How do you juggle 3-person scenes? It’s one of the trickiest things to pull off. Two-person scenes are the bedrock of sketch and improv. Group scenes often end up as modified two-person scenes: usually with one part of the group espousing one point of view and the other part espousing another. But those 3-person scenes are tricky. Here’s one of the easiest ways to make them work…
Picture a dinner plate. It’s got a nice juicy steak, a side of potatoes, and a sprig of parsley. When you’re performing a 3-person scene, it will work to your advantage to model your performance after that plate. Each character takes the role of one of the foods.
Steak: This character is the main focus of the scene. It’s often the person trying to solve a problem or the person with the big “want” in the scene. It’s the kid telling his parents he got suspended, it’s the desperate woman in the job interview, it’s the panicked clown performing for the first time. If the “steak” character were missing, the scene would fall apart. This character shoulders most of the burden of the scene and usually has the most lines.
Potatoes: This character is primarily the “support” of the scene. If it’s clear the other person in the scene is pulling most of the focus, a good potato will set them up for success. Johnny Carson may have been steak, but he was helped out tremendously by Ed McMahon’s potato. This character is often the “straight man” or “voice of reason.” It’s often an archetype: a cop, a teacher, a parent, a cashier. You can still get laughs, primarily by putting the steak in position to amplify their character traits.
Parsley: This character should pull focus less than the steak or potatoes, but by virtue of their smaller role, they get to take a bigger swing. Think of all the wacky neighbors in TV history: Kramer from “Seinfeld,” Schneider from “One Day at a Time,” J.J. from “Good Times,” Wilson from “Home Improvement.” They’re the parsley.
Occasionally, the parsley will be so popular a TV show will bend itself backward to feature them. Everyone looks forward to the Fonz visiting the “Happy Days” gang, but if he’s given too much screen time, it dilutes his magic. Look at the early episodes of “Family Matters.” Eventually, Steve Urkel shows up and the whole show becomes Parsley City. If you’re the parsley in a scene, you may get the biggest laughs by virtue of your absurdity, your catchphrase, or your consequence to the scene, but recognize that part of your power comes from your scarcity. Don’t overstay your welcome.
So that’s it. That’s the formula for an easy three-person scene. When you step on stage and see two other performers, try to assess the situation and signal to your scenemates who’s taking which position. The first person to speak is usually the steak, the person responding to them is the potatoes, and the savvy person waiting to jump in to add an occasional spark will be the parsley.