“If players are simply absorbed with content, conflict is necessary. Without conflict, the scene gets bogged down, and little or no action can possibly take place. At best, however, it is titillation and imposed action and for the most part produces psycho-drama. However, when process is understood, and, further, that content is the residue of process, dramatic action is the result, for energy and stage-action are generated by the simple process of playing.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.230
Conflict and the debate over whether or not it is needed for a scene to thrive serves as a longstanding topic in improv. As Spolin aptly notes, conflict is often utilized as a short-cut to energy or action although, ironically, it can often stall a scene when it is inexpertly or clumsily inserted. In the scripted tradition, Conflict is generally considered as the tension created between two opposing forces often embodied by the protagonist and antagonist respectively. The struggle between these parties culminates in the play’s climax when one side eventually emerges victorious: in a classical sense if the protagonist wins then you’ve probably experienced a comedy, and if they lose (painfully and publicly) it was likely a tragedy. If neither wins, it may have been an absurdist piece!
On the improv stage, I would posit that conflict can be a little misunderstood or misapplied. Improvisers can rush to creating an approximation of conflict, rather than mining this device in more subtle or surprising ways. There are, after all, many different forms of conflict and dramatic tension. It may take the guise of competing ideas or philosophies striving to answer a grand question, we might witness a thesis and antithesis slogging their way towards an uncertain synthesis, or follow two literal or metaphoric forces battling it out to claim the high ground. All-too-often on the improv stage, conflict becomes synonymous with immovable points of view, or two characters yelling at each other. This is certainly a type of conflict, but it often resembles blocking or postponing in its energy or application, and will often bear similarly uninteresting fruit.
Player A, serving as a parent, knocks on the door of their teenager child, Player B.
Player B: (calling through the door) I don’t want to talk to you!
Player A: “Look, we agreed that if you didn’t pull your grades up, you couldn’t go to the dance with you friends…”
Player B: (more yelling) “Just leave me alone. You don’t understand me at all…”
Player A: “There’s no need…”
Player B: (even more yelling) “I said I don’t want to talk to you!”
A scene of yelling ensues…
Underutilized Approaches to Conflict
While it’s certainly possible that the above scene might transform into something beyond a stalemate, it’s highly likely that it will continue its current trajectory and result in little more than an all-out yelling fest unless the characters deliberately change gears. There are few energies on stage that are less appealing and inviting for an audience than unnecessarily protracted anger or animosity. So while leaping to conflict might provide the stage with a type of energy, we must be cognizant that anger masquerading as conflict is unlikely a constructive or creative energy. It might feel good or cathartic for the players (which is part of its trap) but it will often result in scenes that ultimately prove ineffective and uninteresting at best, or tone-deaf and triggering at worst.
Here are some alternatives to consider if you find yourself on the anger train looking for a depot. Instead of argumentative conflict try…
1.) Passion. I love the concept of passion on the improv stage. There can be a tendency to think of darker hues when assuming an energized emotion, but the key to passionate characters is not their specific mood but rather the depths of their emotional storehouse. Conflict often becomes oppositional and stagnant as it can tend to be about what a character doesn’t want, as opposed to positive and an actional pursuit of what a character does want. Player B is clearly upset that they have been grounded, but has perhaps already given up on achieving their ultimate goal. The same scene would immediately strike a different tone if they built on their passion for the big dance rather than their anger or frustration with their parent. This may seem a little like semantics, but a shift in a character’s objective can make a world of difference to how the story plays out.
2.) Allyship. When most of us pursue conflict we tend to explore it between our onstage characters rather than toward a common obstacle or focal point that both characters work together to overcome. If you’re inclined towards confrontational relationships, shifting your mindset to that of a staunch scenic ally can truly become game changing. By uniting with your onstage partners you can still benefit from the tension and dynamism of conflict while ardently and passionately striving towards a mutual goal. If Player A dons the hat of earnest sympathizer to their child, while they may still retain some frustration, the scene is more likely to uncover a variety of interesting hues. Likewise, if Player B agrees that their parent has gone above and beyond with encouragement and second chances, the scene will be less inclined to degrade into a screaming match.
3.) Mischievousness. One of the challenges of unearned conflict is that it tends to stall the action and you may often look back on such scenes (when working in a long-form modality in particular) and feel that they could have almost been edited entirely from the dramatic arc without losing much value. If you find yourself repeatedly in these types of dynamics, a little bit of mischievousness can go a long way. Conflict can be the enemy of progress, especially if such moments prevent momentum. The teenager in the above example is certainly at a power disadvantage and their protestations are unlikely to quickly change their parent’s position. So try skipping the argument in lieu of a tactic more likely to give you success. Player B could apologize profusely, agreeing adamantly with their parent that they have not earned the right to go out, all as an end to the means of re-establishing trust… so that they can escape out their window unobserved. In holding tight to your character’s true objective (going to the dance in this case) and deploying sneakiness, repetitive conflict can be avoided and replaced with skillful finesse.
4.) Internal Struggle. Conflict often hits the stage between two heated characters, but we should not overlook the dramatic and comedic potential of internalized conflict that is gnawing away inside a character. If Player A, as the parent, had really thought that their child would get their grades up and that barring attendance from the dance was subsequently a largely empty threat, anger will probably transform into an array of more complex and interesting emotions. Or perhaps Player B knows that they have been struggling balancing their school work and social life, and they largely agree with this punishment but still don’t want to miss the biggest night of the year. Take care that conflict that resides within a character doesn’t translate into a different kind of stasis or inactivity and that it still manifests itself in a dynamic fashion, but investing in a complex inner life can prevent scenes and relationships from meandering aimlessly over barren terrain.
5.) Love. This is a weighty topic worthy of its own entry but suffice it to say here that clumsy conflict is a poor scenic substitute for honestly portrayed love. As soon as our parent and teenager add love to the scene, it will undoubtedly become more dynamic and interesting. It is foreseeable that the scene might still escalate into a moment of passionate confrontation, but if such a moment has been contextualized and informed by love, the resulting conflict will typically ring truer and feel more earned. Perhaps Player B hates the thought of disappointing their ever-supportive parent yet again, or Player A feels that they haven’t lived up to their obligations as a role-model when it comes to helping their struggling child. Often in life it is those who we most love (or at one point loved deeply) that have the power to cause the greatest conflicts in our lives. On the improv stage, we need to be wary of jumping to such conflicts without first investing in the love that bubbles beneath them.
Yes, sometimes you’ll just need that moment of charged conflict. The story arc might be approaching its zenith, the show may need a bump of energy or raised stakes, or you’re motivating an idling character to make a strong next step. In such instances, still seek finesse and moderation. Avoid pursuing conflict merely for its own sake. A little chewing up the scenery goes a long way, so look for a strategic exit if you’ve succeeded in upping the volume so that this dynamism can now transform into something new.
Connected Game: Alliances