The Back Door to Scenes

Published by ShawnKinley on

green and white male gender rest room signage

The Back Door



Easy Tips and simple Tricks can be dangerous for improvisers… They are no replacement for good technique and risk taking.  Use these little tricks ONLY WHEN THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY, MIND-BENDINGLY NECESSARY.


Go on, get out of here if you feel any sense that you are about to grab a couple of fancy little hacks to make an audience laugh at the expense of solid narrative.


You won’t listen t me anyway. BUT DON’T COME CRYING TO ME when your friends are saying “We saw you do that lame little trick in the scene with the robot baby… and the week before you did the same thing.  You really aren’t as fun to watch as the moth that flew into my room the other night.”

OK… agreed?  Agreed!

Secret BACK DOORS get us in and out of difficult places. Software

 backdoors get hackers through hard fails in their systems. Hidden back doors get the rebels out of the Castle when the enemy has overrun the kingdom.

We have our back door plans at parties we weren’t really interested in going to in the first place. You know that back door? You pull out your phone and say “OH, I just got a text message from my cat sitter.  I have to go, there’s an emergency with Fluffy who seemed to have got into the LSD. I really have to go. Sorry. See you at work on Monday.”

In a scene that’s going to hell, and has everyone frustrated, annoyed, bored, and angry, sometimes it’s great to have keys to the back door that lets you and the audience flee together into a better place.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of Back doors so please leave a comment or drop me a note and I will add it to the list…  

GAGS  – Keith Johnstone is well known for telling people not to use “GAGS” in scenes.  A  gag is a joke that comes at the expense of the narrative of the scene.

Keith has also been known to say that the BENEFIT of a gag can be when it is used to mercifully end a scene that is going nowhere or one that no one is actively trying to save.

It’s a good tip and a useful reminder that even the things that destruct good work can also save us under the right conditions.

Wake up from a dream – You know this one. It’s a classic and hated by most of us but it sticks around.  This backdoor trick comes in two flavors:  

METADREAM: Just lay down on stage and jump up quickly as if you’ve just woken up from a horrible dream.  “ON MY GOD!!! That was horrible. I just had a dream where we were all standing on a stage in Denmark and no one was defining the relationship and the audience was on the verge of leaving. It was so horrible! REALLY SKULL-CRACKINGLY CRAPPY!  I’m so glad none of you had to experience that.” (The details you use from the scene can be fun, especially if you point out your own bad performance, and the others help you off stage gingerly.)
The “DREAM IN A SCENE” variation has your character in the scene wake up from a dream. This can be dangerous because you still continue the scene.  It’s usually used when you just want to go back to a point where things were working. 
You are at school in a classroom scene. The scene is flatlining. 

Your character wakes up with his head on the desk and acts like the previous few seconds was just a horrible dream or warning of something that could happen if they don’t change their course.  They try something different and the story goes down a more entertaining path.


You’ve noticed that your partners have gone beyond panic and are huddling deep inside their cold, frozen souls and praying for a swift end to the scene or show.  

Help them out of their hell.

Someone offstage or onstage steps forward and speaks seriously to the audience using the excuse of the bad scene as a reason they should fund arts training or other cause that might seem appropriate.

It’s great if the public service announcement can have some relevance to the content of the scene. For example, a scene set at a school is not salvageable. You jump forward and address the audience directly. “Ladies and Gentleman – Government cutbacks in Education affect us all. If you or your friends look anything like what you see here, consider not voting for the Conservative party of Alberta (or whatever political party is in power).  This ad was paid for and supported by the Green Party of Malta. 

The Generic public service announcement can also address the poor state of Improvisation. “Ladies and Gentleman, At a time when the core values of society are floundering and our stages are inundated with the untrained and untalented, please consider adopting an improviser and keeping him off the street and stage. Reasonable donations to the Improvisers sterilization fund will also be gratefully accepted. 

OF COURSE, YOU CAN’T USE THIS OFTEN. If you do, it’s probably a sign you need better training before selling tickets to your shows. Don’t use these suggestions if the performer’s egos are fragile. Be prepared for some harsh feedback after the show if performers are out of touch with how the audience is reading their scenes. You might think you are saving them from unsalvageable disasters when they think you are destroying their brilliant work. 

CUT – It’s all been a movie scene.  You step on stage like a director and yell “CUT!!”. Complain about the writer, tell the improvisers to go memorize their lines, cut back to a part of the scene where you think the story went off the rails. Or tell them that the budget has been pulled and you can’t continue.  Start another scene.


In some forms of improvisation that resemble a sporting competition, have a towel on the side of the stage. When you need a back door, throw it on the stage like in a boxing match when they know their fighter has been beaten but no one is taking the responsibility to end the match.


“Ladies and gentlemen, you deserve better. I am well aware that if you had a remote control you would have changed channels. If you had a mouse you would have gone to Netflix.”  Etc etc. 

I saw a festival of long-form improvisation that had bad shows followed by worse shows.  FINALLY, an improviser from Berlin said in a scene, 30 minutes into the show, “WHAT IS GOING ON!!!?? I don’t understand what the hell this is all about!”  The audience applauded and laughed. It was the first truth that connected to the paying public in two days. 

That reprieve lasted for about 12 seconds because his team ignored his back door escape and continued with their incomprehensible story.

Be BRAVE – see it the way the audience does!

Knowing when to gracefully exit a scene will always be controversial. Do you throw in the towel or just use it to wipe the sweat off your face and keep fighting? 

Some people say you should never “give up” but when the audience is paying the price there must be a line we draw for more heroic attempts at making horrible scenes marginally better. 

Take care of your audience. Recognize when you are in over your head or when your team needs the gentle hand reaching out to them and guiding them through a back door that they couldn’t see through their panic and frustration.

It’s a great scene that saves itself and fixes narrative disasters and turns boring moments into exciting gold. But there will be those nights when nothing can save you, your partner, and the audience except for a graceful leap out of the scene and into a new beginning.

If you have other “BACK DOORS”, let us know.


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *