I’ve been doing improv a long while, but only relatively recently started paying for tuition. That means I’m suddenly getting a lot more abstract understanding of tags and sweeps.
In a longform piece one changes location by either ‘sweeping’ – clearing the stage and beginning a story not directly related to the previous story – or by ‘tagging’ – clearing the stage of all but one character and taking that character to a new context. Sweeps change what thread you’re currently following, and tags advance what thread you’re currently following, with most longforms having three threads. Tags are faster and allow a simple route in to ‘game’: if a character crashes their car and says “I don’t see how my day could get any worse!” then someone on the sidelines will likely tag in and take them to a situation in which their day has indeed got worse (tag: “Welcome to jail, sir.”). In that gamey context someone else will immediately tag in and heighten further (tag: “Dead man walking! Dead man walking! I hope this teaches you to drive safely in the future.”) and further (tag: “Welcome to heaven! If you’ll just present your clean driver’s license…”) and sweep to a new scene.
Sometimes this goes poorly, especially in a jam context where you don’t know each other’s style. I’ve been in this situation twice in the last month: everyone picks up on the game and one person is left in the hotseat (‘person that stabs everyone’ or ‘psychiatrist that gives bad advice’) but the heightening doesn’t take. I was the ‘person that stabs everyone’ and there’s a particular sudden feeling of desperation when you realise that you’re being carried along from scene to scene and things aren’t going well – the game didn’t land and when the joy of playing that game evaporated it took with it your ability to put energy into each line. Nick Moseley summed this up in Meisner in Practise (Chapter 7, p127) as “There is nothing more painful for an actor than to find himself trapped in a fake dialogue.”.
If you’re on the sidelines it’s your responsibility to help your teammate in trouble. It’s simple to tag out the person who is carrying the burden of the dead game, and show a large consequence which – because it breaks the pattern which has become painful for everyone on stage – will immediately get swept and allow the birth of a new scene, but I think next time I see this happen I shall tag in and try to drop us in to a deep connection scene with the person that was carrying the joyless game. This would still be short – we’re still trying to get our footing back after we stumbled out of sync with each other – but I think could be more satisfying emotionally than following one consequence of the game.