Lessons from Improv #4: Establish Context Quickly


Here is a brief article by Jack Cheng for 99u within the website network of Bēhance. To check out other resources, learn more about 99u, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Of all the improv games and exercises we learned in our four-week class, the ‘three-line scene’ was perhaps the most enlightening. In it, two people stood on stage and performed the beginning of what could have turned into a full improv scene. The first person would give the partner a name and begin with a simple physical observation of the other person. The second person would do the same in return, additionally placing them at a particular location. The first actor would then respond, adding more detail to the scene. It went something like this:

“Hey Tony, I like your shoes.”

“Thanks Sarah, I see you’ve come to the dance floor prepared.”

“Yes I have. Hey, they’re calling our number! Let’s get ready.”

In just three lines, the actors established context for the audience, and most importantly, for themselves. We immediately knew who was in the scene, how they were related to each other, where they were, and what they were doing. At the same time, the actors still had plenty of creative leeway to communicate something interesting and answer other questions like, “why are they there?” and “what’s going to happen next?”

Tip: Use self-imposed constraints to establish context as quickly as possible. Without context, we end up lingering in indecision, paralyzed by the lack of clarity.

The three-line scene–along with the other exercises and games we played–drew to a head during the final week of class, when we took everything we’d learned and performed several extended scenes — the type you’d catch nightly at The People’s Improv Theater. While we might not be headlining at Second City anytime soon, to the dozen of us realizing just how far we’d come, we were hottest show in town that night.

If you go to The PIT’s website, you’ll come across the tagline “Improv your life.” It wasn’t until after the last class was over that these words revealed the final lesson that Improv had imparted to us:

In improv, as in life, no two performances are ever the same. The only real way to prepare for them is to cultivate healthy creative habits. These habits encourage us to listen, accept, and keep the story moving. They strengthen the level of connection between ourselves, our projects and our audience. Ultimately, these habits help us set aside our fears of failure and launch into the world of the unknown; living, laughing and learning with every step (or misstep) along the way.

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This is the last article in a series of four titled “Lessons from Improv.”

Jack Cheng is a freelance ninja who constantly jumps back and forth between words, pixels and code. When he’s not working on odd projects or gleaming life-lessons from classes he signs up for on a whim, he writes about making ideas happen here.

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