Tools to Help Scene Work

Developed by Dan Castelanetta and Gary Schwartz


Setting up a scene is very important. Be very clear, even if it takes a little time, on all the elements that start things you must fill in all the rest.


WHO: Not only is it important to know who you are but how are you different from the other person. If the suggestion is a two Catholic school and you pick a “who”, try to avoid picking nuns. Make one player the Nun and the other a parent of one of the students. Now if the audience suggests two nuns, one should be a the mother superior and the other a novice. Make that decision with the other player at the beginning instead of just using stage time to discover it. Of course the person introducing the game can do this as well. An interesting tool that can be used in “who” work is…

PROJECTION: See your fellow player as someone or something that evokes a strong response be they fictitious or someone from your own life. It could be your mother, your dog, a vampire, a long someone you idolize, someone who makes you laugh, or someone who irritates you. It’s a version of “Who Am I?” except the other player doesn’t have to know. The other player already knows who they are in the scene. i.e. the Mother Superior and the novice. But it will give you a character. If the novice sees e Mother Superior as a cute baby and responds to her as a cute baby, all the while keeping the reality of the scene, the novice will come off as a rather childish person and the Mother Superior can respond appropriately or inappropriately as the case may be. Again it is a way of giving you a character, not a game where the person tries to guess who you see them as.

WHAT: Always start the scene with an activity. The Mother Superior could be showing the novice around the school. It doesn’t have to be physically active. It can even be a simple as an interview or waiting. But again, it’s important that the players be involved in something and know it before they go into the scene.

WHERE: A very important element and should be laid out as much as time will allow. “Where” will be later discussed in the context of the following tools.

TELL THE TRUTH: This means if the player is stumped or whatever you’re state of mind is at the point. Say, as the costumer (even though it is really you), “I don’t want to argue with you. I’m tired of arguing.” But don’t stop there….

RAISE THE STAKES – HEIGHTEN AND EXPLORE OR RANT: Okay. You say, “I’m tired of arguing. I want to stop arguing!” That’s fine but where do you go from there? Aside from the other things you can do: interrupting the routine, lying, or creating conflict, you can embellish your feelings and extend them. “I’m tired of arguing. I’ve argued with every shoe salesman in this town and I can’t seem to get along with shoe salesmen. They rub me the wrong way. I just want to punch their faces. The truth is my father was a shoe salesman and I hated him and every shoes salesman reminds me of him. I’ve had to wear the same pair of shoes for twenty years. That’s why my feet smell so bad. Please you have to help me!” That last plea brings the other player into the scene. Remember you’re trying to make a connection. That brings us to…

THE RANT — OR A VERSION OF GIVE AND TAKE: This is a little structure that can help infuse life into scene. If you see a fellow player ranting, like the customer in the shoe store, the other player should allow the person to go on and at some point can interrupt. At that point the other player should drop what they are saying immediately (no overlapping) and listen intently while the other player rants for awhile. Then the other player interrupts all the while working to shorten each other’s response. This can be played within a scene or be the whole scene. In either case it infuses the scene with energy and connects the players.

EMOTIONS: Another way of infusing life into a scene (if it isn’t already (INTENSIFY EMOTIONS) is to pick a strong emotion like the customer did in the previous paragraph. Allow it to color your response. Take a moment to be aware of you feelings. Where are they physically in your body. The basic emotions are HAPPY, SAD, FEAR, and ANGER. Everything else is a variation. Pick an emotion and again, like lying, justify it.

PAUSE INTO SILENT TENSION (ANOTHER VERSION OF NO MOTION): If things are getting too frantic on stage as opposed to sluggish. This would be a good thing to use as well as “slow motion” or no motion.”‘ Again, this is used to make a connection. Pause into silent tension is when both players stop and look at each other with their full attention. Allowing only silence to be between them. And as in the game, “silent tension”, the players communicate silently. Then when they know what is going on between each other, they verbalize it. This will help bring things back into focus and, again, connect you with your fellow player.

WHERE: In the past whenever there is the side coach, “Use your where.” Sometimes the players would go to it and the scene would take on more life but a Jot of times it bogged the scene down even more. That’s because one player will go get a glass of water or go to the buffet table and not include the other player or not incorporate the where into the scene. That, for the most part, was because there was no connection made between the players. Use the where in the context of these games that have been discussed.

