Is Every Improv Scene “Salvageable?”

In a word, yes.

Now you can go back to posting inflammatory political comments on Facebook or researching Canadian immigration policies — whatever you’re into.

It’s a straightforward question with an equally simple answer. And there are a few easy tricks you can use to get your scene back on track if you feel like it’s crashing and burning (more on that later).

So that’s the answer.

But it’s not what’s interesting about the question.

Check Your Assumptions

To answer the question, we need to start by addressing one major, underlying assumption — that there is such a thing as a “bad” scene that needs salvaging in the first place.

I think that’s up for debate.

There are probably a few improvisers (respected ones at that) who would argue there’s no such thing as a “bad scene.” And in the abstract, theoretical land of “no such thing as a wrong choice,” sure, there are no “bad scenes.”But I’ve been on stage when no one is laughing, when my scene partner and I are looking at each other, praying for the edit. I’d call that a bad scene.

I mean, it certainly doesn’t feel good.

In the real world, on stage, in front of an audience, there are bad scenes. I’ve seen hundreds, and I’ve starred in just as many.

So let’s accept, for the sake of this argument, that there is such a thing as an objectively “bad scene.” The next question we’d have to ask is — what makes a scene “bad” in the first place?

That’s a bit harder to answer. It depends on the scene.

My first impulse would be to say it violates some fundamental improv rule (and I know “rules” in improv is an entirely different debate, one I won’t touch today). Maybe it violates one of the “don’t” rules you learn in Level 1 — don’t ask questions, don’t play strangers, don’t do transaction scenes. Or maybe the issue’s deeper — there’s no relationship, the game isn’t clear, there’s a lack of agreement.

Then again, I’ve seen (and played in) plenty of hilarious scenes that break all of those rules and still end up fun and memorable.

“No one will ever fucking say, ‘Awesome show, because it made sense’.”
— Mick Napier

Following rules doesn’t always guarantee scenic success in the same way breaking them doesn’t always spell disaster.

The Last Time I Completely Bombed

When I came across this question about salvaging scenes on the improv subreddit, I was a bit perplexed. Not because I didn’t know the answer, but because it’s been a while since I’ve even thought about the question.

That’s not to say I haven’t been in weak scenes or done shows where I didn’t pull my weight — but I can’t specifically recall the last time I crashed and burned. It just hasn’t happened in the last year.

So I started to wonder why.

There are two obvious answers. First, I’ve been improvising for four years, which means I’ve gotten better. Secondly, I often play with more experienced improvisers. If two strong players work together, even if one of us starts to bomb, the other can redirect the scene before it veers into “train wreck” territory.

Then again, I also play with newer improvisers in jams or student/veteran lottery shows. I’ve done shows with my girlfriend, who’s never taken an improv class. In recent memory, none of those scenes felt like they needed salvaging either.

One potential conclusion could be that I’m God’s gift to improv…but I have a hard time buying that. Which means there’s something deeper at play.

“Salvage” is a Mindset

After thinking about this question all week, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. It’s a red herring.

Because here’s the thing — scenes can fail to reach their potential for any number of reasons. But they bomb (we’re talking full on crash and burn) for reasons that have nothing to do with following or breaking the rules, transactions or relationships, even experience or skill.

A scene bombs when you worry that your scene is going to bomb.

Think about it this way — what’s the scariest thing to a brand new improviser?

I can’t speak for everyone, but when I joined my first independent improv team (week four of my level one class), my biggest fear was doing a minute-long scene. I had no idea what my partner and I could possibly talk about for such an interminable 60 seconds.

Eventually (I’m proud to admit), I did a one minute scene. Then, three minutes seemed like a challenge. After I did that, 10 minutes seemed impossible. And so on.

Beginners spend a lot of time worrying about doing improv “right.” They worry about “doing something” in their scenes. They constantly analyze the scene from within, trying to check boxes of character, location, game, etc — all in an effort to…what? To win at improv?

And the minute they notice they’re not “doing it right,” they’re not “winning,” they panic.

That panic starts a downward spiral. Their partner panics. They both stop playing the scene that’s right in front of them. They try to think their way out, which in a cruel ironic twist, only makes it worse. So they bomb. And the scene needs to be salvaged.

BTW — if you’re in that situation, the quickest way to salvage the scene is to get out of your head and make some sort of confession. Tell your scene partner — directly — what the scene is really about.

You’re not haggling over the price of a bike, you’re trying to make your daughter’s birthday special. You’re not making small talk with the cashier at Wendy’s, you’re trying to get a date to your sister’s wedding. Dropping this kind of truth bond will create a relationship and emotional stakes, instantly bringing you back from the brink.

More experienced improvisers eventually learn that they don’t need to check boxes. That they don’t need to keep score. That the only thing that matters is the person right there on stage with them, and whatever they can create together. They assume they’ll get somewhere so long as they follow the last thing said.

If they don’t get anywhere, well…it’s just one scene.

Asking The Wrong Question

It doesn’t always work out. Great improvisers do lame scenes (all the time). But when no one is keeping score, panicking, or retreating into their head, scenes don’t need to be “salvaged.” They don’t reach that level of disaster because no one is putting that sort of pressure on one, dumb improv scene.

So the answer the question (again): yes, any improv scene can be salvaged. But that’s an answer to a question that didn’t need asking in the first place. If you can take the pressure off yourself to do every scene “perfectly,” if you stop keeping score, you can go ahead and take “salvage” (and this question) out of your improv vocabulary.

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