Playing the Straight Man

Last weekend I spent a bunch of time playing with silence when opening a scene. The thought was that if I’m patient with the entrance, rather than jumping straight into dialogue, it gives me time to observe my scene partner(s) and discover an idea that really fits with what we’re already doing, so there’s almost no work at all to embody that fact. We’re already there.

Also, suspense is fun.

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi (of TJ & Dave) inspired me to try it. I’ve probably watched this video a dozen times at this point.

During the YAP workshop we did a fun exercise: Start a scene with the absolute worst opening line you can think of. These are the kinds of lines that give your scene partner nothing to work with. They’re not awful because they make you feel uncomfortable, they’re awful because they make you feel nothing. They’re boring, and they don’t contribute to a story.

One scene partner gave me a perfectly terrible opener:

Him: What did you say?

The only thing there is that we had been talking. There’s no relationship, no setting, no activity, nothing. He might as well have said “no, you open the scene.”

I didn’t say anything right away, and stared at him. Giving myself a second before I jumped in let me find something in his face that suggested that this wasn’t a happy conversation. I think the rest of the class picked up on it too, because they laughed. There I discovered that the silence was actually my character staring at him in outraged disbelief.

Me, shouting: Are you deaf? Did I stutter? I said get the fuck out!

And then we yelled at each other for 30 seconds in front of a bunch of strangers. It was great fun, and I highly recommend it if you find the opportunity.

When it was my turn to open, I went with this:

Me: Looks like it’s gonna rain.

Great. Let’s talk about mildly inclement weather. That will be interesting to watch.

Him, deeply concerned: Yeah… I see you out here a lot. Do you have a place to stay?

Oof. I didn’t think I was homeless when I stepped out, but I sure was after he said that. Now we have a scene worth watching. It ended up being a really sweet moment between a lonely homeless guy who just wants a break, and a genuinely caring person who’s “trying to be a better Christian” offering him the guest bed for a while.

A lot of improvisers had a lot of great scenes during that exercise, and they all highlighted that you don’t always need to start at the most interesting place. I suppose you should probably be ending at the most interesting place and building to it along the way. A bad opening doesn’t mean the scene is dead, and a slow one doesn’t mean it’s boring. It’s just one thing that gets followed by everything after it.

This week I want to continue the same idea throughout the rest of the scene. Silence, patience, and letting it move forward at whatever honest pace it feels like it should move. If I’m flustered and yelling, that’s fun to watch, but if I have nothing to say, that’s really ok too, because my character doesn’t really have to have anything to say either. I don’t have to force it. Let the audience wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next while we take whatever time it takes to discover it.

It’s hard to come up with clever ideas. Some people are really good at it, and can push scenes into some really funny places. I’m not that much of a big loud goofball, but I love people who are. I have a bias toward things that are practical. I tend to look for truth first, and jokes if I get around to it. I think I can contribute more to a scene by embracing that, and playing a better straight man.

At some point that will be something to work on, because I think it’ll help me a lot with short-form improv. But for now, this is good, if I own it.

…And Scene.

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