INTERRUPT THE ROUTINE with WHERE. Don’t just go over and get a glass of water. Maybe the faucet knob won’t turn. There are no glasses in the house. You can then turn around and accuse your fellow player of hiding the glasses. This is also CREATING CONFLICT.

BUILD OFF EACH OTHER AND ADD SOMETHING EXTRA using the WHERE. When getting a glass of water, hand it to your fellow player. The player should add something like, looking at the water and seeing if it’s dirty, then show it. The other player can discover there’s little life forms in the water. The other player can pick a little life form out of the water and play with it or eat it.

LYING in the WHERE. No not lying on a bed but lie about what you’re doing in the where. If you get a glass of water and drink it, you might say. “My God, this is chocolate milk. You have hot and cold running chocolate milk.” The other player can support it and add to that, “If you leave the faucet on a little longer the marshmallows will start coming!”
You can also RANT about something in the WHERE. You can have an EMOTION about something in the WHERE. And we’ve always known we can HEIGHTEN AND EXPLORE the WHERE. But whatever it may be, always be mindful of including the other player.


These are some things to remember and some pitfalls to avoid.

Whether it’s an invisible bartender or waiter, it takes your focus away from the other player and screws with the reality of the scene. Try to stay away from invisible people.

Because…what else is there? There is where you find the gold. The previous tools mentioned will help you mine it. But if you negate a beat or an offer, then you’ve got to waste time initiating a new beat and whose to say that’s any better.
DROP WHATEVER IT IS THAT YOU’RE PLANNING and only deal with what your fellow player has offered you and go from there.

The basis of these improv tools is to create a connection between players.

BUILD OFF EACH OTHER AND ADD SOMETHING EXTRA: In simplest terms it means, adding to what has been offered to you. If you’re a shoe salesman with a customer and the customer asks, “Do you have anything on sale?” You can say, “Yes.” or “No.” but add something to that like, “Yes, if you brought the add that we had in the paper today.” The customer can produce the paper or not, but could add “Yes, and I must say this picture of you doesn’t do you any justice.” The salesman can look at the paper and add “Oh my God, I’m naked!” By building off each other and adding something extra you give the scene some interest, some reality and what we would hope for – the unexpected. Speaking of which….

INTERRUPT THE ROUTINE: Interrupt the routine. See if you can make a different choice other than the expected. For example: as the shoe salesman you’re first impulse is to measure a customer’s foot. Find a way to interrupt that routine by perhaps being fascinated with the customer’s foot.

Another extension of this would be to —

CREATE A LITTLE CONFLICT: The salesman might be repulsed by the smell of the customer’s foot and must do something to eradicate the smell or cover it up. The idea in this case is that both players try to work together to overcome the conflict and find other conflicts along the way. Perhaps the customer sprays her foot with perfume but it turns out the shoe salesman is allergic to perfume. Now the salesman will have to toss the shoes to the customer to try them on.

What’s the next conflict? Certainly the customer could object to this treatment and walk out. However, that would end the scene or just turn into an argument between the salesman and the customer. Again, try to connect. If you can’t create a new conflict or interrupt the routine try…

LYING: Tell a lie and stick to it. The customer can lie and say she’s secretly in love with the shoe salesman. Then the shoes salesman can either try to challenge the lie – “But I never even saw you before.” The customer has to justify this by perhaps saying, “I was the little girl you use to sit behind in third grade.” Or the customer\player could…

DON’T DENY No explanation necessary.

MAKE SURE YOU PROPERLY SET UP THE GAME Before starting both players should know the Who and how they are different, what they are doing and where they are.

TRY TO START THE SCENE IN THE MIDDLE Try to avoid, “Hello, how are you?”


Everything that happens on stage happens for a reason . It only helps the scene. It is an opportunity. If someone isn’t “doing what you want them to do” it’s because it’s an opportunity for you to say, “You’re not doing what I want you to do!” in the context of the scene. If you screw up it’s for a reason. One of the funniest things I ever saw improvised was when Jim Stahl in the middle of a scene, in order to get out of some situation, said he was from Germany except he didn’t speak with a German accent and the other player asked “If you’re from Germany, how come you speak with an American accent?” Jim Stahl answered, “I’m drunk.”