The House That Del Built

The Intellectual Musings of an Improv Wonk.

Playing the Relationship

Although I usually post on Thursdays, we just concluded the glorious Women in Comedy Festival here in Boston, and I wanted to share these thoughts while they’re fresh, and while the festival (and the workshop I taught there) is still lingering in my mind. So, here we go:


The best single note I’ve ever gotten was given to me by Colleen Murray in her level 2 class at iO. Her note, like all great notes, was personal, insightful, and actionable. Here’s what she said (forgive me for paraphrasing, Colleen):

You’re a fast thinker, Rachel. And that can be a helpful thing sometimes in life, because you can quickly make connections and respond to people. You’re probably one of those people who formulates your response while the other person is talking, and that’s fine…in life. But, on stage, you can’t know what your scene partner is going to say until he says it. Because even though your characters are supposed to know each other, really, they’ve never interacted before this scene. So what you need to do is stop and listen and take it in, and then respond. There will be a millisecond of silence, and you’re not used to that, so it will feel weird at first, but I promise you that the audience will not notice, and you’ll be able to respond more genuinely to your scene partner.

That note has stuck with me, and it has refined and reinvented itself in my mind as I see larger and larger implications of the paradox this note addresses: that, in a long form improv scene, the two characters are usually supposed to be people who know each other very well, and yet, in reality, these two characters have just come into existence for the first time on this stage, at this moment. How do you simulate the former while acknowledging the latter?

My guiding principles regarding how to focus on the relationship of the scene are two-fold: listen to your scene partner, and feel the weight of the content of the scene. Listening is based very much on that original note I was given. It sounds simple, but a lot of the time, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we’re not really listening in scenes. We’re thinking about the next funny thing we might say. Or we’re caught up on the line before, and so we miss the next one (that’s how a lot of negations happen in scenes—like misnaming people or not realizing your scene partner has said where you are—you miss some vital information while you were thinking about a response to an earlier line). 

And if you really listen, you also listen to tone, to pace, to pitch. And all of that data is important in order to come to an appropriate conclusion as to what is going on in this relationship. For example, the statement, “It’s really cold in here,” is just information. But how your scene partner delivers it can tell you who you are, and what your role in the coldness of this place is. Did she say it in an accusatory way? Did she say it lovingly as she nuzzled up against you? Noticing these things is as much a part of listening as hearing the words.

And then there’s the second part: weight—because not every line, or every word in every line, carries the same about of emotional data. And it’s easy to get distracted with information that’s not going to help you get to the bottom of the relationship (this is why coaches will tell improvisers not to do “teaching” scenes—not because, as a rule, you can’t find a relationship there, but because having so much of the dialogue be direct commands and responses to those commands makes it harder to deliver emotionally rich content. Harder—but not impossible). This past Sunday, I taught a workshop at the Women in Comedy Festival that was about finding the relationship. In one exercise, the scene pair had gotten themselves caught in a “teaching” scene: one wanted the other to exercise by lifting and putting down some object (what was the object?—it was unclear). She was barking commands at him: “Yes, this way.” “No, that way.” “Now lift it over your head.” I let it go for a few lines, waiting to see if they’d find their way out of the situation. That’s when the woman giving the orders said something really interesting, although she didn’t recognize it at first. In describing his movements, she said, “You need to change,” and then, when he did move, she followed with, “Now you changed too much.” I thought, “Okay, here we go; now they have something to latch onto.” But they moved past that moment and went back to figuring out how this amorphous object was going to be manipulated in space. 

That’s when I stopped them. And I pointed out what they hadn’t noticed, because it’s always easier to see these things from the audience. The command to “change” followed by the contradictory exhortation not to “change too much” had “weight.” And I use this term, because I find it helpful to actually try to imagine holding the scene in your hand and asking yourself, “What’s heaviest here?” What’s so interesting about this example is that, presumably, the guy in the scene was actually lifting a heavy object—but that object wasn’t “heavy” in emotional content. Talking about that object was never going to get these people anywhere. Talking about why the one person was both controlling and contradictory was. 

When I told them to continue the scene with this in mind, they fiddled around with the object a bit more, until the guy finally locked in and said, “I don’t like how you try to control me.” Yes. Yes. All day yes. That is what this scene is about. And she tries to control him in loads of other ways, too—not just about lifting indeterminate objects.

