The Best Way to Give a Gift To Your Scene Partner

Improvisers are told all the time how important is to “give gifts to your scene partners,” but are rarely shown how, leaving them dazed and confused.

I am no different. At times I am confused by it, too. Certainly, I been around long enough that I know a good gift on stage when I see one, but teaching it has always been a bit tricky. When I improvise, I usually give gifts by heightening the emotional game of a character, adding history to the relationship, or giving specifics. However, this is  an area in my improvising and my teaching that I can always improve on, and I am always looking to pick up some new tools to put into my sometimes rusty improv tool box.

That’s why I was happy when Paul Vaillancourt addressed this topic in his new book, The Triangle of The Scene: A simple, practical, powerful method for approaching improvisation. Paul is a great improviser and improv teacher who started out in Chicago and then became one of the co-founders of iO West and a member of Beer Shark Mice. His book’s premise is that all good long form improv comes from two-person relationship scenes. The book includes lots of practical tips and examples for making two-person scenes really work.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Vaillancourt’s emphasis on how to give big, playable gifts to your partner to create improv scenes with rich characters.

Vaillancourt explains that the best way to set your partner up to succeed is to make statements that not only include specifics, but also include information that can give your partner clues about his or her character’s attitude. Vaillancourt suggests that you ask yourself:

  1. Is the offer really a gift that will make my partner look good and give them something fun to play?
  2. Are there many different ways to play the gift?
  3. Can I play the gift in this situation and other situations?

He then lays out lines of dialogue to show how you can include character information in a statement to make an ideal gift for any improviser:

  • “You have a problem with authority.”
  • “You are the meanest person I have ever met.”
  • “You are like my grandmother.”

Vaillancourt says these are the best types of gifts to give our scene partner because they have the most playability. He then shows us how we can “Yes, and…” the generous gift that’s been offered to us.

With the first line, “You have problem with authority,” Vaillancourt suggests that you could the respond by saying that you drink in school, or that you hate your boss for making you work over time, or you could wrestle a cop who pulls you over.

With the second line, “You are the meanest person I have ever met,” Vaillancourt suggests that you could respond by slapping your partner’s baby, shooting them in the foot, or taking their new iPhone and throwing it down the sewer. In this way, he is not only giving us verbal ways to support and heighten the gift but physical choices, as well.

The whole concept of “Gift Giving” in improv has never been explained to me in such easy to understandable way, until now.

Really, the whole book is like that. It’s accessible for every level of improviser, teacher and coach. It’s structured like a great improv class, with each chapter building off the last. Vaillancourt has simplified the concepts to perfection and supported them beautifully with clear examples and embedded videos making every concept super easy to follow, especially for improvisers who live in smaller markets and don’t have access to many improv classes.

I love people who have been around as long as Paul, who have not only created their own method and can explain it such practical terms, but also who are as passionate about improv today as they were when they first started. If it’s not clear already, I highly recommend this book. ( The Triangle of the Scene is available on Amazon Kindle and iBooks.) And lets us know how you give gifts to your partners on stage, just put it 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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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.