“The biggest reason people screw up a three-person scene is that they think ‘different’ when they could have thought ‘same.’”Mick Napier, Improvise. Scene From the Inside Out. Second Edition. Englewood, CO: Meriwether Publishing, 2015. p.73
While Napier doesn’t use the term explicitly, his quote above advocates for the use of Parallel Actions, especially when it comes to entering a scene as a third (or later) player. In the simplest and purest sense, assuming a parallel action to your teammate involves replicating or mirroring their choice (as opposed to crafting a connected but different offer which would be considered a Complementary Action.) In practice, parallels are rarely true mirror copies of the original: explicit parallels – or offers that seek to do the same thing in exactly the same way – are only really helpful in a limited handful of situations. Large Shakespearean crowd scenes, epic Wagnerian battle parties, or wailing Sophoclean choruses could certainly benefit from strongly unified ensemble work. Here the group is largely operating as a singular entity or is primarily tasked with giving focus, status, or both, to their protagonist. In cases such as these, or when you’re engaging in well-populated background side support, clear parallels in energy and intent avoid creating distracting distinctions and behaviors that would likely pull focus from the intended featured action.
More commonly, however, parallel actions do not seek to do the same thing in precisely the same way but rather aim to perpetuate the present action or game through riffing on the dominant energy in slightly different but clearly similar ways. Parallels uphold the established mood or premise rather than significantly disrupting or complicating it. If you are playing a destitute and impoverished serf craving to catch a glimpse of their lord, I too will assume a servant character whose plight and nature is closely aligned to yours (as opposed to becoming the lord, or a constable, or a fellow serf who loves life at the bottom of the pecking order.) Frankly, even in the large group examples listed in the paragraph above subtle nuances that reflect your character’s point of view will typically and appropriately add reality and life to the scene – unless you’re literally playing automatons or a well trained militaristic mass stripped of all individuality. It’s a matter of degree and knowing when to and when not to heighten or draw attention to your individual perspective or difference. Thinking “same,” therefore, shouldn’t imply that you are merely mindlessly doing the same thing in the same way at the same time.
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 Parallels
1.) Mirror and heighten the emotion. To Napier’s point, if the scene is firing on all cylinders and the players have locked into powerful and playful perspectives that the audience is eating up, Player C coming in with a whole new deal could easily destroy the current elaborate improv house of cards. Alternatively, Player C could painfully limp back into the race, echoing the exhaustion created by their fellow improvisers. If Player C merely reflects back the same level of fatigue as their predecessors one could argue that their entrance was probably not needed, so it is helpful that they continue to play the established game while also adding some new details that can heighten the emotional reality – in this case perhaps a woeful version of one-downing. If Players A and B are a little short of breath, for example, perhaps Player C is now visibly gasping for air. Parallel actions are uniquely equipped for setting and extending games. When coupled with a new entrance a parallel choice also frequently provides an opportunity to reflect back to the stage dynamics that may have not been fully appreciated by those subconsciously crafting these foundational elements in the trenches.
2.) Mirror and embellish the physicality. In the above example Player C has focused on the emotion of exhaustion or fatigue, but they could also double down on the physical component of the scenario. (Although, one would hope, that our entering player above would instinctively add to both the emotional and physical specificity of the scene.) If Player A has commented that they have developed blisters from the running, and Player B has countered that they may have ruptured their Achilles tendon, Player C might limp on with a makeshift crutch that they have fashioned from discarded water bottles. If the characters are, all the while, fighting to put on a brave face in front of their friends by minimizing their pain, this third entrance adds more fuel to this particular fire. Or, perhaps, they are all equally determined not to be the very last person to cross the finish line in spite of their ever-escalating injuries and obstacles. Again, Player C has offered up a “same” but in a slightly different way that tightens the focus and direction of the subsequent action.
3.) Mirror and deepen the point of view or objective. Assuming the same point of view or objective can have the wonderful side effect of forging scenic allies united in a common bond. (Adopting an equal status can have a similar result as it tends to place characters on an equal footing free from obstructive competition.) If Player A and B are unwavering in their goal to finish this race as it’s a fundraiser for a co-worker’s treasured charity, Player C joining and amplifying this imperative raises the stakes even further. Now all three runners (one with blisters, one with cramps, and one with a make-shift crutch…) have to egg each other on so that no-one will let down the team and their much-loved colleague. Artificial conflict can so easily hamper scenic progress: a parallel objective provides a fruitful gateway that unites the characters on a dynamic path forward instead.
4.) Mirror and enrich the occupation or activity. Lastly, consider the element of occupation or activity as a possible source for mirroring. If the scene occurs in a work environment it can add interest to engage in at least different facets of the occupation at hand even if the characters all share a similar job title or function. (You’ll probably want to avoid throwing in a superior or manager if you’re looking to maintain the prior pattern.) Or, if you’re in a workplace that is defined by sameness – such as a secretarial pool where everyone is at a typewriter or computer by definition – consider exploring idiosyncrasies in the equipment or how your character performs their job functions. In our runner example, assuming the persona of another runner is probably a given, but you could also build other parallels to further unite the characters: do they all work together at the same coffee shop, or are all members of one extended family, or all go to the same gym, or are all first responders…? Each of these choices adds nuance without undermining or upturning the game in play and offers a specific common lens through which to process the story elements.
And here’s a fifth parallel possibility that might also come in handy, although it feels quite different in tone so I’ve not included it with my list above. While I would not recommend this as a standard choice, mirroring others’ language can also serve as a helpful tactic, especially if you are a little lost or unsure how best to contribute to the scene. In a Reiterate/Repeat kind of way, you can parallel prior dialogue while still adding your presence, point of view and energy. This can buy you a little time to get up to speed without vampirizing your scene partner’s attack with unhelpful stalls or questioning.
I’ve deliberately mirrored this entry and its examples with my earlier Complementary Action post here to emphasize that both scenic tactics can bear rich improvisational fruit. If you read these entries back to back you can also sense the inherent differences in how both of these approaches can nourish a scene. Astute parallel actions invariably water ideas that are already currently in play, and so my examples above all taste a little similar as they look to augment the same opening moves of the exhausted runners. Complementary Actions, on the other hand, cast a wider net by design as they seek connection to and inspiration from what has gone before and do not feel obliged to heighten or mirror this world as is. Subsequently, Player C in my earlier entry’s corresponding examples assumes a much broader array of characterizations and relationships. Both approaches, thinking same (in a different way) or thinking different (in a connected way) have intrinsic and stage-tested value. Depending on your preferred style of play, you may esteem one over the other, but I have no doubt that achieving fluency in both of these improv languages serves the craft in the long run. Both choices are, after all, clear manifestations of the “Yes, and…” philosophy: parallels just tend to emphasize the “yes” while complements lean more resolutely into the “and.”
If you’d like to read more thoughts on when to deploy complementary or parallel actions consider reading Commandment #7 here.
Connected Game: Diamond Dance