It’s Not All About You, Except When It Is: Owning Your Moment in Improv

By Suzanne Carroll

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Made a hit by The Byrds in 1965, most of the lyrics come from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

Regrettably, the song does not feature the subsequent verses, “A time to taketh the center stage to embrace a dramatic moment; a time to keep thy gaping maw shut and make thy fellow player shine.” OK, maybe that verse isn’t really in Ecclesiastes. But if King Solomon were an improviser, it would be.

That’s because improv, like so many things in this crazy world, relies on balance. A scene needs players to give gifts and players to take those gifts and create something special. Taken to the extreme, simple gifts can turn into… [DUN! DUN! DUN!] …Dramatic Moments!

What is a “dramatic moment” and why would I want to take one?

Good question. A dramatic moment occurs when a player decides to step away from the action to let the audience know more about their character’s inner thoughts, backstory, or motivations. A dramatic moment can be a great way to add variation to the back-and-forth of dialogue or break the tension of a scene.

Like most things in improv, there are no clear-cut rules. You can have characters taking dramatic moments one after another. You can have dramatic moments that just last a few seconds. You can even have dramatic moments without words—simply stepping away from the other players to sigh mournfully can communicate so much.

Not every scene needs a “dramatic moment,” but it’s a great tool for improvisors to have at hand.

How will I know the right time to take a dramatic moment?

I have no idea. I’m still very much a student. But I can say this: so much about learning improv is developing a sense of judgement, which eventually crystalizes into instinct. Little by little, we can recognize those moments when a scene begs for a player to explain a character’s true motives or describe their back story.

I’ll be honest, I’ve found it a challenge to identify the right time to take center stage. A few weeks ago, I very much had “dramatic moments” on the brain during improv class. Our coach, Drew, had been talking about them a lot. I was in one scene where my character, a middle school gym teacher, was just revealed to have sustained many injuries during her years of teaching. I saw it then! This was it: this was my character’s set up for something big! I was just about just about to stand up, when Drew interrupted: “Suzanne! This is the perfect time for you to take a dramatic moment!” This was the most encouraging feedback I’ve ever received in class. Did I do anything special with my “big moment”? Not really. It was just great to know that my improv instincts in that moment were right.

But...I’m an introvert. Do I have to take “dramatic moments”?

Of course not, but I’ll try to convince you to give it a shot. So much of improv is about listening and collaboration that it can feel antithetical make a scene all about you. But remember the start of this post? Ecclesiastes? Balance? If your fellow players have set you up for a dramatic moment, it’s hardly selfish to take it. We will all have our moments to be gift-givers and our moments to shine center stage. At the start of any scene, there’s no telling where the suggestions may lead you.  

© 2019 Suzanne Carroll
Suzanne Carroll is an Improv Marin community member and writer. Due to the high cost of housing in Marin, she is currently renting her moment.

Drew Merit