One of my favorite exercises to train new improvisers, as well as one that we frequently would use as a pre-show warmup, is called the “Three-Line Drill.” What it does is to force all of the meat of a scene to be introduced within the first three lines so that there’s no beating around the bush on stage as the audience waits desperately to discover the point of a scene. The two actors may still well end up struggling to find their way to the end of the scene, but at least it will have gotten started in the first place.
In line one of the Three Line Drill, the relationship of the characters is introduced: “Mommy, can I ask you a question?” “Jenkins, come into my office.” “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”
In line two, the scene’s location is established: “Of course, honey, sit down on Mommy’s hospital bed.” “Did one of my customers return the car I sold them off the lot yesterday?” “My child, what could you have possibly done that required you to come all the way out to my cabin in the woods to make a confession?”
And finally, in line three, the original speaker now has to add to the scene by announcing a problem. (Usually, in our rehearsals, we’d actually break into a little ditty upon delivery of the final line of the drill, “It’s a problem… it’s a problem… it’s a serious, serious, serious, serious problem!” while dancing around willy-nilly.) For example: “Why did the doctor tell me I should say goodbye to you?” “Sort of… they were on their way to return the car when the brakes failed, and well, here’s the car – in my office!” “I went to visit you at the church, but you weren’t there, so I burned it to the ground!”
Certainly, when actually performing in front of an audience, you might want to let a scene breathe a bit without forcing all of this information into the first three lines of dialogue, however, if you’re stuck for somewhere to start, or if the scene seems to be going on without direction, the three-line drill is a good tool for a quick narrative jump-start.
Of course, that still doesn’t explain one of the worst openings to an improv scene in recorded history, as after his scene partner was on-stage alone, setting up an environment with an elaborate pantomime, FRT’s Executive Director Michael Durkin burst on stage, screaming, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Amazing… No relationship, no location, nothing at all brought to the table. Now, that’s a problem!