In improv, a “call” is hopeful foreshadowing, an invitation and request for a specific story element. For example, if I were to say, “I can’t wait for you to meet my wife,” in a scene of a long form show, I am making a call for one of my fellow players to step into that character. With my old troupe, I could have been more subtle. I could request a fellow player start a scene with me by making eye contact as I walked on stage. Because of the trust we had in each other, that player would have taken the stage and allowed me to take the lead, supporting my play.
Familiarity and trust is the main reason improvisers form troupes. Every improviser has their own performance style and sense of humor. When you improvise with the same group of people for a while, you start to understand how they think, and can predict where they will take a character or joke. It takes time for a group of people to develop trust in each other’s skills. The more skilled the group of improvisers, and the longer a troupe has been together, the more subtle calls can be.
As a writer, I make and answer all my own calls. Sometimes, I’ll recognize a particular line as a call to myself as I’m writing. Other times, those calls are subtle enough to escape my notice at first. I remember one scene in particular that I had worked on for an entire evening. My protagonist was discussing with some other characters how to deal with a car bomb they had found under their vehicle. Even as the writer, I was bored. Rewriting sections didn’t help. I needed to make a change to the scene, but I wanted it to feel organic.
I started searching my prose for the opening I would need. At one point, my protagonist mentioned wanting to move away from the active bomb. One of my other characters had retorted with derision. “It’s perfectly safe,” he said, “It’s not like the car will turn itself on.” I had my opening. I had to find a way for the car to seemingly turn itself on, and then explode. By going back and adjusting the appropriate details, it was easy. The scene was a lot more fun.
For me, making a call is about recognizing the needs of the story, and answering a call is setting up the circumstances to have those needs fulfilled. When the call is left unanswered, the need is pointed out, but is left hanging. It’s a broken promise. On the other hand, if a call is answered, but the original call is not clear or strong, it is poor foreshadowing. It took improv for me to be aware of these promises, and how they can be broken in both the setup and delivery.
Tags: Sequence 02: Improv and Writing