A Dog on a Surfboard
The way characters are affected by their setting speaks volumes, and the methods by which this message can be carried are essential tools for an improviser.
It is a truth of our time that dogs have been made to surf.
Desperate men, striving to mark this world during their fleeting fall toward the grave, have coerced their guileless, food-crazy companions into this endeavor.
The dogs certainly feel a debt to the fools curating this facile inanity. Every human that has left a toilet, replete with delights, open to the intrepid palate of the hound has tilted the balance towards dog surfing.
The crass clods causing this shore-side scheme may not be aware of why the hound tolerates this absolute idiocy. However, it is imperative to the cause of canumission that the Sons of Adam receive restitution for the Day of the Delicious Dump. The purgatorial pulse that stills the spaniel’s scandalous inspirations, quelling their queerest quests, vanquishing their vile and voluble velleities… pounds against that ignoble id as surely as the sun scours the Saracen.
Should, after spending time on a surfboard, the sins of the father visit less frequent the son… so be it.
Improvisers are presented with an empty stage. With only a few chairs at their disposal, anything they want to communicate is up to the players themselves. There isn’t a set or costumes; the players might as well have been digitally removed from their settings.
So! What to do? How do we create a location from nothing?
The location may be revealed verbally. A player initiates, “Hello Mr. Daniels, will you be making a deposit today?” This makes it clear we’re at a bank, or at least some place that operates like a bank.
The location can also be shown explicitly through object-work. Briefly kneeling while making the sign of the cross, we’re in a church. The player is using symbolic motions to provide exposition.
The quickest and most honest way to communicate a location is how the character is affected. Staring downstage with a sleazy grin and an expansive posture? Strip club, and this patron is happy to be here.
In this strange image, we have two dogs that have been digitally removed from the setting in which they were photographed. The dogs were engaged in very different activities at the time of the photograph.
Both dogs are dogs.
One dog is a dog on a surfboard.
Good luck figuring out which is which based on posture alone. With a human surfer...
…the difference is clear. There is no question based on how they are affected by their surroundings that this person is surfing. You can even see it in their facial expression! It would require conscious effort and extreme skill for a human to look like they weren’t surfing… while surfing.
Everyone has seen players that look like dogs on surfboards. They may make verbal declarations about the location, but we don’t believe them. How could we, and why should we? The player is selling something but can’t be bothered to show you the goods. They’ve delivered a fortune-cookie’s amount of text, and we didn’t even get a cookie.
I’ve been a dog on a surfboard too many times to count, and each time it is an uphill battle as I desperately rattle off exposition. Asking other people to care more than you do is at best, a naive maneuver. When the player is experienced, the sloppiness makes it a most galling lie. Clearly no care has been taken in the construction of this fiction, and yet everyone is expected to play along.
Somehow, somewhere, someone noticed that grounded scenes always have a clear location, relationship, and activity…
Of course they do! Name a real-life situation where those three conditions aren’t met. Can you remember a scene that seemed real-to-life, but wasn’t grounded?
Hearing the Big Three spoken aloud isn’t guaranteed to make anything real to the other players or the audience. Even when improvisers force the Big Three into the first three lines, it never seems true until we see how it affects the players.
How many times have you seen someone’s bald declaration (“Here we are, the bank.”) hang in the air until another player joins? The other player, deeply Yes, Anding… hits the mark as a prim teller, master of their domain, sizing up the mere depositor who may try to get their filthy hands on banknotes from the Vault today…
Boom. Now we’re at the bank. Before the other player stepped in, someone told us they wanted a scene to be in a bank. Once their brave scene partner took the plunge, we really believed it.
Seeing who, what, and where affecting the players makes the scene feel true and real and completely grounded.
Why not simply initiate as the judgmental teller or the patron being sized-up? You establish the magical Big Three the moment you arrive on stage! It’s clear that this world already existed before the scene started: this is real.
By physically investing in our ideas, we can avoid the cautious tip-toeing that happens with text initiation. We can also begin to exploit contrasts between the physical reality and the spoken reality, something that is really hard to do if we’ve mired our dialogue in clarifying the setting.
Remember that no one is forcing you to be on stage. Dogs on surfboards have been coerced by some moron that thinks this gambit will get him laid. The hounds will be excused for holding onto the only thing that can’t be taken from them: their stiff and stoic stance.
If someone really is making you do this, then please, just treat the stage as painted ply-wood.
The rest of us will be at the bank.
An improviser is an ecosystem of ideas and techniques, a living exchange of habits and philosophies.medium.com
Images adapted from:
“England Expects Signal” By Ipankonin (Vectorized from raster image), CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Scaffolding image from Flickr, User: criminalintent, CC BY-SA 2.0
All other source images public domain.