In almost every improv program I’ve been through, from high school to college to my professional training as an adult, I’ve gone through the initial and ubiquitous “three line scene” drill. You know the one—it’s a little different everywhere but it generally works like this: the class or team divides into two groups on either side of the stage, one of whom is responsible for the initiation, the other of whom is responsible for the response, followed by one more line from the initiator. Usually you do it where the two people then switch sides and go to the end of the other line so that each person gets to initiate and respond. The first time I did it I learned it as “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes.” In other words, the first person says who they are and what you guys are doing, the second says who they are and where you’re doing it, and the first person then adds something to the situation that increases the tension/heightens the conflict/etc. Since then I’ve experienced this same drill with some variation in every course of study I’ve been in. I’ve even written it into various curricula I’ve created for schools and theaters. And there’s a definite value to codifying the moves like that as an early introduction to the structure of an improv scene, but recently I’ve also noticed a few potential flaws with it as an early introduction to scenework, especially in terms of the results I get from students and its efficacy on their growth as performers. Primarily:
- That it teaches students that if this information is not introduced in the first three lines of the scene, your scene will be, if not ruined, somehow “in the hole.”
- That it teaches students that they are individually responsible for a part of the scene, rather than collectively responsible for the whole.
- That it teaches students that the “work” of a two-person scene can somehow be codified, distributed, and “checked off” as it is done.
And so lately, perhaps because of those pitfalls I’ve noticed, perhaps because I’ve spent most of my directing time with very experienced improvisers who already know the basics, or perhaps because I’m always looking for more efficient and effective ways to get good results, I’ve found myself dropping the “two rows/three lines” scene learning model for a more holistic approach to teaching basic scenework, even to students new to improv. This holistic approach still focuses on the scene start as a place to make the important initial discoveries of the scene, but instead of assigning roles and dividing students into those roles, any two students/performers can come out together, the admonition being that, within the first “several” lines (so as not to put a determinate limit on exactly how long they have to achieve their goal) the pair of performers must answer the questions Why you two? and Why today? In other words,why does this scene have to be between these two characters and not any other combination of characters, and why are we watching this particular moment in these characters’ relationship as opposed to any other moment we could have been dropped into?
This shift from the “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes,” or any other “Person A does x; Person B does y; Person A counters with z” model does a few specific things, namely:
- It puts the onus on the collective rather than the individual.
- It privileges relationship over setting or action.
This first item means that no specific line need carry with it any particular data, but that between the two performers, there should be a sense of clarity around what’s important about the scene within the first several lines. If your scene partner starts with a clear premise that involves the two of you riding the rapids in a kayak, you might feel the “Why today?” building, but you’ll sense that the “Why you two?” still needs establishing and offer up the context of the relationship (“I’m so glad we came on this daddy-daughter trip” or “I wonder if the kids are okay with the babysitter?”). Or maybe you’ll find yourself wanting to amp up the “Why today?” with a huge rapid up ahead, in which case the “Why you two?” still needs answering, but now within the context of those heightened stakes. There’s no “right way” to get through this information as much as there is an implicit agreement that it will be established in one way or the other early enough that the two of you will be able to use it to appropriately follow the thread of whatever ends up being the comedic center (the “game,” if you like) of the scene once it emerges.
Neither does the second item above mean that nothing is happening in the scene (the “Why today?” implicitly requires an event or interaction of significance), but rather that the action is led by the weight given to the relationship at hand, or vice-versa; it implies an interconnectedness of character, relationship, and action that makes the events of the scene feel less arbitrary (“We need to be doing something interesting because this is an improv scene!”) and more natural (“We are doing this thing because of how it fits with who we are” or “Because of who we are, we are doing this thing in this particular way”). The “Why today?” also allows stakes to be addressed (Mark Gellman loved to remind us all the time in my Second City Conservatory class —usually with an aggressive bark from the back corner of the room—that “Today’s the day!”) without artificially “raising” them in a single, self-consciously crafted statement.
Of course, the primary objection to this kind of holistic approach is one to which I’ve already alluded—new students to improv need structures, the conventional wisdom goes. Sure, when you get good you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be self-conscious about covering all the information or what the game of the scene is, etc. But someone who’s never done this before will be lost at sea without some concrete rules to their initial scenic interactions, one could argue.
But, frankly, I just haven’t found that to be the case, no matter how much I once thought it was true. And the reason it doesn’t end up being true is because the people I’m teaching or coaching are, you know, people—people who’ve been in relationships, gotten themselves into difficult situations, engaged in confrontations with other people, loved, lost, and loved again. Instead of treating them like people who’ve “never done this before,” then, we can treat them like people who’ve done whatever “this” is every day of their lives. And all we are teaching them is how to simulate that “this” on stage. And that “this”—the reality of living—is collaborative, and starts from who you are and with whom you find yourself. You’re not assigned specific lines or kinds of lines in a confrontation with your boss about being overlooked for that promotion. And it may or may not matter whether you’re in his office or in a conference room or by the water cooler. And if it matters you’ll acknowledge that location, and if it doesn’t it might be perfectly sufficient to know that you are somewhere in a work environment. And if the person playing the boss decides to establish in the third line that you’ve barged into her home at midnight, that will change the dynamic of the relationship, and the stakes of the encounter, and that will be great. But she doesn’t have to do that just to fulfill some rule of scenic exposition or heightening.
I’m not saying that (especially new) performers won’t need some side-coaching or coaxing toward more impactful choices, more authentic relationships or more resonant details, but allowing them to feel when a scene locks in based on organic choices will empower them more quickly to recreate that feeling without the training wheels of line restrictions that can make the scenes of young performers feel stiff and overly technical. And sure, no matter what, it will take time for new performers to get to a place where the majority of their scenes just naturally find their comedic center. But, staying with the bike riding metaphor for a moment, “training wheels” are actually somewhat of a misnomer, since the most important part of riding a bicycle—relying on and trusting the physics involved in the interaction between you and the machine—isn’t something you can ever truly feel until those two wheels on either side are removed. In fact, those wheels are keeping the rider from experiencing the intuitive kinesthetic experience that allows most people to successfully ride a bike.
It’s actually a crazy thing that, in the end, bikes are so simple to ride. In fact, apparently scientists aren’t even really sure exactly why bicycles actually work (No, seriously!). And yet this strangely inexplicable and somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon has become the basis of the idiom for an activity that is so intuitive that once you learn it you never forget it.
So think back to when you learned to ride a bike. Your mom or dad gave you pointers, of course. They reminded you to keep the handlebars steady, to keep your eyes open, to keep pedaling no matter what. But in the end, it wasn’t until your parents let go and you felt the bike lift itself, and you with it, into that invisible track that held it suspended perpendicular to the ground along two thin strips of rubber, that you understood what it meant to ride a bike. And then, even when you inevitably fell—that time and a hundred times after that—you knew the feeling you were chasing. And you knew when you felt it, not just because there was a certain pleasure that was unique to the experience, but because when you did feel it, you knew it meant you had the freedom and means to go anywhere.