August 20, 2009

Dance, Puppet, Dance!

In every improv company that performs some form of “competitive improv show” there are bound to be a few “usual games” that they play on a semi-regular basis. One of the games that we used to do frequently in our adult shows, and also in nearly every school show, was called “Puppets.” (If memory serves, they also played this game on Whose Line Is It Anyway? but called it “Moving People”.)

Regardless of the name, the point of the game is to get a volunteer (or two) on-stage and explain to them that the actors in this scene will do all the talking, but they will not move until the volunteer moves them. The actors will be like Kim Catrall in Mannequin waiting to be posed (although in adult shows, frequently the volunteers would maneuvers the actors into sexually charged positions, keeping the Kim Catrall analogy, but moving the venue to Sex and the City, but I digress.)

This puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the volunteer, as they can make or break the scene. Generally speaking, volunteers fell into one of four categories: the comatose – those who simply froze under the pressure of being on stage, leaving the actors to be stationary for the entire scene; the over-exuberant – those who simply moved the actors constantly, all over the stage, without any regard for what the actors were saying; the A-holes – those who tried to deliberately push the actors off the stage, or to hit each other, or otherwise put them in danger, or even used the opportunity to get “too familiar” with certain areas of the performer’s bodies; and the “A” students – the ones who not only listened to offers, but also made some of their own, advancing the scene towards a satisfying conclusion.

Above: Two "over-exuberant" Whose Line volunteers

The "A" student group was few and far between, but wasn’t necessarily the only type of volunteer that could breed success. After all, far more school kids fall into the “comatose” category than anything else. There is a certain innate fear that many kids have, even when given permission to make the grown-ups look silly. But still, there is great entertainment value watching them come out of their shells, and finally “getting it.” In fact, a whole two-minute scene can reach an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the scared puppeteer’s participation being the coup de grace, leading to a huge ovation.

A typical scene with two young children goes like this…

“Christine, look over there.”


“Over there.”


“Where I am pointing…”

“Are you pointing?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I can’t see.”

“Turn your head.”

“OK, I will turn my head.”

To this point, neither actor has moved an inch, as the two volunteers have not moved them. But by focusing on the volunteers, and continuing to talk to them, rather than simply running through a litany of jokes, eventually, the light bulb usually goes off and the head gets turned. The audience reacts wildly.

"I can see you, but I don’t see you pointing.”

“Yes, I am pointing right over there, with my finger.”

The second puppeteer moves the finger to more huge applause from the crowd.

The two volunteers end up having a positive experience, rather than a disastrously negative one. Why? Because the actors stayed focused, not on themselves, but on the volunteers from the audience. Improvisers sometimes forget that the audience is also their partner, and the goal is always to make your partner look good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a puppeteer attempt to move an actor and have them completely ignore it, fight against it, or even contradict the motion – say the raising of a closed fist when the story seemed headed for a romantic kiss to end the scene – simply because it went against the direction of the dialogue they were speaking.

Of course, sometimes by focusing so hard on making the puppeteer look good, unintentional – and borderline “over the line” comedy ensues. At one school show, a puppet scene was going like gangbusters, with the two actors and young puppeteers working in complete tandem. It had progressed to the point where both actors had picked up props and costume pieces (with the help of their assistants, of course) and were moving all over the stage.

Unfortunately, at this point, one puppeteer turned her improviser in such a way that the prop she was holding – a long pool noodle that was representing a sword in the scene – rammed right into the rear end of the other actor, who had just been turned to face the other direction. Trying to accept the accidental offer, but at the same time, attempting to avoid “killing” her scene partner (very rarely a good idea) all that the poor improviser could think to say was, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to penetrate you from behind.”

Needless to say, it brought the house down…

After the show, she was mortified, but thankfully, the school officials understood and in the end (tee-hee) everyone went home happy.

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