3 Ways to Get Better at Editing Improv Scenes

Any improviser doing long form knows that editing can make or break a show. Good editing is balancing act between letting the improv scenes develop and not letting them go on too long to drag down the show.

Whether you’re looking to improve your editing skills, or you are an improv teacher looking for ideas on how to teach editing, I wanted to share three things that help my students become better at editing.

  1. Replace Walk-ons with Edits
    Nothing kills a potentially great scene more than too many walk-ons. In fact, I think at least 60 percent of walk-ons could easily be edits. Sometimes I will get a class that is walk-on crazy. What I do in these situation? I will have them do a montage or 20 minutes of a scene. I tell them before we start that every time you feel the impulse to do a walk-on, I would like you to do an edit instead.The next round of scenes I may tell them to add walk-on, only if they are necessary, for example, if someone in the scene is calling out their character name. I think walks-on are used when an edit would serve the show better, and when I have students do this exercise I see their scene work get stronger and their edits get sharper because I am giving them fewer choices.
  1. Edit Too Soon
    I love this exercise, especially if groups are sluggish with their editing. I typically start by having them do a montage or series of unrelated scenes for about 15 minutes and I instruct them to edit every scene too soon. I have found that most groups like this exercise because it is fun and really brings up the energy. As a teacher/director/coach don’t be afraid to side coach if you notice that they are letting scenes go too long. You can call “edit” yourself and they seem to get right back on track.After they’ve completed the first round, ask them to do another 15 minutes of scenes with regular editing. In most cases, this will correct sluggish editing.I have also done a variation of this as a form itself. To do this, I have them do a series of very short scenes. In terms of length, think of Second City-style black-outs. You can do up to 8 to 14 short scenes depending on the size of the group. When those short scenes reach a crescendo, there will be a natural editing point where they can go into longer scenes. I have found that this form really helps with their editing throughout the show.
  2. Freeze Tag
    I never really thought of using the popular short form game Freeze Tag in long form class until I read Mick Napier’s brilliant book Behind The Scenes: Improvising Long Form. As a long form snob, I thought that Freeze Tag belonged in short form class, even though I loved playing it after Harolds at iO back in the day. If you are not familiar with Freeze Tag, here’s how it works: two players come out and get a suggestion from the audience of something they heard today and begin a scene. During the course of the scene, one of the players on the back line (or on the side, depending on the stage) yells “Freeze.” Then the two players freeze and the player from the back line takes one of the player’s positions and starts an entirely different scene. When I play it in class, I usually tell my students to edit on the laugh, or when they feel the scene has come to a completion.Now that I have been enlightened about Freeze Tag, I really cannot think of better game to teach people how to edit on the laughs than this one. Not only is it a fun game, but also it gets them to use their editing muscles without even realizing it. I usually do this toward the top of the class when I warm them up.

I am always looking for new ways to teach editing. If you have games or exercises that you have found helpful, please let me know in the comment section below.

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5 Tips to Decide If You Should Walk-On in an Improv Scene

Nothing frustrates me more than watching a perfectly good scene be ambushed by an unnecessary walk-on.

We are all familiar with the scene where a couple is out to dinner at a restaurant and then the zany waiter ambushes the scene and the scene ends up becoming all about the zany waiter and has nothing to do with the relationship of the couple.

And we’ve all watched those “walk-on happy” groups that give no time or room for a scene to develop.

Walk-ons done right are a thing of beauty, like ballet. They should be there to support what’s happening on stage, not distract from it. In the wrong hands, they are a cluster fuck and do more harm than good.

I think walk-ons are overused, and I know my outlook on this subject is definitely old school, but in my opinion, a walk-on or tag out is not a good substitute for good scene work.

Today, I want to give you five very simple questions to ask yourself to help determine if a scene needs a walk-on.

1. Do the players need an environment?
This is usually easy to determine and can be of maximum service to the players in the scene. If two players come out and have no idea where they are after a few minutes, it is the perfect opportunity for a walk-on. Come in and place them in a specific environment, such as in a restaurant, in a hotel room, on an airplane – anywhere but “vagueland.” Then quietly leave the scene, because your job is done.

2. Is a character being called for?
Sometimes, two players will start a scene and they’ll reference another character, such as, “Your mother and I are really upset you didn’t come home last night.” We don’t have a mother in the scene, so this is your opportunity to be the mother. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man plays the mother, we need a mother. You want to avoid where the players are desperately calling out for another character to join them three or four times before some one is brave enough to step up. I have also seen the opposite where players are trigger happy and think every time a character’s name is mentioned is an opportunity for a walk on. Be aware that is some cases they will be referring to character and a walk on is not necessary.

3. Does something need to be heightened?
This is by far the trickiest one to do. Ask yourself if there is a game, premise or emotion in a scene that needs to be heightened. Can you do it gracefully, by adding a piece of information that will up the stakes? If so, it might be time for a walk-on. However, remember that you don’t have to jump into every scene. Sometimes a scene may not need heightening by you; they may be able to handle it themselves.

4. What is my motive?
I am guilty of this. Sometimes my confidence is low and I feel safer walking into a scene than initiating one myself. If you feel you are doing this, instead of looking for an opportunity to walk into a scene, how about following the fear and starting a scene yourself?

5. Does the scene need an edit?
I wish I could take credit for this advice: “Sometimes your best walk-ons are edits.” This is true, especially if the scene has been going on for a while. If the scene feels like it’s dragging and you have an instinct to walk on to change the energy, probably it would work better as an edit.

This list is just a beginning. How do you decide if you should use a walk-on in an improv scene? If you’ve got any tips, please share them in the comments section below.

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