“Theatre’s about being able to examine things that are potentially difficult, or painful, or important, in a safe environment. Just seeing people on stage looking at themselves has an effect on an audience, because they see what power that has.”Phelim McDermott quoted by Andy Lavender, “Whose Show Is It Anyway?” The Times (London) 19 June 1998.
Dividing improvisation into “comedic” and “dramatic” camps is a clumsy conceit (no better than “long-form” and “short-form” in most instances) but many companies at least loosely define themselves by these terms. Most competitive franchises and commercial ventures lean heavily towards the former light-hearted column, while the healing arts and markedly fewer improv companies opt to pursue the latter. Drama is also an imperfect and seemingly narrow term – I’ve grown to prefer sincere or honest as these descriptions do not preclude the possibility that improv crafted under this moniker may also include raucous laughter and mischief. For the purposes of this entry I’ve defaulted to the term drama as this has historical precedence and is the standard nomenclature adopted by our scripted kin. When I was first introduced to Theatresports as a player in the 1980s it was embedded in the culture that while shows were generally funny that it was always a possibility that an equally vulnerable and real scene could be just around the corner. Admittedly, these were few and far between in my fledgling days, but I have always valued this inclusive stylistic stance. After all, just as we should take our comedy very seriously (it’s a powerful tool after all), so too can our dramatic work benefit from being taken not too seriously.
Player A and B are exploring a difficult high school goodbye. The characters have been dating exclusively for several years but are now headed in different directions as university looms just around the corner. They have met at a favorite spot, a wharf jutting out into a pristine summer lake. This is where they first met…
Thoughts for Elevating the Dramatic
1.) Embrace the light. Whether it’s a more dramatically inclined long-form, or a one-off short-form vignette, it can be a trap entering into a scene with the intent of being “dramatic.” While it’s certainly important to understand the tone and stylistic rules in play, it’s equally important to fully utilize the playfulness and discovery inherent in the improvisational impetus. Even the most challenging scenarios or issues can find elevation through bringing all the facets of human experience to the scene. Humor, in particular, is a very honest reaction to stressful moments for many, and accepting these lighter hues can also beautifully offset and contrast the heavier moves to follow. Humor – as opposed to comedy – is a little tricky to define but includes energies such as irony and self depreciation where the character sees their plight with a lighter or irreverent touch. If you have an inkling you’re in one of those scenes with the potential for profundity, don’t play the end (where you hope or think the scene is going) but rather relish the opportunities of the now. Seeing our high school sweethearts laughing and enjoying each others’ company is only likely to make the outcome of the scene more meaningful and earned. Experiencing love and joy before possible heartbreak or loss makes the latter choices crackle. When we fearfully concentrate only on the drama avoiding opportunities for joy or lightness, scenes can start to feel like only approximations of real human behavior or resemble poorly-executed melodramatic soap operas.
2.) Lean into relationship. I’ve found that when scenes get too “plotty” they can have a tendency to lose cogency. Focusing too heavily on a story point (or, even more problematically, attempting to make multiple plot points and twists) tends to overwhelm the scene: the more story that you push to the stage, the less time there will be for offers and themes to find enough space to breathe. Theatre isn’t just what happens, but rather a detailed exploration of how these events unfold and change the lives of those involved. Alternatively, when players give focus to the central featured relationship I’ve experienced that very little plot is actually needed for the scene to captivate; often a clear objective (“Player A is fighting to break up gently but resolutely”) or juicy question (“Can this relationship survive a new long-distance phase?”) is enough to create a riveting dynamic. Prioritizing plot too much also tends to put players in their heads and is another way of inadvertently encouraging end-gaming. While a break up is possible (perhaps inevitable) for Player A and B, there is a lot to be gained from seeing these characters and the strength (or lack thereof) of their relationship. If they both deeply love each other, the stakes increase. If they are reminded of the thousand ways their partner brings them joy as the scene unfolds, the stakes increase. If neither of them has the strength to say what they both know needs to be said – you guessed it – the stakes increase. Perhaps they do or don’t ultimately split, but if the audience witnesses this palpable tension, in many ways the actual outcome of the scene may have very little correlation to its perceived success and efficacy.
3.) Avoid emotional luxuriating. Another trap I’ve often witnessed in more dramatic improv is a tendency for improvisers to dwell in emotions. Sometimes this is because it “feels good” or they believe that this is what it means to be a dramatic performer. Often the resulting emotions don’t feel particularly organic or earned for the audience. Performers are nearly always better served by a “smaller” but connected emotional response rather than one that reads as “overt” but superficial. This is frequently a byproduct of focusing on the portrayal of emotions as opposed to reactively living in the reality. To this end, be sure to take a moment to gut check but don’t then overstay in these more internal processes: react, feel and then heighten that experienced truth. Keep your focus on your scene partners and leaving room for the audience’s own observations and journeys. If Player A and B are both fighting against becoming overly emotional so as not to cause their partner unnecessary anguish, this adds a new exciting tension. On the other hand, if both players are trying to “work up to tears” then they may well spend the whole scene without ever actually seeing or hearing each other. Luxuriating in emotions can also be a symptom of clumsy or ill-timed editing. It can be particularly difficult to edit dramatic scenes – fellow players may not want to step on a big moment or interrupt a build before it has reached its zenith – but these vignettes need the same generous shaping as their comedic counterparts and suffer equally from overindulgence.
