Monday, November 19th, 2012

Improv's Babel: Defining the Game of the Scene

Interviews by Matt Visconage.

Improv was doomed with a semantics crisis from the start.

When long-form improvisation began to flourish as its own art form under comedy guru Del Close in Chicago in the 1980s, “improv” referred to The Improv, a popular chain of stand-up comedy clubs in dozens of cities around the country. The Palm Beach Improv, for example.

When I used to intern at an improv theater in Hollywood, it wasn’t uncommon to find a couple who wandered in from the street, expecting to see a guy with a microphone, telling jokes. Television shows like Whose Line Is It, Anyway? helped audiences distinguish improv from stand-up, but the games on those shows gave the wrong impression of the style of improvisation taught by Close and now performed in hundreds of theaters worldwide.

At the heart of this confusion is that sticky term: game. Game can refer to short-form games like “Party Quirks” or “Freeze Tag.” There are also group games, which are a component of the Harold – a long-form show created by Close – that involves the entire ensemble, as opposed to two-person scenes. Finally, there is the game of the scene, a technical term with various definitions depending on who you ask.

Splitsider did just that. We spoke with teachers from the top improv training centers in the country – the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Improv Olympic (iO), the Second City, the Annoyance – in hopes to reconcile these competing views of game. After some deeply inside-baseball conversations, we realized the perceived differences between these different theaters have less to do with style or philosophy than they do with pure semantics.

From the wide spectrum of opinions emerge two fundamental definitions of game, based mostly on its relative importance to the scene. The first definition is associated with the improv community of Chicago, and the second is associated with the community that it birthed, the UCB.

1. The game is any pattern that emerges within a scene that the improvisers may follow while exploring the relationship between the characters.

The Chicago improv scene is so vast and diverse that any attempt to characterize its style seems immediately reductive. There exists some common ground, thanks to the universal appeal of Del Close: agreement, the value of real, human relationships, etc. The definition of game, meanwhile, is less clear. Most teachers have settled on the notion that a game is any pattern within a scene – meaning to many, it is inherently optional, and therefore secondary to playing real, honest relationships.

(Note: The following statements were not made on behalf of any particular training center or the city’s improv community as a whole, but rather the speaker’s personal views.)

TJ JAGODOWSKI: Not every scene needs a game. It's absolutely possible for there to be a fantastic scene that has no semblance of a game. The purpose of a scene is to show the unique interaction between the people on stage at that specific moment in time as it relates to the world in general or the piece in particular.

GREG HESS: Chicago is known for defining the two-person relationship scene, going back with Del and even further with Second City and all of that. So I think that when we [Cook County Social Club] teach game we first go for that real simple approach, … then we go back a lot of times and address the two person relationship scene again, so making sure that those scenes are very strong and making sure that people know how to play with a lot of truth and emotional heightening and raising stakes in their scenes. And then we tend to add game back on top of that so that the discussion becomes a little bit more, “How do you continue to do a good relationship scene when you’re also finding these patterns within the relationship?”

SUSAN MESSING: The game of the scene is a fucking misnomer. Finding the game annoys the fuck out of me. That sounds like there was a game there and we were too stupid to find it. The games of the scene are anything you do more than once that become characteristics or facts.  You have a game for you that no one can take away – could be a character or physical trait – but it's something that you visit again and again to show that is something that is inherent to you, something you always do.

MARK RATERMAN: It might be time to change up what we’re talking about to just let the name game die and redefine it. Just say we’re looking for funny patterns.

JOE BILL: In the simplest form, I love the way that Mick Napier puts it: "I wanna see that improviser do that more."

JIMMY CARRANE: I had a student the other day in class, and in the scene she was watching TV and was not paying attention to her husband as he was putting away the groceries. It was a simple game and played so real that you thought you were watching a play. This happens between me and my wife all the time. That is the best kind of game, a pattern of behavior we recognize from our own lives. It's universal.

GREG HESS: We tend to say, “Learn game so that you can have this other tool. Use it as a tool, rather than just a rule.”

