On Three Scene Types

This week, I wasn’t able to post an interview, but hopefully I can make it up to you! It’s Tuesday after all. And since Tuesdays on I’m Making All This Up are all about improv and improvisers, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on an improv concept I’m still wrapping my head around.

Several of my past Minstrel Blood shows have focused on conflict. And while conflict can be enjoyable, I found myself arguing for ideas or concepts that were opposite of my own personal viewpoints. The shows felt emotionally taxing and mean-spirited rather than fun.

Our coach, David Imler, created an exercise where one player initiates with a single, neutral line like “Things just aren’t going so well,” putting the onus on the responder to dictate the flow of the scene. But instead of single scene, we played the scene three times with different types of responses:

  • Complete Conflict – Respond in a way that takes the initiation very personally, eg “You’re so dramatic. This is because I didn’t take the trash out again isn’t it?”
  • Complete Agreement (or peas in pod) – Respond in a way that agrees completely with the premise of the initiation (this will often feel very game-of-the-scene), eg “Things are awful. We’re probably the worst married couple that’s ever existed.” This scene will probably turn into a heightening game about how bad the couple is at marriage.
  • Organic – Respond how you’d respond in your real life, eg “Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that. I really thought the anti-depressants would help.” There is no implied conflict yet. We have no idea where the scene will go, but it will build piece by piece, escalating toward agreement or conflict (or to both depending on the length and the discoveries). Newer improvisers often worry they need to force conflict to sustain the scene, but through natural response you WILL find conflict because you and your scene partner are two different people and will naturally find a point of contention.

I’ve started thinking about these three scene types on a continuum with game-of-the-scene scenes on each end and a more natural, relationship based scene towards the middle. Maybe that’s helpful to you too?

Obviously there are other scene types besides interpersonal conflict (eg Man v Nature, Man v Society, Man v Himself), but these are the three scene types we most often see on stage. And while some initiations lend themselves better to one type of scene, you do have the power to force a type (which is especially helpful if you’re doing a Harold and just saw two conflict scenes in a row – that probably means it’s better to do peas in a pod or organic).

While I knew this spectrum subconsciously, once Dave made it clear, it started changing the way I approach scenes. But I am still working through it. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!