3 Exercises to Help You Start Your Scenes in the Middle

How many times have you started a scene by saying, “How are you doing?” or “What are you up to?” If you’ve done that, you know that the scene goes absolutely nowhere. If you have a good teacher, director, or coach, he or she will usually say, “You need to start your scenes in the middle.” You may look at them glassy-eyed, not quite understanding the concept or how it applies to your improv. This is very common. Don’t panic.

The goal of starting your scenes in the middle is to get into the action that happens after the formalities of “Hi, what’s up?” and begin with a strong statement that addresses what’s going on in the relationship. More along the lines of: “I can’t believe you just asked me out at work.” Or: “Your mother found this pot in your bedroom.”

I can tell you that I’ve been saying, “You need to start your scenes in the middle” for so many years that I’m forgetting what it means myself. So I’m writing this blog for the both of us.

Lately, I’ve seen students in my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes struggle with this issue, and instead of trying to explain this piece of improv theory (which only leads to more confusion), I have found it much more helpful to give them an exercise to practice it. So, I will do the same for you and give you three exercises that’ll help you start your scenes in the middle. I’ve found these exercises to be very simple and effective, and players have a lot of fun doing them.

1. Read Your Partner

Have two players come out and face each other in silence for a couple of seconds. Then ask each player to say what emotion they’re getting off the other player. Primary emotions — such as happy, sad, anger, fear, or a variation of these — work best.

Once the players have named the emotion, ask them what their relationship is to each other. Then ask them, “What just happened in your relationship?”

The emotions will lead the scene. For instance, if two players say that one looks sad and the other looks afraid, and they determine that they are mother and daughter, they can do a scene where the mother is sad and the daughter is afraid because the mother just found pot in the daughter’s room.

I let the players do this multiple times to build this muscle. For more advanced players, I let them start by naming the emotions, relationship and what just happened, and then go into a scene one line at a time.

2. 60, 45, 30, 15, 10 Second

This is a great exercise that helps players instinctively discover for themselves where the middle of the scene is. Get two players up to do a 60-second, two-person scene. Then they will repeat the scene in 45 seconds, then in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, and then 10 seconds. By incrementally decreasing the time of the scene, players are forced to get to the meat of the scene quickly.

3. Name Repetition

Two players come out and name each others’ characters in the scene. Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred… They keep repeating this until one of the players feels that it’s time to speak with an opening line. “Fred, I can’t believe you showed up for my graduation! I thought you were going to be in Hawaii.”

Once the opening line is spoken, one of the players then drops the repetition and goes into the scene. What’s great about this exercise is it helps the players build tension in the scene, which typically leads to a strong opening line.

Do you have any games or exercises that you use to help you start in the middle of a scene? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to register for one of my two upcoming Summer Intensives if you want to learn more about how to start your scenes in the middle — spots are filling quickly!

5 replies
  1. Steven Gomez
    Steven Gomez says:

    Great exercises. I like #2, which is a more gradual and less game-like version of the short form game half life.

    One simple scene exercise I like is “I agree”. One person begins the scene with the words “I agree”. The subsequent justification of that line leaves the players with no choice but to start in the middle of their scene.

    Reply
  2. omar argentino galvan
    omar argentino galvan says:

    In my workshops usually I use this exercise, with professionals improvisers or with beginners.
    Two actors.
    The teacher, or director proposes a place (farmacy for example) and each role, maybe in the first time you play this kind of scene, with similar status (two employed). The actors start with an action (putting the medicine’s prices) and a few second after, without stop the action, one of them say some final part of a line, like one begun dialogue. This phrase does not have to be related to the place or action (for example one of the employed can say “yes, Yes, I ended the night at her house”, or “”… but I think I should tell the truth to Sam”), even who pronounces the lines know quite what they mean. The phrase is an open offer that the dialogue should narrow.
    The partner should come into play and “know” about what they are talking.
    The scene continues without forget the action and the place, and -in the better of the cases- at the end they can link the two levels (the dialogue, the place and the action).
    This exercise becomes the scene in a really theatrical moment and gives depth to the characters and their relationships.
    (Sorry for my english)

    Reply
  3. Ben Noble
    Ben Noble says:

    I’m definitely excited to try out #3. I’ve never seen or done that one before, but it sounds very interesting.

    One exercise I like to use is called the 10 line scene. It’s a little heady, but I ask two improvisers to go up and then tell them that they have to do a scene sharing 10 lines between both of them. So if the first player says, “Hi Fred. You look great. That workout program is really working for you,” that’s 3 lines. When the 10 lines are used, I ask them where they think they could have cut the fat and gotten to the meat faster.

    Reply
  4. Alan Baranowski
    Alan Baranowski says:

    Great exercises, Jimmy. Another that I like is Slow/Fast/Normal. Two or more players agree on a WHO, WHAT and WHERE of a scene and improvise it. The second time they repeat the scene in slow motion, third time they repeat the scene in fast motion and the fourth time the repeat the scene in normal motion. it is amazing how much clutter there is in a scene that gets left behind when you do it at different speeds.

    Reply
  5. Ahadi White
    Ahadi White says:

    Thanks, Jimmy. Great ideas that I’m pondering for my life outside the stage. Steven, Omar, Ben, and Alan, I like and appreciate the ideas you shared.

    Reply

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