JOE BILL: A game always exists, whether the improvisers in it are aware of it or not. … This really begs the question: if the improvisers in the scene aren't mutually conscious of the game of the scene, then can there still be a game of the scene? We should ask Deepak Chopra.

2. The game is the single pattern of unusual behavior that defines the scene.

The founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade – Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler – studied improv in Chicago before creating their own training center in New York. One of their goals was to standardize the language of improvisation, with a more narrowly tailored definition of game as a pillar of their philosophy. The UCB definition pertains to the scene as a whole, not merely a pattern within it.

MATT BESSER: The game is the scene. When I hear people say, “The game’s just part of the scene,” or “You may or may not have a game,” to me, that is ridiculous. That’s absurd.

WILL HINES: [The game is] a consistent pattern of behavior that breaks from the everyday pattern of behavior. The reason we say that is we want games that are based on an unusual thing, something that’s different from reality, that repeats in a consistent way. That’s our mathematical way.

KEVIN MULLANEY: For me game of the scene is a metaphor: Games have rules, and so can scenes. It's up to the players to figure out those rules as the scene develops. The rules can be ways in which the characters behave or react, patterns to the way they think, or rules governing the situation or even the world in which the scene exists.

WILL HINES: I’ve always thought that the UCB, themselves – Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler – those guys, when they set up this school were reacting to improv that they didn’t like in Chicago. They liked a lot of improv in Chicago, but the kind they liked was aggressive, had a point, got there quickly kind of style. That’s the way they do improv. So, they wanted to create a school that put a priority on making a comedic point and getting there. They set it up very deliberately.

MATT BESSER: Well, not a response. We took what we liked from Chicago and tried to hone it into something that we could all agree on. Also I think the more we did improv the more we understood it and how it worked.

WILL HINES: We believe that every scene should have a game, ideally. We know it’s not always gonna work out that way, but that’s what we’re putting the focus on when we do scenes. We like the word “unusual” here, that’s what we’ve ended on to determine if something is funny. As opposed to emotional or behavior – even though you might have a game that’s expressed through someone’s emotions or someone’s behavior – we wanted terms that were really independent of any circumstance.

MATT BESSER: We always compare our scenes to sketch comedy because we believe a great improvised scene is something that you can write out and it’s a great sketch. And if you look at great sketches, they’re not all over the place. … It’s all about one thing.

KEVIN MULLANEY: I'm not attracted to the idea that we are doing improvised sketch comedy. It's fine if people want to approach it that way, but I prefer to think of it as improvised theater, which is usually funny, and hopefully always entertaining.

* * *

Obviously there are some key differences between UCB-style improv and Chicago-style improv, and it’s not really worth trying to reconcile all approaches to long-form improvisation under one big tent. That said, there is no denying that much of the confusion over game stems more from a disagreement on semantics than one of philosophy. It’s not as if one wing refuses to acknowledge game in scenes while the other is slave to it. The tribes have similar goals, just different dialects. Perhaps what is “game” to some is simply “relationship” to others, for example.

It is a shame that Del Close didn’t live long enough to see UCB become the dominant voice in the improv community that it is today; perhaps then we would have universally revered authority to restore a common language. In the meantime, our best hope is to seek to better understand each other, by visiting and taking classes at other theaters, networking at improv festivals, reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and just keeping an open mind about this time-consuming, costly, wonderful distraction.

Or better yet, let’s just wait for the UCB to finish that book. That oughta clear things up, right?

Special thanks to Matt Besser, Mark Raterman, Greg Hess, TJ Jagodowski, Susan Messing, Joe Bill, Will Hines, Kevin Mullaney, and Jimmy Carrane for their contributions to this article.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater. He is also undergoing Advanced Study training at UCBLA.

Matt Visconage lives in Chicago, where he tweets and does comedy. He has completed the core sketch and improv program at UCBNY and is currently taking classes at iO Chicago, The Annoyance, and The Second City.

