In praise of dubbing

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By Jules Munns

I have a confession to make. I love short form. Like, really love it. There is an honesty, a do-or-die immediacy to it which can be a delightful contrast to the careful artistry of emotionally connected longform. My first improv experiences were in short form and only after two straight years of doing games (not even open scenes really), did we attempt an improvised play (which is not, one might argue, longform). Predictably, it sucked. I don’t a do a lot of it any more, but short form will always hold a dear and delicate place in my heart.

I just don’t get to teach it or perform it that much. Or maybe, I don’t decide to, or decide not to. That’s on me. So it was a rare treat when Zsuzsi and Levi from Momentán in Budapest chose to have us teach a short form class while we were out there. (Although we are capable of taking a holiday, we are not entirely capable of taking a holiday which is all holiday for the whole holiday.) Playing the classics: techniques to revitalise, complexify and juju-up your short form games.

Now of course, we had a lovely time and you should all go to Budapest for your next holiday. It’s beautiful, friendly, small enough to get a handle on, but large enough to feel exciting. The tourist traps are still fun and don’t feel exploitative and there’s a cave under the castle you explore with just an oil lantern. I won’t spoil the genuinely scary surprises within. Oh, and the spas are sweet.

Tourist board advert over, let’s talk improv.

I knew I loved shortform in general, but this workshop reminded me how much I love dubbing in particular. For anyone who doesn’t know, dubbing is a technique by which improvisers provide the voices for each other’s characters. Not to be confused with translation, nonsense or gibberish games. Here are a few classic configurations:

  • Two improvisers play a scene while their voices are provided by two improvisers in the wings.
  • Two improvisers play a scene in which they provide each other’s voices.
  • Two improvisers play a scene in which one of them provides both voices.
  • Three improvisers play a scene in which A provides B’s voice, B provides C’s voice and C provides A’s voice.
  • Four improvisers play a scene together, but two of them swap voices in pairs.

I made the last one up, but I think it would work and you see the principle. Now i did a lot of dubbing games when I was a shortform nerd, and I loved to feeling. Coming back to it now, I have the understanding of improv and myself to be able to define why. Dubbing games are all about control and the lack of it. Sure, we might think the person doing the voice has all the power, but they have to follow the player who is the body as well. Where in many improv games the feeling of control passes from one person to another, sometimes slowly and sometimes fast, in a dubbing game there is always a feeling of shared control. I am following your voice and you are following my body. It is difficult to see where something began. Dubbing is true co-creation. Which takes us to my favourite Del Close Quote (today): “Follow the follower”. If everybody is following and serving each other, the improv sings and flows and is easy to watch and do. Dubbing doesn’t ask you to remember you to do that, it forces you to do it in order to be successful. I love a game that forces me to do something beneficial.

I think longformers should go back and play shortform games sometimes. And when I say sometimes, I mean pretty often really. They were all created with particular focuses in mind and with more experience, you are not just playing from a place of getting through, you can see the aim of the exercise, delight in, explore your reactions.

I also think everybody should move to Budapest.


Jules Munns is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery and has spent two years training himself to actually like saunas.

Image credit: Science Activism.

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