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!