For some reason, my team has been getting this note in rehearsals for a long time – “Make the scenes about your characters’ relationships!”
I think that’s a trap.
Some improv teachers will suggest every scene is about “fighting or f***ing.” And we often get the note not to have an argument scene. So that leaves us with… love scenes.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good scene between lovebirds. But they do feel repetitive after a while. I recently watched 11 hours of improv at the Playground Theater’s annual improv marathon for charity. Watch that much improvisation and you’ll find your attention wandering. So many scenes have the same feel – strained initiation followed by mediocre support followed by infinite variations of the initiation.
To the audience, an improv show is like watching traffic. If 100 semi trucks roll by, you’ll lose their attention. Ditto for 100 motorcycles or 100 ice cream trucks. You can get their attention with a crash (a relationship between two characters/cars), introducing an unusual traffic pattern (pacing) or just having a weird-ass car drive by (character).
To get an audience’s attention, you must cut through the “noise.” And most improv shows are noise. If an audience member lets his mind wander, that’s noise, too. You, the performer, must present something so sharp that it pierces the haze of the evening.
Sure, your scene could be relationship-based. And it could be great.
But we could also focus on one character. To use one of my favorite examples, Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley” has almost no relationship with the other actors. He is the entire focus. And the scene works. The character-first notion is preached heavily by the Groundlings. That’s why you see performers like Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig having scenes that focus entirely on their weirdo character. Pee Wee Herman was a Groundlings character. And no one watches him to appreciate his relationships. What about SNL’s Stefon or Roseanne Roseannadanna or Drunk Uncle?
Of course, we don’t want to see an entire show of strangers, where no character knows the other, one is a “straight man” and the other is Captain Cuckoo. But that is a valid type of scene. Especially in satire, the theme of a scene is more important than the characters. And yes, in some scenes, the relationship is the most important thing.
Primarily, I think a focus on relationship is a trap because it’s out of your control. The essence of improv is discovery. Establishing a relationship is less about discovery and more about declaration. When a coach stresses relationships, you hear almost every scene beginning with the words “Mom” or “Dad.” One of the first lines is often wasted declaring another character as a spouse or lover or sibling or best friend. But if relationship was the prime driver of a scene, every scene between spouses would be incredible.
The only thing you can control in an improv scene is yourself. Any urge to control anything else will leave you frustrated. Concentrate on yourself. Walk into the scene with an interesting character. If the other actor has an interesting character and you happen to be related, great. If the other actor comes in blank, and he’s a stranger, that’s fine, too. You still have your interesting character. That should be enough to cut through the noise.
Remember, how you do something is more important than what you do.
It should be noted that Chicago is undergoing a serious push toward solo performance. If the main reason an audience watches you is because of relationships, a solo show should fall completely apart, right?
The audience just wants something innovative or joyously familiar. The large majority of our scenes are neither. So the audience tunes out, and the drone of traffic swallows your show whole.
Watch this video and consider if the relationship matters in the least. These could be friends, coworkers, relative strangers or an old married couple. The dialogue is funny, regardless of who’s saying it to whom.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com