire, the actors walk about the room as they discover how the new piece makes them move. When the new movement has been discovered, the actors should go off by themselves for a while to explore it. They must be able to recreate the movements without the piece of clothing. This becomes their new physical characteristic, the basis for their new character. The adjusted walk is demonstrated for the class, first without accompanying action, then with a character and a task to perform. Often it’s easiest to provide some simple task for everyone, such as crossing the room to answer the telephone.
Once everyone’s developed the walk and character, pairs and other groupings of actors can be randomly assembled to set up a set of circumstances in which they must interact. The new characters usually instigate some bizarre and amusing scenes that can be further developed if the workshop leader desires.
Book and song titles can provide some wonderful ideas for scenes. Working in pairs, the actors are each given a title of some kind. One of the titles, or both taken together, should suggest a situation to the pair of actors. They decide mutually who they are, what their relationship is, and where they are. Individually, the actors select an objective.
The improvisation continues normally within whatever situation the actors set up, which needn’t be logical or realistic (“Fly Me to the Moon” might suggest two astronauts on a moon flight), until one of them has used his or her title in the dialogue. (It can’t be used as a title per se, but just as ordinary words in conversation. “Have you read . . .” isn’t an acceptable solution.) Whichever actor first says his or her title must cease talking for the remainder of the scene until the other partner has also managed to work his or her title into the lines (which have now become a monologue). In this, the exercise is a little like the old children’s game (and one-time TV game show) Keep Talking. The silent actor must remain in the scene, actively participating, except that he or she may no longer talk. Some very strange things occur in this exercise, both in terms of the situations devised from the titles and from the silence imposed on one partner in the end of the scene.
An exercise that promotes creative imagery for the body is based on the short Japanese poetry, the Haiku. With Haiku either written by the students or culled from collections, ask the performers to find one clear image in each of the poem’s three lines. Each actor recites the Haiku first without action, then again, striking the pose devised for each line. Ideally the three poses should use the entire body as much as possible and one principle is that they should flow from one into the next rather than be three distinct, unconnected images. (The ideas needn’t connect; it’s the physical images that should flow from one to the next.) Literalness, of course, isn’t the goal in this exercise, but it may take several attempts before the performers get a feel for the imagery.
Words can suggest actions just from their sounds. It’s an interesting experiment to see what the sounds words make, disregarding their meanings, can do to our bodies and the way we move. While the students are moving randomly about the room, the leader pronounces a series of words which the students must “take into their bodies.” Without relying on what they understand by the words, they should allow only the sound to affect their movement and posture. Obviously, literalness will creep in, but this can be suppressed by choosing words less familiar and pronouncing them in a somewhat mechanical, unemotional way so as not to color them.
This exercise works best when the words are grouped into categories. The most successful are “earth words” (dirt, loam, boulder, compost, detritus), “fire words” (candle, ember, flicker, conflagration, smolder) and “water words” (dribble, glacier, meander, deuterium, arroyo). Other interesting groups are diseases (aneurysm, halitosis, psoriasis, ichthyosis), and space words (planetoid, nebula, corona, Betelgeuse, red giant). Most important, stress that it’s the sounds of the words, not their denotations or connotations--their intellectual meanings--that should guide the physicalizations.
A wonderful exercise for communicating without relying on verbal expression (though not without words) is the nonsense play. A two-character “script” of some 14-15 one-sentence lines can be composed on the spur of the moment, as long as the words don’t make too much sense. The exercise is quite simple: the actors decide who and where they are, their relationship (in acting terms, of course, not genealogical ones), and whatever else they need to make a scene, then enact it, using the nonsense text of the script. (They can repunctuate the text, but not change any words.) The trick is not to communicate with one another--the actors have already colluded on what the play “means”--it's to communicate with the “audience” (the rest of the class). It’s edifying to learn afterwards how the audience’s perception compares to the actors’. Here’s one example of a nonsense script:
A: What's happening?
B: Go to hell!
A: I don't know.
B: Is it raining?
A: I'm going home.
B: What's happening?
A: Keep away from me.
B: Sit down.
A: I can't stand it.
B: Don't tell me! I've been there before.
A: This is ridiculous.
B: You're insane.
A: Don't give me that nonsense.
B: Well, I never . . . !
A: Is it raining?
IMPROVISING A SCRIPTED SCENE
As a prelude to standard scene study classes, I’ve taken a leaf from Uta Hagen’s book--or rather the version edited by my first professional acting teacher, Carol Rosenfeld, a former student of Uta’s. While this improvisation isn’t a game, it is a useful exercise which can stand on its own or lead to work on the scripted scene.
It has always been my practice to assign plays and scenes to my students, though I will welcome requests and suggestions. (My reasoning is that acting students, first, don’t know the theater lit as well as I do and tend to concentrate on recent plays, Broadway hits, and plays that have been turned into movies. Second, most actors, I’ve discovered, also cast themselves very badly and often overlook roles they ought to work on even if they’re not in the actors’ usual casting ranges.) Further, I always insist that my students read the entire play from which their assigned scene is drawn (so, no scene books or sides).
For this exercise, then, I tell the actors to analyze the scene for the basic acting elements in it. I expect them to glean their characters’ objectives, their relationship to one another, the “place,” task, immediate preceding circumstances, and so on. (They will also have to devise the set and bring in the necessary props and costumes as needed, just as in a scene study class.) The assignment is to pursue the objectives without the playwright’s dialogue. The better the actors have analyzed the scene, the closer their improvised dialogue will parallel what the playwright wrote. (The goal of the improv is not, however, to replicate the playwright’s words but to explore and understand the acting context beneath the words.)