Sponsored Content
  • Ghost of Zulevic

    Any conversation about Improv that doesn't include the Groundlings is a FAIL

    • da guy

      use proper english, fag, not this internet (aka FAG) english that so many of you morons love. FAIL? Get bent.

      • Julio


        • Gavin

          Shut up, retard.

    • eavoss

      The Groundlings is certainly a fantastic training center for improv and sketch comedy. I love every show I've seen there. The reason we didn't include it in this article is unlike the other training centers represented above, the Groundlings has no direct connection to Del Close, whom all other major improv theaters in the country acknowledge as the father of modern long-form improvisation. The style of improv that the Groundlings teach is valuable to learn and extremely entertaining, but completely different from the styles of iO, UCB, Annoyance, etc. For example, Groundlings-style improv allows improvisers to lean towards their scene partners as the scene begins and discreetly whisper to them what they want them to do ("You're the German doctor from before"). The teachers quoted in this article wouldn't even consider that "improv." So for an artsy-fartsy, inside-baseball conversation about "the game of the scene" targeted at improv nerds, a perspective from a theater that only shares the loosest of stylistic ties with the rest of the pack would be out of place.

      • Julio


        • Guest

          Is it possible to get someone from the Groundlings community who can contribute to this conversation in a civilized manner?

          • http://www.facebook.com/justimprov Justin Michael Terry

            Throughout my training with The Groundlings I have never encountered the lean in "Do this next" moment. Aside from that, Erik is right in that The Groundlings stems from different roots. Whereas iO, UCB, SC and the like work toward competency and personal growth within Long Form, The Groundlings cater more toward competency and personal growth within scene work with eventual transition into writing your own material based on your improvisational and character strengths. Game surely plays a part through all improv regardless of definition…I mean it's fun right? So are games.

          • eavoss

            Thanks for the clarification, JMT. I've definitely seen that whispered set-up move in a number of Groundlings improv shows, so if it's not taught in the classes, I wonder where it comes in. I suppose most of the improv semantics conflicts we see don't involve the Groundlings, just because they exist on their own island. A cutthroat, career-launching island.

          • EricL

            Possibly since they view improv as more of a means to an end they put less focus of the art of improv itself so they think nothing of doing the whispering thing just because they want to move the scene along and are less interested in the whole "anything can happen" aspect.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    Thanks for this post. I'm just a beginner at improv and I'm doing short form at that, but I still appreciate getting to read veteran improvisers thoughts on such an important concept. However, I would like to ask if people from the UCB-style and Chicago-improv style ever perform together, and if so, do their differing definitions of game have any noticeable effect on the performance? How much does this difference show itself in their respective styles since everyone is following the same fundamentals anyway (i.e, yes and, being specific, etc.)? Can a UCB-style show explore character relationships? Can a Chicago-style show be unusual?
    By the way, that "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up" documentary about TJ and Dave you guys did an article about a ways back was awesome. And I'll always love UCB for giving us so many amazing shows and performers.

    • eavoss

      That's an interesting conversation that I'd love to hear. Here in Los Angeles, where we have a lot of Chicago improvisers (and a distinct Chicago-approach) at iO West, and obviously a huge UCB scene as well, we get to see the streams cross all the time. One thing I've noticed is that you tend not to notice the difference of background with more experienced performers, who have evolved past their training and developed their own individual "style." Chicago people play with ASSSSCAT every now and then, and there are Chicago/UCB crossover groups like The Smokes and Orpheus Roy that are awesome. However, I would argue that you definitely see the difference in the indie scene, the up-and-comers, and the students of each theater. It's a little hard to describe without resorting to generalizations, but to use Billy's categories, I'd say you're more likely to see pirates from the iO/Chicago folks and robots from the UCB folks — but there are huge exceptions for sure.

    • Matt Visconage

      Like you said everyone is following the same fundamentals, it might just be different specifics depending on the school/focus. Can a UCB-style show explore character relationships? Of course it can. Just because they focus on the game of the scene does not mean that they gloss over character relationships. They just do it in addition to following/heightening/exploring the Game of the scene. Can a Chicago-style show be unusual? Of course it can. Improv is cake, all these different schools are just different kinds of frosting. And everyone loves improv cake. Also this is unrelated but your first name is great. Firas 2013!

