“…there’s no doubt that there is a rule of improv: avoid conflict. But this rule doesn’t mean avoid anger. It means avoid reacting to conflicts with disagreement.”Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen, Improvising Better. A Guide for the Working Improviser. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. p.15
An Accusation is a great technique for providing energy, interest and dynamism to a scene that might be stagnating or stuck. It is part of the CAD trinity (the other two techniques being confessions and discoveries) and this strategy is a helpful move if you’re looking to activate a scene that’s been dwelling unproductively in a state of balance. Accusations offer up new information or context that places culpability on your scene partner in a way that reveals something (perhaps but not necessarily unflattering) about their character or past actions. By definition, an accusation uncovers something that the character has been hiding, avoiding or evading.
Player A and B are deep into a late-night study session, shuffling papers and notes across the dorm room floor. Player A, obviously stressed, looks up from the turmoil:
Player A: “I don’t understand why you’re not panicking more. This exam is 50% of our final grade.”
Player B: (with disinterest and an eye towards the door) “I’m getting tired. I think I’m going to call it a night.”
Player B starts gathering up their things while Player A watches with incredulity. After a moment they decide to casually comment…
Player A: “So, you’re not going to share the exam answers you purchased from that senior?”
There is a tense moment as Player B pauses at the door, and then slowly turns…
Some Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Accusation:
1.) An accusation is subject to the normal foundational rules of improv. As the energy of an accusation is directed to your scene partner and it is incumbent upon them to accept this information, it’s important that your offer comes from a place of helpfulness and integrity. Be wary of wandering into the territory of pimping and gagging; that is, providing a choice that you know will make your scene partner uncomfortable (as the performer not the character). If you’re playing in a long-form modality, you’ll also want to exhibit some care in terms of making sure that the choice tracks with other established facts and backstory. It can be dynamic to craft an accusation in such a way that creates tension or juxtaposition with known details – the model straight “A” student has some skeletons in their closet – but be cautious of making a revelation that undermines a played reality, especially if such a choice is primarily designed to get an easy laugh.
2.) Inherent accusations will often serve you better. There is certainly a value to almost saying anything as a revelation if the scene is faltering and then figuring it out with your partner after-the-fact: this is improvisation after all! However, accusations that mine specifics from the prior established actions and scene in question will often land with greater impact and effectiveness. In the above scene, the characters were students studying for a final. An accusation that connects to these realities (and other backstory established in previous scenes) is more likely to open interesting doors than something that feels truly random, or dare I say, desperate. Player A could offer, “I know you’re really a spy sent here to undermine our student body elections,” but unless such a choice connected to a broader thematic mood or genre that was already brewing, such a move might help less than something more obvious and inherent.
3.) Seek accusations that effect your character personally. Accusations that have an influence on the status quo of the current relationship tend to offer gifts that will keep giving, as opposed to revelations about unseen or absent characters. It’s certainly possible to still mine value from this latter category of offer, especially if you’re in a voluminous long-form, but in our efforts to bring action to the stage, strive to offer a choice that not only upturns your partner but that also connects to your own fate and objective. It’s helpful if there is a personal reason why your character is offering up this information now.
Some Things to Keep in Mind When on the Receiving End of an Accusation:
1.) Take a moment (or five) to let the accusation land. I write about this in the CAD Bell exercises description here, but it’s really important that we don’t treat an accusation like just any other offer in the scene, especially if it’s been offered up to add some heat to a story that is becoming dangerously cold. On a technical level, as the performer we can make this offer stand out simply by pausing the scene for a moment to highlight that something significant has just taken place, even if we’re still not quite sure as the performer how this moment is significant just yet. On a character level, this also affords us the chance to truly take a gut check to let the character process what has just happened and strategize their next move accordingly — as we would in real life. Taking such a pause means we’re less likely to diffuse or pass over a moment that our partner offered with a sense of profundity.
2.) Avoid the temptation to return in kind. When you’re on the receiving end of an accusation accept and savor this moment in the hot seat. It’s human nature to want to squirm out of this new information or return the attack with a choice of your own that moves culpability to your partner. Avoid this trap. An exchange of accusations will more often than not result in an argument or debate where no one particular accusation maintains any import or value. Embrace fully this gift from your partner by accepting the ramifications. Similarly, avoid the temptation to rationalize or justify the choice in a detached or intellectual way that diminishes the emotion of the moment.
3.) Allow the scene and relationship to tilt or change. In addition to adding or revealing new information, an accusation is likely to upset the pre-established power or status dynamics at play. The accusation should shift how the characters view each other. On deeper levels, it’s also likely to adjust status relationships and probably who even has the power in the scene or relationship. This holds true whether the accusation is “negative” (“You stole the answers”) or “positive” (“I know you told Chelsea that you want to kiss me”).
It’s important to remember that there are a lot of different ways to fully accept an accusation and a lot depends on the scope and style of performance in which the scene takes place. If the dramatic arc provides sufficient time, for example, it can be effective and dynamic to vehemently deny an accusation if the audience knows you are in fact lying and there is sufficient time for this seed to be watered and ultimately exploded elsewhere in the action. There are also instances when an accusation may reveal as much about the speaker as the recipient: perhaps the accuser has been misled or manipulated by another character seeking to sow strife and discord. Choices of this ilk are less likely to serve if we’re playing in a short-form scene and subsequently need to fully unwrap the gift of the offer in the next few minutes. It’s also a trap to find a clever intellectual reasoning or justification for not taking on the new choice, especially if you struggle with being changed or ceding the control or high ground in a scene. But if you find yourself in a scene struggling to find its next beat, an accusation may be just the improv tool you need.
Connected Game: Point/Counterpoint