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.

This summer, take a deep dive into your improv in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives! Either July 27-28 or Aug. 10-11, 2019. Sign up today!

10 Tips for Good Long-Form

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

As another one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv class prepares to do a long-form performance at The Upstairs Gallery in Chicago this Saturday, I want to share with you some good reminders on what you need to make a long-form work.

1. Have Fun — When you play with Susan Messing in her long-running show, “Messing With a Friend” at The Annoyance Theater, she says “If you are not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Nobody is getting rich off improv. We do it because we love to, so bring the joy, bring the fun, bring the love on stage. If you do, you will surely NOT become the asshole.

2. Use Variety — This is huge in doing good long-form. With longer scenes, you don’t want the audience to get bored, so make sure there is variety in your piece. You can accomplish this by using different energies, different numbers of people in your scenes, different styles or genres. If the group has just done a slow, two-person relationship scene about a couple breaking up, the next scene needs to have a different energy. If you are doing a series of two-person scenes, break it up with a group or a three-person scene. If you are playing a real and grounded scene with a lot of emotions, in the next scene should can play some silly, big characters or do a genre scene, just to mix things up a bit.

3. Name Your Characters — Naming is specific, easy, and can help you discover your character. It is also the simplest way to call a character back later in the piece. All you have to do is say their name and your partner will already know who you are to each other.

4. Focus on Editing — Editing is such an important skill and it can make or break a long form. Edit on the laugh. If you don’t get a laugh, look for the scene to come full circle or some other conclusion. Great editing is a balancing act. You don’t want to leave the other players out there way too long and you don’t want to step on a good scene with clumsy editing.

5. A Form is Only as Strong as the Scene Work — I believe Jason Chin said this: “The form is for the players, and the scene work is for the audience.” It’s true. Form is never a good substitute for good scene work. Scene work is the foundation that any form can be built on. If you are struggling with doing solid scene work, simplify your form until you get back on track. Put scene work first and everything will follow.

6. Don’t Overdo the Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting – These elements are a spice, not the main course. Too much will over power the main dish and provide no substance.You will leave you and your audience hungry. When using Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting, pay attention to overall rhythm of the piece. If we just saw a series of Tag Outs, unless it specific to that particular form, wait to use them until later in the piece.

7. Walk On For a Good Reason – When you walk into a scene, ask yourself, what are you adding to it? Are you going out there because you have been hanging back and this is a safe way to go out there? Is this an opportunity to get a laugh at your team’s expense? You need to be adding information, or heightening, or placing the other characters in an environment. Ask yourself, “What can I give to the scene to enhance it?” instead of “What I can take from it?”

8. Sometimes a “Walk-On” is Really an Edit — If a scene has been going on for a while and your instinct is to do a “walk on,” try an edit instead.

9. Don’t Get Hung Up on the Theme — The theme is there to inspire you, not for you to hit it over the audience’s head. If “shoes” is the suggestion, think about what you relate to “shoes.” For me, shoes would make me think of running, and that would let me know how to embody someone in an emotional choice/character. Maybe I am person running from relationships or someone who is afraid to get close to people. If the theme puts you in your head, throw it out for a while, and let the audience make the connection. I would rather see you do scene that you think has nothing to do with the theme (which is impossible by the way),than to do one about two people talking about the shoes they just bought at Shoe Carnival.

10. You Always Have Something — If you are on the back line and you feel confused, start a scene where you are confused.If you feel scared, start the scene being scared. When I did Armando when it first started, I was intimated by all the players, and I was genuinely scared. I must have done 40 scenes playing someone who was scared since that was what I actually was. I was so terrified that I could not use the theme, until I was less afraid.