So this past Harold season at IB the higher ups allowed me to break a bit form Harold tradition and allowed me to try a new form for IB: The SPOKANE. I had been a long time fan of the form after seeing it at UCB NY a bunch of times and really wanted to see it done at IB in a professional setting. Here I will share some of the lessons we learned and overall strategies we developed in case anyone out there is also interested in trying out this awesome form!
Just so we're all on the same page, the Spokane is a longform structure in which there is a central source scene that the whole show revolves around (like the center of the wheel in the picture above). From that source scene, other scenes can be started and continue down a series of tag out scenes (like going away from the center of the wheel down one of the spokes). Eventually the tag outs will find their way back to the source scene. Then you can just repeat the process.
Below are some points about various aspects of the spokane that we learned. These are in no way ment to be the absolute only way to do the spokane. As with any art, do whatever you want and change whatever you want... that's art baby! These are the observations I learned that were specific to the Saint Brad cast:
0) The Opening
For Saint Brad we opted to get a unique location from the audience. Obviously you can just do this 100% organic and just get a word, but I liked getting a unique location because it just sped things up and got everyone on the same page. This may offend some purists, but I think anything that gets everyone focused in the same way (a location) really helps with group mind. I noticed unique locations with known "characters" tend to be the most successful. One of the best ones was "backstage behind some theatrical production" You can get fun characters like the dramatic main characters, the paranoid show producer, technicians, side characters, etc etc. The more specific and unique a location, the better, as it's more fun for the performers to think of new characters they've never done before.
1) The Source Scene
The first scene of the show is the source scene. These should be treated with the same mentality as a monoscene. Meaning, this scene will probably always only exist in 1 location. However, characters are welcome to leave and new characters are welcome to enter. The first scene should be like the first beat of a harold: long, slow, and organically finding games, characters, and relationships. I recommend about 3-5 minutes for the first scene. DO NOT tag out too early as you will find it difficult to tag back in with any sort of momentum. Really let the first scene breathe.
As in the monoscene, it's really important to establish characters with strong and simple points of view. Such as "the mom who is overbearing", "the daughter who wants to party", and "the dad who is overprotective". Really try to keep it simple, if you can't boil down your character's point of view in a simple sentence, then he/she is probably too complicated.
We also noticed it's nice when there's about 3-4 people in this scene, so that we have a lot of different characters we can tag out to explore. With 2 people, you just have fewer ideas to explore.
2) The "Spokes" scenes
So when I first started with the spokane I thought there was 1 main way to do it, which was just when a game was found in the source scene, tag out to another scene that heightens the game. But as we dove deeper into the form, we noticed there were different kinds of tags that people could do. I am a pretty analytical person, so we actually made labels of the different kinds of tags. Because of the temporal logistics of always coming back to a source scene right where it left off (no time jumps), I thought of the edits in terms of time. So we can cluster the edits into 3 main groups:
EDITS INTO THE PAST
- Game Based Edits - This is the basic one where a game is found in the source scene, and then we tag out to another scene that heightens that game. Just like the second beat of a Harold. Let's say you're in a source scene and there's a game that the father is overprotective of his daughter. We can tag out to a scene in the past when he also flipped out about someone doing slightly negative towards his daughter (like accidentally bump into her). These scenes will probably be very premise heavy (meaning you start the scene with a strong initiation line that specifically hits this game).
- Exploratory Edits - These are edits that are more organic in nature than the game based tags. Meaning, maybe there was some sort of funny half idea that was mentioned in the source scene, but it's not a fully flushed out idea (like the overbearing dad is a fully idea). For example, in the source scene, someone could mention that the AC was broken at work all day. Then an exploratory edit could go to the hot office scene, where everyone is on the floor, half naked, and sweating like crazy. Improvisors should treat this like an organic scene, finding new games and new characters. I say the broken AC is a "half" idea, because there's nothing really comedically funny about a broken AC unit, so there's still work to do in the new scene to find new games.
- Off shore edits - These are kind of similar to exploratory edits, but the main difference is that these edits do not contain any of the characters from the source scene. For example, if in the source scene someone says "you know in Cuba they would kill to have your job!" Then we could edit to a scene in cuba where people are clamoring to get that job. Clearly the scene in Cuba will have nothing to do with the characters in the source scene, hence the "off shore" title of this kind of edit.
- Parallel world edits - All of the edits I described before occured "in the past" You can also do an edit of a scene that is occuring "at the same time" as the source scene. One example is if the source scene is a bunch of kids playing on the playground, we could jump to the parallel world of the teachers watching them from afar. These are really fun as it's a joy to watch these two parallel worlds interact.
- No Future Edits - We actually purposfully did not do future edits, because it caused a sticky situation when we would do scenes in the future. The biggest hurdle was that we couldn't really use any of the information learned in the "future" scene when we tagged back into the source scene, which kind of defeated the purpose of them. Just to keep things simple, we chose not to do these edits.
- Story mode edits - These were a huge hit within Saint Brad. These are kind of like based on the movie "The Princess Bride" in which the grandfather begins to tell a story, and then we cut to that story. This is probably the most narrativy of all the edits, but it allows you to go super insane because at any point you can just tag back to the source scene and just react with "The princess killed the prince?!?!"
4) Some High Level Tips
- No fast tag runs - The spokane is a longform structure where each edit is meant to be used to explore, find more games, and then explore some more. To allow this to succeed, as a general rule of thumb don't tag out of a scene under 2 minutes. Meaning, always give time to each scene! Some teams may be tempted to jump from scene to scene after just 1 or 2 lines. This may get a quick laugh, but you will find that you will run out of steam since no characters or relationships were developed.
- Chain the edits together! - So a spokane can go as many scenes away from the source scene as you like. Feel free to mix and match the edits, even within a single "spokane" thread.
- Trust that you'll find your way back - We sometimes found that during our "spokane" thread run, we would get so far away from the source scene, we'd have no idea how to get back. Here you've got to have a little faith. Just keep on going until someone sees a great opportunity to connect the "spokane" scenes back to the source scene in a hilarious and awesome way. Gotta trust each other! Don't try to force it back to the source scene just because you feel "it's about time" You should only go back to the source scene, when you have an awesome idea.
- Reference the edits when you cut back to the source scene - There should be some reaction when you cut back to the source scene, even something simple like "Oh, so that's how that pizza got up there" will get a huge laugh. You can basically pretend that someone was telling the "story" of whatever the tag run is. You should try to use the information learned in the spoke scenes to heighten whatever is going on in the source scene. You group just did all this awesome work in the tag run, don't waste it!
- Slow Ramp Up - Just like any longform show, the energy, pace, fun, and crazyness should always be ramping upwards towards some crazy explosive ending. Always try to make choices throughout the set that "level up" the intensity of the overall show, try to avoid going down in energy. For example if halfway in the show someone says "oh man, grandma is going to be pissed!" It's better to choose the rump UP response "Oh SHOOT! SHE's GOING TO KILL US!" versus the ramp DOWN response "Nah, she doesn't care, she's just sleeping".
Okay that was pretty long! I'll stop here for now, but hopefully this will help some people out who were interested in trying out the form. LIke I said above, these aren't hard rules, just things we observed. Feel free to do whatever you want, that's improv baby! (as Andrew says)