  • http://twitter.com/NathanIsReal Nathan W.

    The first Mullaney quote is the one that gets it right, but even that uses the word "pattern" in a potentially confusing way. A distinction between the respective meanings of the words "pattern" and "game" would clear up most of the disagreement.

    I'm sure Billy Merritt would have had something interesting to say about this as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.hanna.75 Jeremy Hanna

    Thanks for another great article! As a person who's just starting out in the improv world, the game of the scene is something I have heard explained a million times, but never really understood. This is a fascinating look into these two different styles.

    However, I only really see articles about the "big three" school of thought. What else is there? (I've explored a few others, just wondering if there is anything else that I missed)

    • eavoss

      By "big three," I assume you mean Chicago-NYC-LA, yes? There are several great improv communities outside of those cities — Austin, San Francisco, Boston, etc. — but aside from some regional flavor, many of those theaters modeled themselves with the improv ideologies of the theaters of the big three. I understand Toronto and Vancouver are pretty active in improv ("impro," as it's called in Canada), but I don't know too much about that style.

    • eavoss

      By "big three," I assume you mean Chicago-NYC-LA, yes? There are several great improv communities outside of those cities — Austin, San Francisco, Boston, etc. — but aside from some regional flavor, many of those theaters modeled themselves with the improv ideologies of the theaters of the big three. I understand Toronto and Vancouver are pretty active in improv ("impro," as it's called in Canada), but I don't know too much about that style.

    • eavoss

      By "big three," I assume you mean Chicago-NYC-LA, yes? There are several great improv communities outside of those cities — Austin, San Francisco, Boston, etc. — but aside from some regional flavor, many of those theaters modeled themselves with the improv ideologies of the theaters of the big three. I understand Toronto and Vancouver are pretty active in improv ("impro," as it's called in Canada), but I don't know too much about that style.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.hanna.75 Jeremy Hanna

        I was originally talking about the three companies I mainly hear about: Second City, UCB, and Groundlings (also iO, which I forgot to mention).

        I never really thought about improvisation based on regions they came from. It actually makes a little more sense to me that way. Thanks for replying!

        • Dylan

          I would suggest these three Jeremy. There are more:

          Chicago City Limits (located in NYC). Their original cast trained with Del Close in Chicago.

          Keith Johnstone in Calgary, Canada — Loose Moose Theatre. He does call it "Impro" and has a book out with the same name.

          Improbable – in London.

      • http://twitter.com/metal2000 Paul Little

        Never heard it called "impro" up here in Canada. Always been improv to me. Then again, I'm in Winnipeg (not Toronto or Vancouver), though I know improvisers either from Toronto or who have worked in Toronto, and none of them have ever called it "impro", either.

        Regardless, I would definitely say the scene in Winnipeg is quite a bit different than what I've seen in NYC and L.A. (I've seen Chicago-style improv in those cities, but haven't been to Chicago myself), beyond just "regional flavour". There's a fairly distinctive long-form style and feel to shows, and the difference is more apparent during the Improv Festival that sees the locals doing scenes with others from around Canada and the U.S. (including Joe Bill this year).

        Also, this is all coming as an improv FAN rather than an improv PERFORMER. So my insight is not *quite* an insider's perspective. Heh.

  • Commentator Jones

    I'm not sure I agree with UCB being the "dominant voice" of the improv community? It's *a* voice in the conversation, but there are plenty of people that have never even heard of UCB that know about The Second City, and Chicago's ties to improvisation.

    • eavoss

      Perhaps my wording was unclear. Yes, it's probably too much to call UCB "the" dominant voice, but it's fair to say it is "one of" the dominant voices. I would argue the people who know about The Second City and Chicago's ties to improvisation but who have never heard of the UCB are more than likely not themselves improvisers. You'd have to be living under a pretty huge rock to consider yourself part of the improv community and be completely oblivious to what the UCB is doing.