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If you’ve improvised long enough, you’ve probably seen this happen:
You’re at post-show notes, and someone loses it on the stage manager for not bringing the lights down at the right moment. Or blames their long form team for not sweeping a scene. The aggrieved act like they’ve just suffered a hate crime, while everyone else in the room shuffles uncomfortably, thinking they’d rather be at home kissing their sister.
Or maybe the person throwing people under the bus was you.
Here are a few suggestions on how to end scenes without being a dick.
Take Responsibility for Your Own Scene Work
The #1 reason why the lights don’t come down at the right time is poor scene work, often due to wishy-washy offers like, “I feel sick” instead of specific, detailed choices: “I have The Gout.” Strong offers lead to solid blow lines.
Perhaps the Who/What/Where was weak. A house without a foundation is a crappy house. Or maybe the stakes weren’t raised. Or…look, I could go on, but the message is basically this: before you stone someone else, look in the mirror. Then don’t throw the stone, ‘cause the mirror would break. And it was expensive.
Never Deny a Sweep or a Blackout
Once, when seeing a particular improviser for the first time, I saw them deny a sweep. They literally screamed, “No!” like someone had stolen their handbag and shoved the sweeper back offstage and then continued the scene for 5 more lines.
Five… more… lines.
Now, the person in question is a very good improviser; they’re highly respected in the Toronto community and I’ve seen them do brilliant stuff. That said, I’m not sure I want to do a long form set with them—that’s how much my view of their character was affected by the denied sweep.
Denying a sweep is bullshit, period, for 3 reasons:
- It looks terrible.
- If your scene was that frickin’ brilliant, bring it back 5 minutes later– and the crowd will think you’re a genius.
- For the rest of that show and perhaps beyond, everyone else on stage will be more timid about sweeping. Multiple scenes will suffer for the sake of one. Just don’t. And don’t wave the lights back up after a blackout either. Yeah, I know, but believe me, I’ve seen it done.
End Your Own Scenes
There are lots of weird tricks to create a blow line. In big cast numbers, have everyone exit until one character remains and then hold for a beat of awkward silence. The remaining improviser can say just about anything—I recommend “Pants”—and it will get a laugh. It’s ridiculous how well this works. Then again, pants are funny.
At the end of the day, there is only one iron-clad solution to forcibly end a scene: Leave.
If the story/game is over and the lights aren’t coming down, look at your scene partners and say these magic words, “Wow, that was weird. Hey look, a puppy.” Then walk offstage. Simple, but effective.
(Related to the above suggestion)
In a long form, if you know the beat is over and your teammates don’t clue in, break in one direction and then sweep back the other way. Do it with authority– you can get away with anything on an improv stage if you commit to it.
Any teammate paying attention will join the sweep and it won’t even look weird. Both this and the leave-the-stage tip are a last resort, so they should be used sparingly, like turmeric or carpet-bombing.
Uhhh…Don’t Be a Dick
Remember the reasons we all fell in love with improv in the first place: it was a world where mistakes were okay and perfection was boring. So when someone accidentally leaves you hanging, take a deep breath, count to ten… and don’t be a dick.
That’s pretty good advice for improv and, you know, other things.
Ian Donald Keeling began improvising in the 80s, back when we thought Jams were cool and Robin Thicke’s dad was the bomb. Currently, he’s a member of the improv and sketch-writing faculty at The Second City Toronto, and he still thinks Robin Thicke’s dad is the bomb.