Three’s Company: How to Do Group Scenes

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Companies love to schedule meetings. Small meetings. Big meetings. Team meetings. Status meetings. Five minute stand up meetings that last ten minutes. Ten-minute sit-down meetings that waste five. Just last week, I had two, hour-long meetings about the same project that could have happened over email. It’s exhausting.

Meetings are rarely productive, and the more people that attend, the worse it gets. As the founders of 37 Signals write: “[Meetings] often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.” And sometimes, it’s more than one.

Meetings Are Toxic 37 Signals

via 37 Signals

What’s crazy is that outside of the meeting, these “morons” are completely smart and competent coworkers. It’s just that once everyone gets together in a room, the IQ level mysteriously plummets. People want to get a word in, at any cost.

Group scenes in improv suffer the same fate—even when they’re made up of improvisers who are hilarious and skilled in two-person scenes. Everyone wants to get a word in, and before you know it, there’s chaos. Each improviser talking over the other because there’s no longer a clear indication of whose turn it is to speak.

Yet, we find ourselves in group scenes all the time—whether we choose to play one or we accidentally end up in one after four people try to start a scene at the same time. So what’s an improviser to do?

  • Treat it as if it were a two-person scene. Two-person scenes are relatively easy because there are only two characters and two points of view to keep track of. In a group scene, you can follow that successful formula by finding two dominating POVs or a central conflict and align around those, effectively turning an every-man-for-himself battle into 2-on-1 or 2-on-2 drama.
  • Be a background character. You don’t always have to be front and center. There’s just as much glory in playing the waiter with a well-timed walk on, or being the kid in the backseat who only pipes up everyone so often. That allows the other two characters to play a two-person scene.
  • Walk off (or find an activity that takes you out of the scene). If you have three strong characters, find a reason to leave or engage in an activity that takes you out of the spotlight. That way, the other two characters and can express themselves in a two-person format. When they’ve had their moment, come back in and have one of them leave. Repeat until everyone’s had time to interact and flesh out his or her character.

But what if you don’t want to cheat your way into a two-person scene and want to play a real group scene? The key is having a clear point of view. Choose a strong want for your character and stick to it.

For example, be the guy who’s always worried about collecting the money his friends owe him, or be the guy who has a crush on everyone else in the scene. Even if it doesn’t come out explicitly, having that knowledge in the back of your head will help guide you. It will serve as the barometer for whether you should talk or support the scene some other way.

Just like meetings at work, it’s best to listen, follow the flow, and jump in only when you have something important to add. If we all took that advice, wouldn’t three’s company be so much nicer?

Header Photo Credit: Brandon Rice

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If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. It’s “real-talk” guide to improv’s key concepts that can help you nail your show tonight (or in 2 days…Prime shipping…you know how it is).