Aha – Exploiting a Particularity in Exposition for Solo Improv

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I have written about the importance of exposition in improv before. We want to make sure that both we as players, as well as the audience have a solid idea of who the scene/story is about, what drives the characters, the setting for the scene, etc. Dipping my toes into solo improv recently, it dawned on me that there is a particularity in solo regarding exposition, and that this particularity can be exploited.

In your average multi-player scene, we want exposition as early as possible because players cannot read each other’s minds. Any confusion about where we are & who we are, risks derailing the scene. Or – in the best of cases – delays the meat of the scene while players scratch their heads figuring out what & who the scene is about. One way of doing this is to be very explicit.

The jury is out on overly explicit exposition at the start of scenes: Mick Napier has argued against it in his (excellent!) book “Improv – Scene from the Inside out”. Pgraph, in their (equally excellent!) little book about Narrative Improv (titled “Do It Now”) argue differently as follows:

Clunky & clear is better than smooth & obscure. Clarity should always come before subtlety. The more improvisers are on the same page, the more they can get out of their own way and create the story that wants to be told. … Miscommunication and vagueness encourage performers to make weak, tentative choices, which makes the audience anxious or confused.

— Roy Janik

(Janik & Napier may actually be on the same page, but that’s another subject.)

Irrespective of your preference, at some point it needs to be clear to everyone on and off stage as to where & who we are. If you as a player, in your head, discover that you are a mermaid who would like to have legs, and that is not somehow conveyed to the other players you may find yourself to be a dentist with a child wish. Not that there is something wrong with the latter, but you’ll have a period of time in which your “reality” does not match the other player’s reality, simply because you cannot read one another’s minds. Until all players align, if players are not careful you may get awkward, confusing, messy scene work. Plus there is a risk that (mostly with less experienced players) individual players will ‘fight’ to establish their reality, and bulldoze their reality onto the others.

Particularity

When it comes to exposition, solo improv is different from other improv. Not from an audience point of view, but from a player point of view. The challenge of not being able to read the other players’ minds simply goes away. Hence the (potential) mess and confusion that arises when different players have no clue what this other is thinking won’t happen. Since you are the only one on stage, there is no risk in delaying (explicit) exposition – as long as you agree on the exposition in your head – you just don’t need to put it out there for the audience. Yet.

Exploit it for Solo Work

The last sentence is key to exploitation of this particularity: you can purposely postpone exposition. Be purposely vague and your audience will be tickled, as in wondering where the heck is this going: that is your setup. This only works if your exposition is clear in your mind, if you are as confused as the audience your scene is on shakey grounds.

The moment reality – finally – dawns upon the audience is your payoff, and in many cases it will cause a laugh. (if you are unfamiliar with the terms “setup and payoff” in comedy see these two articles.) It’s an Aha-erlebnis, it’s like masterful delivery of the punch line of a joke.

An additional advantage is the since going solo there is no need to hurry exposition, you can also safely play it more subtly and avoid overexposition, or awkward/unnatural exposition. Janik’s position that “clarity should come before sublety” does not necessarily hold in solo improv – at least not to the extent it does in non-solo improv.

Example

Here is an example I did recently. It was a scene in a show for which the suggestion was “insectology”. I made a decision that my character was a wasp, doing a TED-X talk for the nest, and the audience was the nest. The idea came organically (there had been Kings and Queens earlier in the performance, and there had been scientists as well – all, in combination of the original suggestion made me think of a wasp nest). I did not mention any of this, there was no explicit exposition to that effect. But the physicality of my character was a bit ‘buzzy’ (like a wasp that keeps bugging you) and spoke with lots of ZZZs, and their hands were a bit flappy like wings – but the character was still ‘human’. There was, right at the start of the scene, a reference that my character was honored that the Queen herself was in the audience. There was a reference to the “nest” no earlier than a minute into the scene. I’m guessing that it took about 2 minutes for the whole audience to “get it” and it was a blast.

Wrapup

That’s it for exposition in solo improv. Comments welcome as always!

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