“Contact improvisation stems from the idea that each body is unique. Dance is spontaneously created by the impulsive interaction of two different bodies […] Dance partners sustain physical contact and rely upon mutual trust and support. It is process, not product, which counts in contact improvisation dance.”Roberta Mock, “Contact Improvisation Dance Uses Touch to Achieve Perfect Harmony Between Mind and Body.” The Independent (London) 27 June 1994: 20.
I love how this quote focuses on the unique relationship of bodies moving together in space. This dynamic strikes me as a core component of Complementary Action, a term used to describe the way in which characters or elements of the scene are related or connected. The companion (somewhat oppositional) concept of parallel action is a little easier to define as it typically refers to choices that are essentially mirroring or replicating each other. If someone enters the stage as a confident high school student reveling in their popularity, a parallel action would be to join the scene as another confident high school student, thereby supporting, elevating and giving volume to the prior choice and any inherent games.
A complementary action is marked by the contrast or difference it adds to those energies already present in the scene. It is still firmly connected to the established world and given circumstances, but it is likely by design to add or emphasize a new facet or relationship. The confident high school student might be joined by an overwhelmed principal, authoritarian janitor, utterly perplexed new student, or disinterested former lover. Whereas parallel actions encourage us to think same, complementary actions invite us to think different but connected. For this reason, complementary actions are particularly critical in endowment games and exercises where improvisers endeavor to bestow predetermined suggestions on an unwitting recipient. When it comes to endowing, showing the desired elements (an equivalent to assuming a parallel role) would be considered particularly egregious in most improv circles. Subsequently, players must actively seek more creative ways (or complements) in order to guide their fellow improviser into the desired territory.
Two slightly-out-of-shape runners and close friends (Players A and B) are in the midst of their first marathon race. It is clear that neither was quite prepared for this test of endurance, but neither wants to let the other one down. Their movements are pained and laborious, and each time they speak there is a clear sense of exhaustion and impending collapse.
A third player (C) enters…
How to Get the Most Out of Your Complements
1.) Think emotion or energy. Third or later entrances into a scene can prove challenging for improvisers as it can be easy to inadvertently jerk the focus away from the established elements of the scene that were proving engaging and dynamic. In such instances it can prove helpful to offer a complementary energy that maintains some core elements of the status quo. If Player C enters as a fellow runner (a parallel at first glance) but is in much better shape, and so is having a delightful marathon experience, this can maintain the current game and activity, but heighten the scenic energy by providing an emotional contrast. Perhaps the first two runners assume a façade so as not to loose face in front of their newly arrived friend, only to drop back into increased exhaustion once more as Player C sprints off effortlessly into the distance.
2.) Think action or staging. A complementary mindset can also help add interest and dynamism to the physical components of the scene. Returning to our marathon runners, their movements may have degraded due to exhaustion with every step clearly proving to be challenging and highly deliberate. Player C, perhaps a rival runner this time, might pounce onto the stage with highly exaggerated gymnastic finesse, literally or figuratively running circles around their opponents. Here I’ve elected again to maintain a relatively parallel character choice, but even greater staging freedom opens up if the character also assumes a more complementary role such as a reporter on the back of a motorcycle trying to conduct an interview, or a marathon worker clearing up the race course just feet behind these last two runners.
3.) Think status or power. I’m of the mindset that almost any scene can be improved with a careful consideration and application of status. Our marathon runners appear to be relatively equal in terms of status during this phase of the scenario. A new character (or perhaps a discovered tilt between the current two characters) can breathe fresh life into the scene by adjusting or questioning this status relationship. Player C might join as a fellow runner who signed up these two friends to help raise money for a personal and highly worthwhile cause. This new character could be feeling remorse at the obvious pain they have inflicted on their ill-equipped friends (thereby assuming a lower status position), or embarrassed that their friends clearly did not train as much as they had stated (thereby assuming a higher status position). Once more the central action and dynamic of the scene has remained unquestioned, but a complementary status has introduced some new spice.
4.) Think relationship or occupation. And sometimes the running just isn’t landing or has grown stale or generic and the scene would benefit from the infusion of a more dynamic complementary character. When I introduce this core concept in the classroom, I tend to start at this level as it is the most readily understood and appreciated. When we unlock the gifts of a complementary character or relationship, the potentials of the scene tend to multiply exponentially. Character C could be A’s lover and is seizing this opportunity to break up with them. Or they could be a marathon worker that Player B accidentally hit with a discarded water cup that is out for revenge. Or they could be a former tennis partner trying to win their friend back to the ways of the racket. Or they could be an photo-snapping pedestrian who was a former crush from high school (who used to confidently revel in their popularity…)
While there is a somewhat oppositional relationship between complementary and parallel actions, I am hesitant to identify these terms as opposites per se as they both necessitate and reflect a close consideration of the choices and energies already in play. A truly oppositional choice to a parallel action would strike me as random or disconnected completely to the established given circumstances: our confident high school student, for example, might be joined by a time-travelling Franciscan monk. Some improv schools certainly voice a preference for one approach over the other, but most improvisers would agree that both techniques have their time and place. I tend to prefer complementary actions in small cast or expansive long-form pieces as thinking different will typically open up more dynamics and story potentials than an over-abundance of same. On the other hand, if you’re inclined towards exploring the “game” of the scene, Parallels can certainly help sustain and elevate choices already in play while a mistimed complement will likely puncture or disrupt the momentum. See Commandment #7 (“When in doubt, break the routine”) if you want to further explore this interesting tension.
Connected Game: Gibberish Job Mime