During tonight’s class, I watched two performers start a scene as employees cleaning up a restaurant. The veteran employee told the new employee that they had to make the place shine because the boss hated messes. The veteran even told the rookie that he needed to shave his scraggly mustache and ditch his earrings. The boss wouldn’t like a messy appearance.
Care to guess what this scene was missing?
That’s right. The boss.
Why do we do this? Most improvisers are incredibly kind-hearted souls who want to avoid conflict. That’s awesome in real life, but not particularly great theater. The audience wants to see you screw up, get in trouble, then screw up again and get in worse trouble. This scene was the equivalent of saying, “Don’t open Pandora’s box. It’s really bad.” And then, five minutes of not opening Pandora’s box.
By removing the conflict and applying it to an unseen, external force, the scene lacked any sense of immediacy. I paused this scene and asked the performers what they could do to make the cleaning issue more important. They hit on a great idea: the boss would be arriving in five minutes. Suddenly, a lackadaisical cleaning effort became a furious race against the clock. They became incredibly inventive about how to clean and reorganize the restaurant in a hurry. The new employee panicked about how to shave without a razor. The veteran employee started frantically weaving a new hammock because they had ruined the old one. That scene sprang to life because they made the conflict immediate.
Second City espouses the belief that there are two kinds of scenes: Slice of Life or This Is The Day.
Slice of Life scenes are most often character studies. Two pals fishing and talking about life, a little girl talking about her dreams for the future, any of the mid-80s Willie & Frankie sketches from SNL. There’s usually no arc to those scenes, we’re just enjoying the characters existing in their particular fish bowl. You can have success with those scenes, but all the weight rests on your ability to create a compelling character.
This Is The Day scenes require some kind of conflict. It’s the day that a son comes out of the closet and tells his family, the day two lovers break up or the day Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father. We show these scenes to the audience because this day is different from all those that came before for these characters. There is inherent drama (and comedy) in such situations.
To have productive conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist. In our restaurant scene above, they initially made the antagonist the boss, but since the boss was not in the scene, the scene felt flat. When the scene restarted, the antagonist was time. That made the scene matter.
Not all conflicts work for improv purposes, however. We don’t want to see two roommates arguing about who failed to wash the dishes. We don’t want to see a car salesman haggling with a customer. We don’t want to see two boxers pummeling each other until one collapses.
Instead, you must be smart about your conflict. (Forgive the gendered language for a moment.)
Man vs. Man: This conflict will work in an improv scene as long as it is a debate about ideas. If both characters espouse differing points of view, we’ll likely enjoy the scene that unfolds. That could be the movie “12 Angry Men,” but it could also be an umpire who taunts batters after they strike out, a difficult restaurant customer irritating a server or a child creating a powerpoint presentation to convince their parent to take them to Disney World. One person is a direct opposing/antagonizing force to the other.
Man vs. Nature: In this scene, we can see both characters team up against a storm or quicksand or that damn swarm of bees that keeps attacking. Just make sure that we see the moment of action! We don’t care about a blizzard that’s coming two weeks from the moment of your scene. In our restaurant scene, dwindling time can be considered an element of nature.
Man vs. Self: This is a fantastic starting point for an improv scene, though it’s a veteran move. By giving yourself a phobia or a dream thus-far denied, you add tremendous depth to your character. Thankfully, this is the day we see you overcome your personal hurdles! Or, this is the day your personal hurdles destroy you and you gain the audience’s empathy! Win-win!
Man vs. Society: The crazy person meets the voice of reason. The voice of reason is the proxy for societal norms. The crazy person defends their odd point of view against The Man at all costs. This is the day we see a customer demand a bank teller give him a loan in exchange for a stack of buttons. This is the day we see Mary Poppins show up to flip the Banks family upside down. This is the day we see Will Ferrell show up to a boardroom in an American flag diaper.
Note that one scene can contain multiple people serving as a singular protagonist or antagonist. Think of sports movies where the entire team of losers wins the big game or Harry Potter and his pals squaring off against Voldemort and his goons or President Trump versus the entire planet.
The audience wants to see characters struggle and fail. They want to see characters struggle and win. But if your characters aren’t struggling against something immediate (a feeling, another character or an idea), they’d better be really compelling people or the audience will let their minds wander.
Learn all of this in person. Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. As of January 2017, I’m currently teaching Level One on Tuesday nights.