I Love (to Learn from) Lucy
As an improv teacher, I recognize that it is difficult for students to confidently understand certain principles of improv that can sound abstract and vague (i.e. “More truth!”, “React honestly,” etc.). To make these concepts more accessible, I try to offer real, tangible examples. I find this to be an especially helpful technique when trying to teach a very abstract idea: the game of the scene. By “the game of the scene,” I mean discovering, emphasizing, and playing with whatever is unique or interesting in the scene, possibly through patterns or heightening. This “game” could be the relationship between the characters, an interaction with their environment, a reaction to a situation, etc., and usually this “game” results in a quicker and shorter scene.
See? Even that explanation was vague and abstract. So, in order to make this confusing idea a little more graspable, I find myself returning to the same example over and over again: the famous chocolate factory assembly line scene from “I Love Lucy.”
Most likely you’ve seen this scene before (if you haven’t, watch the video below). In this classic TV comedy moment, Lucy and Ethel are tasked with wrapping chocolates coming off of a conveyor belt before they reach the packing room or else they are fired. As the conveyor belt picks up speed, they struggle to keep up the pace, forcing them to stuff chocolates into their mouths, blouses, and hats. Then, the factory boss comes in and perceives that they are doing an excellent job, so she speeds up the belt even more! It’s simple and brilliant.
I use this example when teaching “the game” of the scene by way of analogy. So, let’s say that your scene in rehearsal or a show was this classic scene I Love Lucy scene. I might say any of the following:
1) You only talked about how hard it is to wrap the chocolates — without actually wrapping them.
To play the game of a scene, you have to actually play it. You can talk about it while you do it if you want, but just do it! Do the thing you are talking about doing.
2) As the chocolate factory boss, you walked into the room and said, “Hey, is this conveyor belt moving too fast? Let me slow it down.”
When faced with a problem, it’s our human nature to resolve it. In an improv scene, it pretty much diffuses whatever was interesting about the scene. Don’t end the game, heighten it or repeat the pattern.
3) You said you didn’t want to wrap chocolates, so you stopped, and then didn’t know what to do in the rest of the scene.
When our characters decide they don’t want to do something, they usually immediately stop or quit. This may be an honest instinct, but it goes against the principles of basic storytelling, which is to say their is no great story about the hero who was too frightened to go on a journey and stayed home. Do the thing you do not want to do.
4) You decided to didn’t care if you got fired for failing to wrap the chocolates.
A successful game has stakes. If you don’t care, then the audience doesn’t care. Emotionally investing in the game makes it more interesting to watch and probably easier to play. Care about something.
5) The scene started with you struggling to wrap chocolates, then you said there was a chocolate monster, then you were transported to Planet Conveyor Belt, and finally you both exploded.
Sometimes performers don’t trust that their simple idea is interesting enough and then go off the deep end with an insane series of events. This is usually jarring and off-putting to watch. Playing obvious and simple is almost always going to be easier and more fun. Trust that your simple idea is enough.
If you’re ever struggling to understand and apply an abstract improv or comedy idea, look up some old Youtube vides of classic comedy scenes. By viewing these concepts through the lens of these classic comedies, they may finally start to click, and you’ll find it a lot easier to speed up the conveyor belt in your improv scenes.
Lucy’s Famous Chocolate Scene