Cue The Music


Cue the Music is basically just an outline for a potential improv rock opera / music theatre game that I wrote in response to Shreyas’ Mridangam. This was before I knew that improv theatre groups do this kind of thing all the time, with similar kinds of guidelines. Now it feels kinda redundant, but maybe some of the ideas will eventually reappear.

In order to play a game of Cue the Music (working title), you need to purchase (in a pre-prepared module) or personally prepare the following…

1. Backing Music for the Game

This can be pre-recorded on a CD or in digital format, or, if you’ve got more balls, written out in some sort of notation to be performed live during the game by one or more instrumentalists. The degree of flexibility that exists in music performed live depends on the comfort levels of the members of the troupe (including instrumentalists and players). Experienced and confident groups may have a few general notes about chord structure (jam band!) or one or more melody lines jotted down (jazz!) and just make up the rest as they go, giving the instrumentalists (as well as the players) room for improvisation and enhanced personal expression.

The music for the game is broken down into various sections that we’ll call “scenes.” There may be a pause in the music between scenes or the entire game may be through-composed (like Wagner!). Most times there will be a break and an opportunity to prep a bit for the next scene. Each scene is arranged for a certain number of players (and instrumentalists, if not pre-recorded), leading to individual arias, duets, trios, quartets, larger groups, and, occasionally, big chorus numbers. Simple scenes have the same number of people involved all the way through, though more complex scenes will have different people involved in different times. In a module written for an experienced troupe, a duet might give way to a short aria, a choral response, and then a reprise of the duet, all in the same scene.

Certain portions of individual scenes may have scripted lyrics, such as a pre-determined chorus that repeats several times in the scene, or a reoccurring motif lyric that reoccurs in various scenes throughout the course of the game. Any predetermined lyrical lines are often kept intentionally general and vague, to make them appropriate for as many situations as possible, though some scripts are more specific. Aside from the per-scripted lyrics, each scene is broken up into a general structure that assigns sections of music to various players and groups of players. Often times the structure, musical outline, and set lyrics will be written out together, such as in this sketchy example:

Scene 4: A Simple Duet for Player B, Player C, and Acoustic Guitar
4/4, medium tempo, folky

Intro (2-4 bars), Guitar Only — ||: G Am C G | G Am C G :|| (repeat as needed)
Verse 1 (4 bars), Player B — | G Am C G | G Am C G | Gm D C G | G Am C G |
Verse 2 (4 bars), Player C — | G Am C G | G Am C G | Gm D C G | G Am C G |
*Bridge 1 (2 bars), Players B + C — | F F C C | G G D D |
Chorus 1 (4 bars), Players B + C — | G D Am C | G C D D | G Am C Am | G Am C G |

    We keep talking, though we both know how the story ends
    The curtain drops and friendship doesn’t matter anymore
    Is it possible to leave no broken hearts when you go?
    Thought I had the answer but now I don’t know

Verse 3…
Verse 4…
*Bridge 2…
Chorus 2…
Instrumental Break…
*Bridge 3…
Chrorus 3…
Verse 5 (2 bars)…

2. Character, Setting, Situation

Characters and the details of situation and setting are usually undefined by the module and game organizers do not typically prepare them in advance. Instead, before the game begins, the players have a short discussion in which parts are assigned, a setting is chosen, and essential conflicts are introduced. This should take 15-20 minutes, once you get the hang of things. Overplanning leaves little room for improvisation and make it more likely that there will be confusion or mutually exclusive ideas about what is “supposed” to happen in play.

To make pre-game brainstorming easier, most modules (either purchased, borrowed, or written by the organizers) will include important thoughts and suggestions on choosing characters and structuring play. For instance, you might read something like:

    Player B disappears from the game in the middle of Scene 6 and then doesn’t appear again until midway through the last Scene (#11). In past games of The Death of Archibald Anderson [this particular module], the role of Player B has often been that of the “Archibald Anderson” mentioned in the title, dying in Scene 6 and then reappearing in Scene 11 in various capacities (a faked death? a ghost? a visit to heaven or hell?). Occasionally, clever troupes have done other things with Player B, making him/her Archibald’s mother, a childhood friend, or someone entirely unrelated to the title character.

    Player B performs all of Scene 3 solo, shares duets with Players C (Scene 4) and F (Scene 6), and appears, as previously mentioned, in the middle of the giant, final Scene 11 with every other character in the game.

Similarly, possible situations and setting bits will be offered in the prepared texts for the game, but, during the pre-game discussions, troupe are welcome to throw these out the window and create whatever characters and situations that they like, or, as some troupes do, simply make things up as they go. Often, troupes have fun perverting and creating variations on modules that have been performed over and over again, setting The Death of Archibald Anderson in outer space or on a reality TV show.

3. Signs: Locations, Props, Special Actions, Multiple Characters

As in traditional Chinese opera and other minimalist theater forms, these kinds of games are meant to be played on a bare stage or open space where there is no prepared set or props. This can create a challenge for groups that want to present complex or exotic stories that would normall require extensive material preparations. To overcome this, simple gestures are developed to mime the missing stuff. There could be the “getting on a horse/getting off the horse” cues, the “drawing my sword” cue, the “internal monologue” cue, the “talking on my cell phone” cue, the “now I’m underwater” cue, the “this scene takes place in Archibald’s bedroom” cue, and the like.

Realize that most of these things can be improvisationally mimed without any special preparations, but critical or commonplace-but-potentially-unclear cues might need to be planned out in advance. Also, if one player is taking on the roles normally assigned to multiple players, cues such as a hat or a tie might be necessary to distinguish different characters.

4. So How Do You Play?

As you might have guessed by now, this is a singing game. Think operetta, rock opera, or (ugh!) musicals. The different players improvise lyrics to go along with the bars that they have been assigned, often pulling double-duty to improvise harmony vocals to other players’ singing or singing different lyrics at the same time (interwoven back-and-forth or just sung in complete contrast). Players are expected to prep the music beforehand (listening to it over and over again, to familiarize themselves with it) but then freestyle the lyrics, not coming in with pre-planned things to sing, though some groups allow or encourage pre-planned melody lines.

The narrative emerges from the improvised lyrics. One player might sing, “I can’t believe you’re leaving me now, after all this time together” and suddenly that puts expectations on the other player(s) in the scene to respond appropriately. Good players can work together to pace things in aesthetically pleasing ways, working up to big choruses or important sections of music, making the tension rise and fall, revealing information at critical junctures, and setting up future interactions. The best troupes are full of players who can not only act, pantomime, sing, and improvise clever and beautiful lyrics, but also have the familiarity and comfort of experience, are good at reading each other and providing space for others to shine.

One Response to “Cue The Music”

  1. […] Cue the Music, an improv rock opera / music theatre game that I wrote in response to Shreyas’ game, Mridangam. This was before I knew that improv theatre groups do this kind of thing all the time, with similar kinds of guidelines. Now it feels kinda redundant, but maybe some of the ideas will eventually reappear, like in the Coheed and Cambria game. […]

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