4.) Use your whole self. I’m unsure if this might be a unique pitfall in my own improv circles, but I’ve seen a disproportionate number of improv scenes that are aspiring to assume a dramatic tone launch with some variation of “Sit down, we need to talk.” Such a move invariably nixes almost any interesting physicality or staging. Similarly, some improvisers take on a quieter (often lower) and less supported vocal quality that telegraphs the desire to engage in “real acting now” but equally prevents verbal variety, nuance and, in the worst cases, audience comprehension. Dramatic scenes tend to thrive when we fully explore all the verbal, physical and emotional components of the action. The innate trap of our wharf scenario would be to just sit on the edge of the wharf for the duration of the scene. Yes, this could work in adroit hands, especially if you’re performing in a smaller space with limited staging options, but embracing activities, body language and opportunities to show rather than tell the audience about the depth of the relationship and difficulty of this moment will likely add so much to the performance. Perhaps A and B always used to feed ducks on the lake and have brought a loaf of stale bread. Or one of them has surprised the other with a basket of their favorite snacks. Or they enjoy fishing, bird-watching, or skipping stones. Almost any premise that invites movement will unlock whole new levels and allow you to fill any intentional awkward silences with subtext-laden action rather than solipsistic indulgence.
5.) Consider your intent and audience. Furthermore, I’d recommend that our dramatic efforts don’t trigger or needlessly bombard audiences or scene partners with “shocking” material. In the healing arts there are often explicit social contracts between the performers as to how to address or represent sensitive material: this is much less common in more commercial performance enterprises, but there is unmistakable value in displaying equal care in terms of how we honor and welcome our audiences regardless of our preferred improv delivery system. It’s important and generous to consider the frame and expectations of all those in attendance. If they have gathered to blow off steam at an event advertised as a short-form laugh-fest extravaganza it’s probably not in good form to suddenly drop in triggering material without the time or intent to do so carefully and thoughtfully. Even when an audience is in the know that deeper themes and content is part of the performance parameters I would hold that care should still be taken: there’s a marked difference between tough material emerging organically from the flow of the action and players inelegantly launching content bombs for an ill-conceived shock value. Don’t mistake taboo or controversial topics as being synonymous with drama; simple situations played with conviction and vulnerability will more often than not get you to the finish line. I’ll heed my own advice and not provide potentially rough examples of how this might occur in our high school example. When it comes to challenging material I’d also strongly advise against didacticism – presenting an issue in a slanted or simplistic light so as to uphold a pre-selected political stance. Such an approach can quickly lose an audience and undermine the established (and messier) realities and truths of your characters.
6.) Resist the temptation to solve everything. When working in psycho-dramatic forms, such as Playback Theatre or Sociodrama, it could prove important that a reenactment finds a positive or uplifting outcome, especially when you’re working with real attendees and their equally real narratives. In fictional modes a well-intentioned desire to resolve complex conflicts or issues can result in saccharine plot points that undermine the integrity of the work. Magical or “Disneyified” solutions (a Mickey ex machina if you will) rarely ring true – finding a winning lottery ticket, miraculously getting offered the perfect job, the object of your unrequited affection suddenly loving you back… It’s an understandable instinct to want to give out protagonists their unfettered dreams, and in some genre-based work this may be built into the source material a little, but generally I find messier resolutions or denouements tend to ring truer. Yes, Player A and B could decide that neither of them will go to college but instead purchase the cottage by this wharf and now live here together in exquisite bliss. But successful and memorable drama often emerges from tensions and questions that have no simple solutions. And when we frantically grasp at such solutions we tend to assume a level of socioeconomic privilege or advantage that erases financial, cultural and geographic difference. In long-form traditions it’s also innately more interesting to see characters make difficult choices that propel them towards new opportunities and challenges as opposed to clinging onto a status quo that leaves them as is.
I am personally drawn to improv modalities that allow for complex explorations of human themes through both dramatic and comedic lenses. Why not incorporate the best of these two deeply interconnected worlds? Such “impure” styles strike me as more representative of the world as we know and experience it. Whether you prefer one side of the style spectrum or the other, there is certainly a palpable reciprocity between these energies and I don’t think it’s coincidental that many of my favorite dramatic performers are equally expert comic improvisers: training in one area clearly reaps dividends in the other as well.
Connected Game: Fantasy Scene