I am a champion at making mountains of molehills. I cannot be beat. I have a certification for creating problems that’s hanging on my wall. Hell, most days I invent one or two problems for myself before I even get out of bed.
And they aren’t just typical problems. They’re problems that I really should spend time stressing over – like what will someone say if I tell them I don’t have time to coach their team or what will my boss do if I tell him I have to leave half an hour early for a doctors appointment.
They’re the same kinds of problems we spend a lot of time stressing and arguing over in improv scenes too. And they lead us to the same exact place – nowhere.
As improvisers, our biggest fear is that nothing will happen on stage, so we initiate scenes with lines like, “Janet, you always forget to take out the trash!” It feels safer because we know how to play that scene (and we have played that, like 100 times before).
And since we’ve played that scene before, or the problem initiation gives us a map by which to play the scene, we’re not really improvising. In a single line, we paint our partner’s character and emotional state and can just fixate on the present issue until the scene is cut. We don’t have to deal with the fear of discovering something together.
After doing that a few times, it stops being fun to watch or play. It’s just two people arguing over a problem that isn’t even real.
So what should you do?
- Start with an initiation that’s neutral or positive. And if you don’t have a great idea, just flip your negative initiation around and see what happens. “Thanks for taking out the trash” is almost always going to lead to a more interesting scene than “You always forget to take out the trash!”
- Be sure you’re YES AND-ing. “Positive scenes” that fall flat are often those where we’re yes-ing but not and-ing. We agree to the premise but don’t add new information to move the scene forward.
- Pay attention to the first unusual thing. If it’s a conflict that arises naturally from the two characters’ relationship, follow that. If it’s a peas-in-a-pod game, go after that. It will keep you from getting stuck.
- If someone initiates a negative scene, don’t go for the bait. If your scene partner opens with “You always forget to take out the trash,” try agreeing. See what happens.
When you create a problem in the scene, you create problems for yourself. You don’t need that crutch. It’s just going to lead you to the (safe) tired scene you’ve played 100 times before. Next time, start with something positive. It could lead you anywhere.