You might recognize what I’m describing as similar to the concept of “game” that originated at UCB. And it is. But I prefer to call it the relationship dynamic to help me avoid the pitfall of getting caught up in a repeated pair of actions that’s not actually significant or interesting; keeping my mind on the relationship, for example, will keep me from perseverating on the way my scene partner is lifting the heavy object and get me to think about the pattern of our relationship overall, regarding which this particular set of actions is simply just one manifestation. That perseveration on insignificant details is what I like to call the “I fart/you burp fallacy”. Sure, you can connect those two behaviors all day, and it might very well be funny some of the time, but without an underlying relationship, it’s hard to keep that pair of actions interesting, or funny, for long.

This mistake is similar to when people use the phrase “you always” as a shortcut to establishing relationship. “You always…” “take the last soda”, “make me go on roller coasters”, etc. Saying “you always” can often help clarify the relationship, but sometimes it gets in the way. “You always take the last soda” is an infamous one. Because, really, I don’t know anyone who always takes the last soda. Like, without fail. Taking the last soda (even if we acknowledge that there are people who probably do that a lot—just not “always”) is indicative of a larger “always.” It’s about being inconsiderate, not taking other people’s feelings into account, not respecting the person with whom you live. The roommate who just took the last soda is probably also the roommate who throws parties without checking with you first, or smokes in the apartment when you’re asleep even though he knows the rule is to go on the porch. The “game” is not “you always take sodas/I always complain”, the “game” is probably “you are continually inconsiderate of our shared space/I complain but never build up the nerve to kick you out because I fear conflict.”

If you look for the heavy words/phrases/ideas in the content of the scene, you can be steered toward the deeper sense of the “game”, or the “relationship dynamic”. Because maybe when you called out that roommate who took your last soda, his response was, “Well, I know it’s, like, house rules and everything, but you weren’t here, so I figured, you know…” In that bumbling response, the phrase “you weren’t here” defines the most about the way this guy thinks. Feel the weight of that. This is a guy who will only “behave” if someone’s there to force him to. When you’re not there, he thinks you and your rules don’t matter. He is childish and he is shallow. Call him out while defining your role in this dysfunction: “That’s why I leave notes on my food—because I know you have a tendency to forget about things when I’m not here to remind you.” Oh, I see. You’re a little bit anal and possessive. I mean, that doesn’t give him the right to drink your last soda, but I see how this whole relationship works. The word “tendency” in your line, incidentally, is quite heavy. It’s pretty passive-aggressive. It’s you telling him he’s wrong, but it’s softer than “compulsion” or “you always…”, while at the same time passing judgment on his character overall rather than this one particular act. And he can respond to that, and you’re off to the races.

A real example of finding the relationship from my workshop this past Sunday is this: girl sitting in a chair eating some sort of finger food out of a jar. Friend standing over her watching. Girl eating the food is being methodical, slow, measured. Friend finally breaks the silence, saying casually, “You enjoying your pickle chips?” Girl doesn’t look up, but continues to slowly eat and says, breaking out into a sob, “They’re so goo-hoo-hoo-hood.” I stop the scene and ask the “friend” what’s going on; I ask the audience. We all concur. Girl just broke up with her boyfriend; friend is trying to act cool like it’s no big deal. None of that is in the content of the lines. That’s why listening is more than hearing the words, and feeling the weight isn’t just looking for the explicit “topic” of the scene (which, at this point, is “pickle chips”). These two now know exactly who they are to each other, and how they’re each going to deal with this break-up. Now the scene plays itself.

The best thing about playing the relationship is that it takes all the pressure off of you to be “funny.” You don’t have to think about what line or words will get a laugh. In fact, you won’t even be worried if you don’t get laughs right away in the scene, because you know you’re building comedy capital by establishing clarity in the relationship dynamic that can be exploited as the scene goes on and you heighten the behavior and responses. And, amazingly, you’ll end up producing more satisfying scenes for the audience, too. There’s less miscommunication, there’s more efficiency, and everyone feels more comfortable. Like a show that finds its theme, a scene that finds its relationship “locks in”—it has a sense of control and purpose, and it’s a joy to play.

Forgive yourself if this lock-in doesn’t happen in the first two lines. This isn’t a science. Just stop and listen and look for where the weight is coming from. If you’re present and honest, the scene will find you, and when it does, you’ll know what to do.

For those of you who are creatures of habit, I’ll be off for St. Patty’s Day, but posting at my regular time next Thursday morning. Some thoughts on the rehearsal process. Stay tuned…

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