While I primarily use this game as a skill-building exercise, Nicer Than You can work equally well as a scenic lay-over in the short- or long-form tradition. The central dynamic invites an earnest and nuanced exploration of Kindness.
At first glance, this game may appear similar to one-upping and one-downing scenes although here the focus is more sincere and less overtly competitive. (You can read about these related formats here.) Players work in pairs (generally) and must strive throughout the scene to display the most honest kindness to each other as possible. These scenes can be played with multiple pairs working unobserved simultaneously, or one at a time in front of the ensemble.
Player A and B are given the relationship of “married couple” to explore. Player A is cleaning up the living room as Player B arrives home late.
Player A: (looking lovingly to B) “You’ve had a long day, honey. Come and put your feet up.”
Player B: (dropping their briefcase at the door) “You’re so right. Just give me a second to get your dry cleaning out of the car.”
Player B leaves for a moment while Player A fluffs the pillows on the couch.
Player B: (returning) “I know you’ve got your big presentation tomorrow and I wanted you to have your lucky outfit!”
Player A: (carefully stowing away the cleaning) “You’re wonderful for remembering that.”
Player B collapses on the couch.
Player B: “I thought this day would never end. You want a drink?”
Player A: “Only if you’ll join me!”
Player B starts to get up to go to the liquor cabinet…
Player A: “You stay right there – I’m closer anyway…”
The focus is largely the title of the game with players working to display the most thoughtful and kind gestures towards each other as the scene evolves. This dynamic can prove surprisingly challenging and revealing, especially if players are accustomed to rushing towards conflict.
Traps and Tips
1.) Accept acts of kindness. Blocking can have a tendency to emerge in these scenes as players defer actions in an effort to not put their partner at an inconvenience. If both players, for example, insist that the other sit down and relax you can end up with an odd passive-aggressive sub-textual argument that undermines that greater goal of the game. As is the case with all improv scenes, strive to accept the gifts bestowed by your partner with joy and gratitude. Enjoy these offers and allow your characters to do so as well. Part of truly being kind is enabling and appreciating others‘ acts of kindness too. That being written, obviously important contracts of consent still apply throughout.
2.) Don’t play to win. Or, perhaps, don’t play to win in the conventional sense with your victory coming at the expense of your partner’s success. The title implies a level of competitiveness but take the risk of savoring each “victory” as it lands. Relish acts of love that are sent in your direction and experience how these kind moments inform and develop the central relationship. I’ll sometimes ask a group if we’re observing these scenes “who was the kindest?” when they have wrapped up, but it’s the discussion of the why that is always more revealing than the who. Often smaller less “flashy” gestures have a lasting influence on the audience which is important for us to recognize and remember as players in general.
3.) Keep it real. I would suspect this is often a side effect of misplaced competitiveness as well, but the scene loses its shine if characters start to become saccharin or overtly insincere. Holding onto the reality of the scene takes more patience and (frankly) vulnerability as it invites forging a more emotionally honest connection to your fellow player. If you find yourself evading this level of sincerity you are probably missing one of the larger gifts of the exercise. Yes, these scenes can become delightful farcical commentaries climbing the curve of absurdity, but given the chance they can also uncover softer hues that resonate on a deeper level. If your scene work tends towards the former energy, allow yourself the journey of experiencing the latter.
4.) Follow the scene. Another temptation when you first play this scene is to strive to make every line a clear “move” or act of niceness. Allow the scene to follow the natural ebbs and flows of improv discovery. It’s helpful to provide details and nuances within the general tone of the exercise without worrying about each line of dialogue or action overtly landing as a sweeping gesture. Often subtler moves are unlocked through such an approach or you’ll find simple details that you’ve established weaving poetically into later choices. If you craft a scene where both characters have truly felt warmth and love from each other as the lights fade, then you’re playing in the right ballpark.
This approach to relationships and scenes can prove to serve as a helpful antidote if your work has become overpopulated with inorganic conflict, animus or hostility. There is something indescribably engaging and joyful in watching characters on stage showing care and love for one another. I, for one, would enjoy seeing more of these energies embodied on the improv stage with greater frequency and depth.
It’s common to warn players away from being nice people doing nice things as this frequently results in scene work without risk, action or culpability. At first glance this exercise might seem to fly in the face of this advice. But, while I’ve seen scenes suffer from a player’s desire to use niceness as a shield that protects them against doing or saying anything a little ugly or unadmirable, I’m not sure I can say the same in regards to scenes that were deeply and sincerely grounded in love.
Connected Concept: Kindness