Improv Workshop: how to be the straight man

Yesterday in our improv session we had a workshop led by Raphael Perahia, based on a workshop he did when he was recently in New York, on being the straight man in a scene. It was one of the most interesting and productive sessions we have done and there were some lovely scenes by everyone. The technique resulted in everyone doing something different from what I have seen them do before, and has added a nice new skill to our toolbox.

Who is the straight man?

Raph and Ed look on

The idea behind the straight man of the scene is that he or she acts out the role of the audience were they in the scene – what would you do, genuinely what would you do, if this crazy stuff was happening around you. At the same time as always accepting and building on everything that happens, the straight man must feel their own reality, and feel the feelings and emotions that would arise out of the situation. There is therefore absolutely no complicity with the audience, because the audience are seeing a real reaction to the scene from the straight man and never the straight man’s reaction to the audience’s response to the scene.

So, if the straight man is talking to a werewolf who has a penchant for bracelets, how would s/he really feel? Scared? What reality is the crazy character bringing to the scene for the straight man to react to? From their “normal” response, the other character then has the freedom to take real flights of fancy and heighten the situation with whatever layers of craziness they wish, and the straight man’s reaction is funny because it is real and based on real feelings.

The workshop

Not leaving
Because the straight man would, in reality, want to leave many of these scenes, s/he must come up with a reason for staying. Maybe they are trapped physically, say in a lift or a car; maybe emotionally, say if this is a family member; or possibly situationally, this is their boss or their carer or they need something off this person or the place. It is important to make this clear as this shows the audience the reason why you are still in the situation.

The straight man must have an objective, a reason for being there and a reason for reacting to what is happening. They are acting within their own parameter of normal – as is the other character, no matter if they are a vampire or have just swallowed a number 49 bus en route to Clapham Junction. It is useful for the straight man to also be clear in saying what they see and feel.

Exercise 1 
We started with a scene where both players played straight, seeing what would develop were this a real situation. Then we redid the scene with one of the players playing straight, and the other having an issue of some sort. Examples were: a patient visiting a doctor who was deeply in love with him (reason for staying – the only doctor the straight man could afford); a driving lesson where the instructor whose wife had just left him (reason for staying – they were in a car together), and; an estate agent showing an astronaut an apartment (reason for staying – the agent wanted to make a sale).

Every scene was extremely funny and, even moment to moment, the straighter the straight man played it, the funnier the scene was. What came out of this was a re-emphasis on the crazy man explaining their situation, why were they doing what they were doing, and also whatever the particular routine we were in, to keep it real within the scene.

Roderick, Ed and a chair get intense

Exercise 2
Two players came out doing actions, and the person who says the first line accuses the other player of something. The accuser is the straight man, the other is the crazy. This allowed the crazy player to be more extreme with their playing and created a reason for the dynamic, justifying whatever they have been endowed with. There was a great deal of funny in the contrast between the crazy and the straight.

Again, the scenes were extremely funny, and the re-emphasis that came out of this was for the crazy player to be fully behind the decisions that were made and the straight man must be very real, feel and react to that reality as a normal person would. So the scenes were: a woman blaming her husband for breaking her father’s old ceremonial sword, the husband had been fighting ninjas (reason for staying – they were husband and wife); a woman accuses her husband of bankrupting them, he has invested in a pyramid scheme and has sold even her parent’s house, and; a diabetic wife accuses her husband of giving her sugar, he has done so because he likes looking after her when she is poorly so does all he can to make her so.

Roderick, Kate, Julian, Sanj, Paul and a wall

Exercises 3 and 4
Exercise 3 was the same as exercise 2, but three other people enter the scene at some point, doing or saying something completely non sequitur, and the straight man (and we also experimented with the crazy doing so) justifying what happens.

Several funny scenes resulted, from a pregnant wife enthusing about silly baby names, to a pair of serial killers agonising about the murder of a rabbit, to a roller skating waitress in the Ritz.

Exercise 4 was the same as exercise 3, except that the other people entering could come in for a reason that fitted the scene. Also, we played the games through, then the straight man would call time on the game, a half halt to the craziness, before finally the straight man then bring it back again in a final climax.

Scenes resulting were: being trapped in a lift with someone who is setting up their home there (climax – someone arriving for a camping trip); guy working at a comic book store is colouring in enormous dicks onto the rare collectors comics (climax – they move to the next room where the vandal has carved a huge dick in the plasma TV), and; a best man who was a slightly psychotic practical joker (climax – the groom gets arrested).

Re-emphasised from this was the importance that it’s the straight man who calls time on the game, and even more importantly, it is s/he who brings it back to its final, mad heightening. Also, again it was re-emphasised that the craziness needs a justification, a reason why they are doing this.

Kate, Harriet, Sanj, Paul, Julian, Kitchen

To put that another way, it is about building the strength of the scene, and then building, building, building. At some point both reach an agreement to stop, before the final mad heightening to end the scene.

Improv and clowning. And acting
I recently spent a week on a clowning workshop with Aitor Basauri of Spymonkey. I found that week incredibly difficult and spent most of it “in the flop”. Clowning is very different from stand up, particularly as the relationship with the audience is one of getting them to laugh at you rather than with you. It is about being vulnerable and accepting that vulnerability whilst not playing up to it. Like I said, I found it nigh on impossible and the flop that I got in from the course lasted for several weeks (as Aitor correctly predicted!)

The reason I mention this is because, personally for me, I found that the straight man workshop also fed into some of the things that I had learnt from the clowning, and allowed me to achieve some of the things that I had failed to achieve as a clown. The only way I managed that, however, was to really try to feel my reactions to things. In fact, it is interesting how much of the different things that I have spent the past few years learning, all converge and donate understanding to newer skills. For example, I also felt a connection with some things I’d learnt from my acting course, “Introduction to Stanislavski”, that I did at City Lit.


Wilmops improv troupe

Raphael Perahia’s website

Spymonkey physical theatre


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