THIS post is insider baseball about improv, which is a lot like baseball except there a) is no ball and b) nobody gets paid ever. I've been coaching improv for a long time, and performing it for even longer. Something came up at a recent rehearsal that I thought merited a whole post, so here you damn go.
THE HORSESHOE OF DEATH
HORSESHOE OF DEATH: A group scene in an improvised show characterized by a group of people standing in a polite, respectful U-shape so that each performer can see every other performer and no one is upstaged. Scene is usually initiated with a group label and a problem, eg "Guys, our cereal isn't selling. We need to come up with a crazy cereal slogan!" Scene unfolds with improvisers offering solutions to said problem.
Think back to the last longform show you saw or did. Was there one of these scenes? Were there SEVERAL of these scenes? Did you feel just a little bit like pulling your face off of your own head, and not in a cool reference-to-the-film-Face Off way? I'd be willing to bet one million improv dollars that the answer to all three of these questions is YES.
Guys, what the hell are you doing? Stop doing these scenes! Please! Have you ever in your life stood in horseshoe shape with 4-8 of your friends slinging out crazy solutions to a problem? Then why do you think we want to see a heightened version of it played out on stage?
Now, I don't have problems with the "get in here, we need to accomplish _____"-style initiation. I've heard people shit on these initiations - I think there was a late-night show at a previous Del Close Marathon that was called "Everybody Get In Here" specifically created to lovingly mock these group games - and their criticisms have merit. But these initiations have their place. One of the best group games I've ever seen began with "People of the town of Vadueville! We need to do something about these broken stoplights!" (iO West Harold team Sweetness). I also don't subscribe to the theory that a scene falls apart in the first line. That is too much pressure to put on the person who is getting everything started. It's like a soccer team blaming the goalie for getting scored on. You let the ball get all the way back there, asshole. Nut up and take responsibility. It's not how you start, it's what you do next.
Note that I said "it's what you DO" and not "it's what you SAY". The reason these scenes are boring failures is not because they start with a call to action, it's because they quickly devolve into clever-offs: improvisers standing blankly, doing nothing, trying to think of the cleverest, funniest, most "on game" thing to say.
The "town of Vaudeville" game was a success because as soon as the team heard the words "People of the town of Vaudeville", they snapped into action and assumed vaudevillian characters miming little actions and dances. Jim Woods pranced back and forth accross the stage miming a cane dance. Suzi Barrett sat on her butt and, legs in the air, spun in circles. They shouted out a couple of ideas, but as these ridiculous human cartoons they had created. It didn't really matter what they said because of what they were doing.
Here are some practical tips to avoid the horseshoe of death.
1) GET OUT OF THE DAMN HORSESHOE
Do not stand in this shape. Ever. You do not need to see everyone on stage to have a successful group game. Be the one who is brave enough to sit, stand, lie down, stand in front of someone else, stand behind someone else, explore different places on the stage, put your back to the audience (on purpose), leave the stage, pop over the curtain, go into the audience, WHATEVER.
2) OBJECT WORK
Explore your space, fool! Are you in a Somethings Anonymous meeting? Probably. Lots of group games use this structure. Okay, fine. But have you ever been to a 12-step meeting? They usually sit speaker/audience style, or in a circle. There's usually a table with coffee (and, at my favorite meetings, snacks) off to the side. Often there's an anxious or crazy person leaning on the wall or pacing in the back. I have been to a lot of meetings in my life and I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYONE STAND IN AN AWKWARD U.
3) FUCK YOUR POLITENESS
As MTV's Real World so eloquently put it "Stop being polite and start getting real." This is a catchphrase that may or may not have ignited the reality show nightmare phenomenon (that I lovingly dub "nightmaremenon") that is ruining all of our TV careers. The horseshoe shape is 100% a product of actor/improviser niceness syndrome where we make sure everyone has an equal chance to say a thing and be seen. Fuck that. Yes, be giving. Yes, accept offers. Yes, make your scene partner look good. But don't forget to yes AND your audience and the fact that they are paying you with their time, attention, and possibly money. Yes AND those folks and DO SOMETHING WORTH WATCHING.
4) IF SOMEONE OFFERS AN IDEA, 'YES AND' BY DOING THE IDEA
These scenes suck because someone says an idea, eg "I think we should put poison in the cereal to make people buy it." What happens next? Do we cut to the cereal factory and watch people put poison in the boxes? Do we cut to a child eating poisoned cereal and delighting in the consequences? NO. We get another improviser pitching another idea. Usually this happens after boring discussion of whether the first idea is good or bad, which is a way of stalling for time while everyone thinks of what the game is and how to be on game. FUCK. THAT.
DO the god damned idea!!! Learn these words right now: "CUT TO whatever that person just said!" CUT TO the idea so that you can play it. Cut to it so we can SEE it. It ain't a radio play.
Ok, this has been your swear-filled loving inside baseball rant of the day. Might be doing a lot more of these. Cause i'ma bitch, i'm a mother, i'm a child, danny glover... meredith brooks y'all... OUT.