"How do you know when a scene is going off the rails, and what would you do to fix that?"
Kirsten Rasmussen (Hogtown Empire): When I'm in a scene that is going "off the rails", I try to breath and connect with my scene partners. I look them in the eyes, I look and see what they are doing physically, I make them my most important focus. That always helps me to ground a scene, because the scene is about the characters and their relationships.
Conor Bradbury (Throne of Games): I can tell a scene is going poorly when I'm fighting to control events too much. You do this to try and save the set, but really you can't “fix" a scene. All you can do is hang in there and keep the ball in the air until you or your scene partner stumbles onto a new idea that is more interesting or inspiring to you. The difficult part is detecting that idea and making sure you're open enough to follow it.
Etan Muskat (Globehead): You can tell your scene is in trouble if you're 30 seconds in and you don't know who you are or what you're supposed to be doing. Or if you can hear people cough or a bottle gets kicked over. The two best ways to get back: get real, or just pour on the energy until something sticks!
Ted Hambly (DnD Live): When there are too many things going on in a scene and me and my scene partner(s) are having trouble trying to focus on just one thing. I just try and think back to the first offer that was made and invest more into it and hopefully the scene can get grounded again. Also making big statements/gestures/offers work well too.
Alice Moran (Hungry Hungry Games): If you're not having fun on stage, that's on you. You're the only person who has control over that. Check-in with the scene and your partner. Ask yourself, "what could I do in this moment that my partner will love?" Always follow the fun.
Tess Degenstein (The Guest List): This is a tough one, as so often a scene could be prematurely seen as "going off the rails", when it is actually just going into new and exciting territory. Conversely, a scene that should be a no-brainer-home-run can easily go off the rails. That's why improv is so exciting; because nothing is really a sure thing. Having said all that, I never really "know" a scene is going off the rails. It's more just a feeling that I get. Essentially, it's when the scene stops feeling fun. It begins to feel hard, perhaps frustrating or irritating, awkward, clunky, confusing, out-of-control. I truly believe that that the audience can pick up on the performers' energy onstage, and that if the improvisor isn't having fun- isn't turning themselves on, creatively- than the audience will feel that, and may not enjoy the show (even if they can't necessarily articulate why).
So, what to do about that? Well unfortunately, as it is improv, there is no sure way to guarantee a scene doesn't slip and slide a bit before finding it's footing. If you do feel like it is going off the rails completely however, you have a couple of choices. With improv, nothing is really too precious. If you start a scene that isn't going well, you can always bail. Look for a nice button, or ending on the scene. Sometimes short scenes are the best scenes anyway! And "a button" doesn't have to clever or perfect; often it is the most simple, obvious thing. If however, you would like to continue the scene but aren't sure how to progress, often it helps me to make sure that my character has a really clear "want" from the other character or from the situation. If my character doesn't have a "want", make one: make a fast, strong choice that inspires you, and stick to it. See where that takes the scene. Defend the character and their want, and again, don't try to be clever: a good "want" is often the most simple thing (ie. "I want the other character to love me" "I want an apology", etc). Be strong and specific in your choices, yet be open to the strong, specific choices of your teammates. Hopefully the scene will hop right back onto those rails and you, your fellow improvisors, and the audience will all have an amazing time!