Narratives and Emotions


Our week 6 class of the Second City’s Improv for Actors course focused on learning to tell narratives and using emotions.

Developing a Narrative – One Word At A Time

A narrative tells a story. “Once upon a time” has begun many a narrative, and the possibilities are endless from where to go from there. You can create the story in the moment, as we did in this exercise.

Working in partners, each player takes turns saying one word at a time, telling the story together. The beauty of this exercise is that you work as part of a team to develop the narrative and without pre-planning or knowing what to expect, the story unfolds.

* See further reading to learn more about Narrative Improvisation

The narrative begins with “Once upon a time” and continues on:

Player 1 (P1): Once
Player 2 (P2): upon
P1: a
P2: time
P1: there
P2: was
P1: a
P2: beautiful
P1: girl
P2: who…

There are a couple challenges I noticed in this exercise. When I did this with my partner, I felt that I was often on the end of saying words like “a”, “that,” “was,” “of,” etc, which wasn’t as much fun as using big adjectives and creating twists and turns. But just be patient. You’ll find that there comes a shift where you get to make more creative offers.

Offering a multi-word thought, such as “wishing well” or “piece of pie” can also be challenging. You can’t expect that your partner will think the same way, especially when you’re doing this somewhat quickly. So if there was a sentence like “There was a” and I said “wishing” and expected my partner to finish the thought with “well”, it can be confusing and not the best offer. In cases like this, it’s better to simply give an adjective or noun.

In this exercise, you not only learn to build a story by bringing a brick, but also to take care of each other, by making offers that will help the story to evolve and succeed, instead of offers that will hinder the development of the story.

Developing a Narrative using “Magical” suggestions 

After practicing with our partners, each pair told a narrative in front of the class. The class gave a suggestion of something “magical” to be incorporated into the story, like a “magical boot,” “magical toaster,” “magical fairy,” etc. When telling the narrative, this element should be included and used to build the story.

Emotional Join-In

In this exercise, there are 5 players. Player 1 is the host of a party, and starts the exercise, with neutral emotion. This player starts the scene alone, perhaps setting up for the party. The four other players are assigned an emotion. One at a time, each player enters the scene, using their assigned emotion. Every person who is present in the scene at that point in time must join in on the emotion. For example, when Player 2 enters the scene, there are only two players in the scene: Players 1 and 2. Player 2 enters the scene angry, and Player 1 joins in on this emotion and is also angry, until the next player enters the scene. This continues until the last player enters.

After Player 5 enters the scene and has been in the scene for a sufficient amount of time, player 5 exits. When player 5 exits, all four remaining players resume the emotion that was there before P5 entered, which was the emotion brought into the scene by Player 4. Player 4 exits, and Player 3’s emotion is resumed by the remaining three players. This continues until only Player 1 remains.

I did this exercise with Elise, Mitch, Jill and Kate. I started the scene in neutral. Elise entered with anger. We were both angry. She was angry that the party sucked. I was angry that no other guests had arrived. We only felt that emotion. Then Mitch entered. Mitch was depressed. All three of us were all depressed. Jill entered with joy. We were all so happy that Jill arrived, and the party was now fun and joyous. Finally Kate entered, feeling paranoid. All five of us felt and acted paranoid. Once Kate left, we felt joy once again. When Jill left, we felt depressed. When Mitch left, we felt angry. And when Elise left, I went back to neutral, tidying up after the party.

It’s a lot of fun to “join in” and to not oppose another player and what they are offering. In this exercise, the offer was an emotion. We ‘yes, and-ed’ the emotion by accepting the emotion, and building the scene on it.


Oscar moment

During the second part of the class, we worked on “Oscar moments,” aka emotionally heightened spotlights.

Each scene would have three people in an environment, such as an office. There would also be an issue or dilemma. At any point in time, our teacher Chris may call out “Oscar moment” to a player, and that person would heighten their emotion and go into a monologue of Oscar award worthiness.

There were lots of amazing scenes.

The first scene was with Kate, Alexa and Lou. They were workers in an office, sitting side by side in cubicles. The issue was that there were no staples left in the stapler.

When Lou had his Oscar moment, he went all out. He was worked up that his coworker Alexa, who he had a crush on, didn’t notice him. He was angry that they couldn’t get their work done. And at the climax, he was livid that there was no staples left in the stapler. It was brilliant and hilarious.

When the Oscar moment was over, the scene went back to normal and emotions were stabilized. But during the Oscar performance, emotions ran wild (just for the one player, the other two remained neutral and said nothing or very little, allowing their co-player to shine in the Oscar moment).

Another great scene was with Jill, Michelle and Steve. They were also in an office environment, and the issue was that the printer was out of ink/toner. During Jill’s Oscar moment, she panicked that the printer was out of toner, and that she had so many copies to make, which she left until the last moment, and really had to get them printed off. Her emotions included a lot of great physicality.

When it came time to Michelle’s moment, she was strong and affirmative, assuring Jill that there would always be toner available to her. Jill and Michelle worked really well together, and their Oscar moments and emotions complemented each other nicely.

Lessons Learned 

  • In improv, big is better. Heightened emotions and big emotional reactions can be very funny, and are great offers for heightening a co-player’s emotions.
  • Joining in on emotions can be just as funny and satisfying as playing an opposing emotion.
  • Working together to create a narrative helps to keep players in the moment and not predict or plan ahead for the story’s development.
  • Making eye contact and listening to your partner will help you figure out what to do next.
  • When making an offer, be aware of what you are giving your partner to work with, instead of rushing to get an offer out. It is important to take care of each other and helps to build trust between players.

Further Reading


What lessons have you learned about emotions through your study of improv? What has worked well for you in improv scenes? Leave your comments below. 


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