An Illustrating Example of Improv

I’m finalizing my PhD Thesis on interaction design for improv. This is a slightly-embellished example of something that actually happened. Yes, a mouse ran across the stage in the middle of an improv set and the performers all reacted in different ways and my mind exploded in curiosity watching it unfold.

Here is a example from an improvised set I observed in the Savannah Room in Toronto in Fall 2008, as part of the Impatient Theatre Company’s Harold Night:

A group of 5 performers are in the middle of a longform improv set. Two of them (A,B) are performing onstage, as an injury lawyer speaking to a lumberjack. Three others (C,D,E) watch from the sides.

C sees an opportunity to bring the show in a new direction. C steps on stage, tapping B on the shoulder (the standard Tag-Out coordinating gesture). B leaves the stage, and A retains his character (the injury lawyer), while C assumes a new character (a potter) and a scene between A and C begins.

After a short period of time, D perceives that A and C’s scene has become stale, and performs a Sweep (another standard coordinating gesture). A and C step off the stage. D steps on stage and begins speaking “I have gathered you all here in the town square…”, implying that she is beginning a group scene. All the performers step on stage, to support the scene, except B. D begins a serious speech about workplace safety, while B acts as a heckling dissenter (a different character from the injury lawyer she played before).

At this time, a real mouse runs across the stage, where all the performers are able to see it. Their reactions differ significantly:

• A and D panic and run off the stage, losing their character.
• C and E pretend not to see the mouse, and hold fast to their characters, attempting to continue the scene.
• B, in character, starts complaining about the lack of cleanliness in the town square.

Seeing that the scene has gone off the rails, C steps forward and signals to the technician to cut the lights, ending the group’s performance.

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