Follow a different map

In our most recent Monday night improv workshop, we practiced a particular exercise called mapping, and it’s absolutely amazing when it’s done right. The short version of the concept is this: the performers are playing one scene, but playing it emotionally and even with a lot of the same dialogue and beats of a completely different scene.

Ideally, the main scene will be something every day or innocuous, while the scene it’s mapped on is something huge and emotional. Or, if the main scene is something big, the mapping source is as different as possible, especially in emotional tone.

Some examples from tonight: A woman telling her husband that they’ve switched to drinking 2% milk, but doing it as if she’s surprising him with the news that she’s pregnant. A convict is about to be executed, but he plays the scene like it’s the college graduation he’s long looked forward to. A new employee on her first day at an office supply store is being shown the ropes, but she plays it like a young woman about to lose her virginity.

Now here’s the trick when doing it in improv: ideally, it’s done without warning. Maybe the suggestion is “realtor showing a house,” but one of the players choses to play it as a professor at a very pricey university chastising a student who isn’t doing their best. Once they’ve established the realtor and client relationship, then that player starts to throw on the mapping, at the very least in emotional tone.

If they do their job, their scene partner and the audience will pick up on it at about the same time, and then the game is afoot. If the partner gets what the initiator is mapping, then it’s time for another improv magic trick on stage, as the scene becomes about two different things at once.

In the case of the new employee/virgin exercise tonight, it became hilarious — and bonus points for the entire scene playing within our family-friendly rules despite the subject matter. The adults would get it while the kids would hear it literally as someone nervous about the job. But the more the new employee talked about concern over her first time, the more the other employee piled it on, advising her not to use a certain brand of stapler, and eventually telling her she was bringing in a couple of warehouse employees who’d been “doing this all day long.”

I think the line that killed everyone in the house was the new employee saying, “I want to take it slow. I hope there won’t be a hole-punch involved.”

For my part, as a performer, I was the executioner to the convict excited for graduation mapping, and it really turned out to be fun as hell to play. There was just something ludicrously joyous and yet simultaneously dark about these two men sharing an ebullient moment over an event that, in the reality of the scene, would be truly terrible, but which was, because of the mapping, a cause for celebration. We even planned for the convict’s grandparents to attend, and hold his hands during the big moment — although I did advise him to tell them to wear thick, rubber-soled shoes.

It was going to be an execution by electric chair with friends and family, the dropping of balloons, and people tossing their caps into the air.

It’s a really powerful creative technique, because it doesn’t need to be limited to just improv, and I’m seeing uses for the concept in my writing already. I think I may have unintentionally done this a few times in short plays or scenes over my career, but now I know how to do it purposefully. It adds a certain surrealism to things, but can really up the stakes, elevating the mundane while retaining a strange but consistent logic.

To me, it seems like a hidden variation of one of the techniques we use when improvising Shakespeare as a genre, which is called metaphor. In it, one of the ways to create flowing and poetic language off-the-cuff is exactly that: create a metaphor for something and then run with it.

For example, “My love for thee is fire, that burns so bright that all who see are blinded, and so hot that naught is left but the smelted gold of the purity of our hearts, and let anyone who’d try to quench these flames perish in them, for I shall never let the bellows of my soul allow our amorous inferno to starve…”

(Yes, that was written as improv.)

Now take that a step back and think about a scene where a librarian is checking out a patron, but decides to play it as a fireman evacuating a burning building.

P: I’d like to check out — 
L: Oh my god, what are you doing? Come on, come on, let’s go!
P: It’s... this is for a homework — 
L: You want to die for that? Why haven’t you read Fahrenheit 451 already?
P: I... hadn’t gotten around to it?
L: Well, great. Literature is definitely an escape, isn’t it?
P: Why do you seem so alarmed?
L: Because that’s my job!
P: What about my cat up that tree?
L: Don’t worry. We’re on it...

And so on… and so the scene becomes an entirely different thing. And in case you’re wondering about where one player clued in the other that they got the game, it happens in line seven, with the word “alarmed.”

Making the right choices in mapping helps to create two of the most important elements of comedy: contrasts and the unexpected. By treating the mundane as spectacular — or vice versa — you instantly create humor by defying audience expectations. The contrast itself creates the air of the unexpected. With the execution/graduation example, that happened almost immediately. The audience knew the suggestion was “prisoner on his last day,” but then the other player bounded in and opened brilliantly with, “Oh, boy. I’m sure excited about today!”

But where mapping can go wrong is if the subject and the map are too close to each other, in which case you don’t get those really beautiful extremes. I tried to find a video example of good mapping to link here, but I could only find one and there were too many results to wade through, because the terms improv and mapping also apply to jazz musicians, which most of the videos were for.

The one that I’m not going to link, while it explained mapping very well, had a terrible example: a man trading in a horse for a new one, but doing it as if he’s at a car dealer. Can you see the issue there? Both scenes are transactional, and are basically about getting a new vehicle. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for novelty. Not that it can’t work as an improv bit on its own, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the exercise.

Transaction scenes are actually tricky for mapping because it can be difficult to come up with a map that isn’t itself a transactional scene. In these cases, it’s better if the mapping revolves around something besides the transaction. For example, the customer may secretly be in love with the seller and is just using the transaction as an excuse to see them. Or, with the horse example, maybe someone is telling their in-laws that they’re divorcing their kid.

The one transaction scene that does work is itself a game, though, called Shopping Spree or Shopkeeper, depending on where you play it. It’s a guessing game probably better seen than described. Here’s our great ComedySportz Manchester team playing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest*. The big difference here is that we play it as a team vs. team game instead of one team, so each team is working from the same list of seven items, one team down and the other team up, the first to hit four winning. On top of that, each clue-giver gets 20 seconds. Consequently, the Manchester version is a lot less frenetic than ours is.

Half the fun is in the audience, who’s in the know, watching the shopkeeper not getting the clues. It’s also not a boring transaction scene because it’s not about the transaction at all. In fact, it’s just another form of mapping. In this case, the game itself is the map, but that’s kind of how improv works in general

*Fun inside baseball fact: ComedySportz has a red team and a blue team, but in the Manchester team video, one of the players is wearing a black and white jersey. This is because he’s playing as the “DJ,” or designated jokester, who alternates playing for both teams when there are only two members on each. In L.A., we don’t have a special jersey. Rather, the DJ wears one over the other and puts it on or takes it off as needed — although we also very rarely resort to DJs.

Antique map image of Leo Belgicus by Claes Jansz. Visscher, is in the public domain.

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