“R” is for “Relationship”

“We hunger today for the mirror of human relationship and personal interaction. We yearn to play.”

Gary Izzo, The Art of Play. The New Genre of Interactive Theatre. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. p.6


The second pillar of CROW, Relationship, closely interacts with and enriches the earlier concept of Character. With the exception of solo pieces (and even then there are often implied or absent scene partners) an audience typically understands our characters based on how they engage with others in their environment. Through the lens of relationship, characters are rarely static or one thing: how a parental character treats their child will likely differ from their energies on their job site with fellow co-workers, or when dealing with poor service at a restaurant. Enjoying these energy shifts and contradictions – rather than clinging onto a misplaced desire for consistency – allows for the emergence of rich portrayals worthy of our collective time and attention. So much of who we are is a reflection of how we are shaped by the diverse array of people we encounter on a daily basis. The same should hold true for our stage creations.


Player B, Ms. Kojic, a powerful and confident executive, has just completed conducting a job interview with Player A (see my previous entry on Reincorporation here for a refresher.) In the prior scene we saw her in her element, exerting gentle but nonetheless recognizable control over the work place.

The stage transitions into a new location, B’s home. As they enter their palatial living room – the rainstorm still rattling in the distance – they are greeted by their new scene partner, Player C…

Making the Most Out of Your Onstage Relationships

1.) Want. Strong objectives typically seek something specific from our current scene partners (as I discuss here.) If we do not want or need anything from those with whom we share the stage then there is very little honest impetus for our characters to connect and build energy. It follows, too, that as our scene partners change so will our wants, or at the very least, the tactics or ways in which we actively try to achieve these desires. While character “B” might have been seeking to “woo over a highly desirable new employee” at the office, it’s unlikely that this will also hold true when they arrive home and play out a scene with their teenage child. There may be some commonalities – “B” might seek some form of respect in both cases – but the tonality and specifics are likely very different. If you float from scene to scene and partner to partner with only one generic objective in play you are probably painting with just a small sampling of your character’s available pigments. So be sure to want something clear, specific and suited to your current circumstances.

2.) Echo. This advice can hold true in most situations but it’s particularly helpful for a character that might have fallen out of rotation for a few scenes or who was previously somewhat ancillary: consider echoing an emblematic behavior or scenic element that connects you to your prior appearances. If player “B” was painfully organized during their job interview, exerting strong control over every inch of their world, it will probably prove helpful to the performers and the audience if some semblance of this energy reappears, even just fleetingly, so that we can connect the scenic dots and guarantee that everyone is on the same imaginary improv page. On a simple level, just mentioning a prior scene can do the trick – “I think I’ve secured our top pick for the firm” – although this can feel like cartooning if you’re not careful and grounded. (There can also be a dramatic value in withholding these connections strategically as a reveal but this is still honoring the general echo philosophy.) This is not to suggest that such echoes should then dominate the current action: talking ad nauseum about that job interview you just had in a way that essentially replicates the earlier scene won’t add much. But carrying the cobwebs of this encounter can provide some nuance even when (ideally) the next appearance assumes a very different tone and purpose as you…

3.) Complicate. While echoing helps establish a character baseline through recognizable habits, too much behavioral or energy repetition (especially in long-form modes) can become limiting and redundant. If your high powered boss is the same high powered boss in every scenario then they will risk becoming an unmelodic one-note symphony. Subsequent character appearances benefit from an attitude of complication: how can this new scene challenge or add flavor to what we already know? This may involve exploring a similar character choice but in different ways: what blindness, limitation or strength that we have previously established also manifests itself in this new relationship? Is our authoritative boss similarly controlling or confident in their family sphere? If this is the case, what does this particular brand of power look like? Are habits that serve character “B” well in the office less welcome or even detrimental if they are not turned off upon arriving home? Even if you elect to hit the stage as largely the same person we saw before, just your change in relationship should shed some new light on your characterization.

4.) Reveal. To dig a level deeper, in addition to complicating our character foundation, new relationships have the profound potential to open up whole new facets and features. It can prove helpful simply to inquire as you take your first scenic steps “what can I show or explore in this relationship that I’m unable to openly reveal in others?” There are countless forms this can take from vulnerability and weakness, to certitude and control. Our boss, Ms. Kojic, who appeared the picture of professionalism and aplomb might reveal a frazzled or tumultuous interior when she returns home to her invalid mother and a stream of taxing requests. Or perhaps the cool but approachable exterior seen in the job interview gives way to a passionate tryst with her forbidden high school lover who is only in town for a few days. It is perhaps asking a lot for every character in an ensemble piece to reveal new shade after shade, but those with whom the audience has become most invested – our protagonist and antagonist, for example – benefit from as broad an array of relationship energies as the company can muster.

5.) Evolve. Finally, especially in pieces with more substantial room for exploration, characters benefit from using their onstage relationships to evolve. A story arc in which an underdog remains an underdog without any glimmer of hope for advancement can quickly strain interest, as can adventures in which gallant heroes and heroines never truly face a challenge or the potential for failure. In short-form modalities the pursuit of evolving can feel unlikely, but even here characters can mine their onstage relationships for meaningful tilts and discoveries proportionate to the stage time they occupy. When selecting scene partners (and energies) this focus provides a helpful casting tool: what relationship can reveal our protagonist’s fatal flaw or bring out our villain’s redeeming qualities? It may prove that a character is ultimately unable to change, reflecting a more tragic style of play, but even if their attempts to evolve are finally thwarted, the embodied struggle should prove stage worthy. In epic pieces the evolution might also span historic passages of time: perhaps we learn that our environmentally conscious employer is the heiress to a family fortune earned through mass pollution and exploitation. Here our protagonist’s development is as much comparative to their ancestors as it is to their own actions, but the stakes and import are raised through such context nonetheless.

Final Thought

Clearly carefully chosen and executed relationships can add volumes to the improvisational endeavor, empowering our characters to go on worthy and complex adventures. While at first glance it might appear that the specific choice of a relationship is critical to enable this type of dynamic play, in reality most characters can fulfill one or many of the above functions given the opportunity and some degree of thoughtfulness on the part of the improviser. What’s important at the end of the day is forging energized connections that are ripe with opportunities for discovery and development.

Related Entries: Bulletproof, Character, CROW, Objective, Where Antonyms: Strangers Synonyms: Who

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Here Comes the Bus

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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