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Glued to the Back Line in Improv Scenes

We have all been that person stuck on the back line during an improv show terrified to step out and do a scene. We stand there, unable to move our bodies. We’re paralyzed, convinced we have been crazy-glued to the back wall, and we only become unstuck when the show is over.

Sometimes we are lucky and the Improv Gods smile on us, and one of our noble teammates peels us off the back wall, throwing us into a scene, like a lobster into a boiling pot of water.

But the question is, is it helpful to pull a reluctant teammate into a scene or is this co-dependent?

In one of my recent Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv classes, one of the students was grabbing people who were stuck on the back line and doing scenes with them. Then later, we had a thoughtful discussion about whether that was a good idea or not.

So I called my friend, Dan Bakkedahl, a master improviser and wonderful actor, and someone I admire very much, and asked his thoughts. Dan said a cast member, Jim Zulivic, pulled him into a scene when he was playing his first improv set on Second City’s Main Stage.

“(I thought), Oh my God, what is he doing?” Dan said. “Even though I was frightened, he did me a big favor.”

Dan then went on to tell me about a Harold team that he was on where they were encouraged to pull people into improv scenes if they were hanging back on the back line. After a while the team stopped that because it wasn’t working for the team anymore.

I was always very appreciative when people pulled me into improv scenes when I was starting out, and I like to pull others in as well. But I am also super co-dependent, and when you spend too much time focusing on others, you ruin your chance of getting better yourself. Improv is about give and take. Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in your group, you also don’t want to always take on the role of the rescuer.

In class, a student asked me how I changed from being scared and standing on the back wall to getting out into improv scenes. For me, I started jumping into scenes when I got sick and tired of not getting out there. It was the pain of feeling shitty after the show that gave me the courage to change, and you don’t ever want to take that away from someone, because I needed to bottom out on that to get where I am today.

So, ultimately, how you decide whether to pull someone into a scene or let them sweat it out on the back line is all about balance. Sometimes we have to help our teammates, and sometimes we need to let them help themselves. Good luck experimenting and finding the balance that works for you. I would love to get your thoughts on this subject, so please let me know.

7 replies
  1. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    I’m so jealous of you right now, Jimmy. You have Dan Bakkedahl on speed dial. I’m jealous not so much for having Dan Bakkedahl on speed dial as I am for anyone who overheard the conversation.

    Your chemistry is magical. Anyway, back to the debate about pulling reluctant ensemble members off the back wall.

    I’m lucky. I was big into improv in New York City. Then I stopped when I moved back to Chicago, since life demanded my full attention.

    Eventually, I jumped back into improv in Chicago, looking for friends who shared a desire to do something more with their weekends besides golf.

    I jumped into a class I’d heard a lot about, The Art of Slow Comedy. There was a young woman in the class who was naturally funny. Let’s call her Leeah.

    Leeah was amazing during class. She even opened-up her home to use as a rehearsal space, between classes.

    By showtime, Leeah was the heart of the ensemble. You could just feel it. But when the lights went down for our first show, Leeah froze.

    I kept an eye on her, jumping into my own scenes and having a good time, which is a gift to myself. Half way through the show, with Leeah glued to the back wall, I was reminded of my younger-self, glued to the back wall of a show at the UCB Theatre, with all of my so-called friends too caught up in themselves, and winning a spot on a coveted Harold Team, to notice or bother.

    I decided to treat Leeah the way I wish I’d been treated, I walked across the stage and took her by the hand, literally walking her into a scene. Leeah relaxed. Her natural sense of humor came back, along with color in her cheeks.

    The room instantly adored her, erupting with laughter, projecting into Leeah as she overcome self-doubt. Once again she took-on her natural role as the heart of the ensemble.

    Turns out, this was Leeah’s first class. She’d never been an improvisor before. She is now, kicking major league improv ass in Los Angeles.

    I think it’s important to leave people alone to find their voice. But I think overlooking the back wall is a reflection of your own selfish desire to be the center of the universe.

    Improvisation is a gorgeous artform. It’s celebrates mistakes, listening and noticing what’s going on at the heart of the ensemble.

    Speaking of watching out for the good of humanity, next time your on the phone with Dan Bakkedahl, please record the conversation. Thanks, Jimmy.

    • mike frayer
      mike frayer says:

      I recall this moment quite well since I was performing in that show with Leeah. And she was wonderful that night. I always thought that was a smart move on your part Greg. It takes a certain savvy from a player to recognize someone needs to come off the back wall. Once she was in the scene she was magic. Improv is like life-we very rarely see he potential in ourselves. We see it through others affirmations.

      I spent most of my time at second city glued to the back wall. It was only after discovering in The Art of Slow Comedy that all improvisers have fear of not knowing what to do that I finally took the advice of others and just stepped forward first. Once I started to step forward first I feel I was able to get out of my own way.

      I miss that group very much. I loved playing with them very much.

  2. Bobby
    Bobby says:

    Fantastic article, Jimmy! At first I thought it was going to be about the people who are frozen on the back line and what to do about it. Personally, I LOVE it when someone pulls me out on stage. That means they have a premise that they are going to initiate, which takes a lot of stress off of me.
    But what about when I find myself glued to the back line? It usually happens when the pace is just at a frenzy and impossible to keep up with. Everyone around me is literally flying by me while I stare in stunned disbelief. This mostly happens at a jam when I’m playing with people I’ve never played with or even met for that matter. Any words of wisdom you might have would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Lewayne McQueen Jr
    Lewayne McQueen Jr says:

    There was this guy, Corey a humor journalist who was, unbeknownst to our troupe, until a few days before writing an article about Improv, he was in our troupe a moll, as sincerely interested as a moll can be. It was my first time performing long-form on stage. And All I did was listen intently to everything that was happening, had not been in a scene and neither had Corey, I went out set-up two chairs and motioned to Corey to join me onstage. I was peeling myself and him off the back-line simultaneously. It was the end of the show, I didn’t know it yet but it was. He would try to make a joke, and I would turn that joke into a call back, nothing had been called back yet, every call back was on our shoulders, and we did it. He thought I was a genius and wrote an article mostly talking about that moment I peeled him off the wall. So if not for pulling my scene partner off the wall I wouldn’t have my name and picture in the local Vegas Jewish Magazine DAVID. Yahoo Search my full name it’s like the third thing down. Also I think being aware that someone hasn’t came in is a huge part of peeling them off that wall and that’s better than the act of pulling them.

  4. joseph bennett
    joseph bennett says:

    Thank you for another great post, Jimmy. What resonated most with me was in your last paragraph “whether to pull someone into a scene or let them sweat it out on the back line is all about balance.” Most actors do pretty well once you help them get out there and initiate an offer for them, like “Leeah” above. And at the end of the day my vote goes toward “the best way to learn improv is by improvising” which we can’t do well on the back wall. Cheers! Joseph, San Miguel de Allende


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