“S” is for “Stakes”

“All can be changed, and at a moment’s notice: the actors must always be ready to accept, without protest, any proposed action; they must simply act it out, to give a live view of its consequences and drawbacks.”

Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1992. p.134


There is an interesting inherent tension when it comes to stakes in improv. As players, it’s healthy for us to nurture a low stakes performance environment where risks can be taken, stumbles embraced, and lessons learnt without the crippling fear of dire consequences. As characters, however, low stakes will rarely help us generate electricity and passion on the stage, so high stakes here are the lingua franca. Stakes, in this second context are synonymous with the factors that are pushing our characters forward: what do they stand to gain if they are ultimately successful, or lose if their plans finally amount to naught? Just as a character without a dynamic objective or motivation may become rudderless within a scene and limp forward lacking clear direction, a desire devoid of stakes lacks sufficient fuel to drive a character towards their goal in spite of the potential costs. There is a marked distinction between a student’s efforts to pass a class, for example, if they are merely taking it as an elective in their first year as opposed to a classmate during their final semester of university who must get a passing grade in order to graduate. The class itself remains the same in both circumstances – it is the stakes that have changed and, in turn, added power to the resulting scene. (The urgency has also increased in this illustration, but that’s a related topic for another day.)


Player A and B are fellow low-level crooks who have found themselves embroiled in a mobster’s machinations. As they carefully break into their target’s mansion, they bemoan their situation.

Player A: (attaching the glass cutter to the window pane) “You promised that the last heist was going to be our last…”

Player B: (assessing the perimeter through their binoculars) “Well, that was before we knew we were walking into a trap set up by the mob.”

Player A: (carefully cutting a hole in the glass in a circular motion) “And now we have to do this job for them or else….”

Player B: (securing their binoculars in their backpack and checking the mansion schematics) “Or else, we’re sleeping with the fishes.”

Player A: (wiping the sweat from their brow) “And the boss will never let my sister see the light of day again either. “

Player B: “I told you we should have got her safely out of town when things started to get hot.”

Player A: “And I told you that something didn’t feel right about that last job. But you insisted. And now there’s no way out of this mess but forward…”

Raising the Stakes

There are many time-honored ways to make matters pointedly worse or better for your characters and their journeys…

1.) Increase the consequences. The easiest way to up the stakes is to make the results of succeeding or failing more dire or desired. If I eat that donut that I know I shouldn’t but no one will ever know or care, the stakes of my struggle aren’t very compelling. This internal and relatable turmoil might be enough to craft a charming two-minute scene, but would be challenging as a contribution to a more robust dramatic arc. If I, instead, am tempted to steal that donut and will become a social pariah if I’m caught, the stakes click up a few notches. If, furthermore, I live in a totalitarian regime where even such petty crimes are publicly punished, the stakes rise again. And if the donut is not to satiate my sweet tooth but rather for my hungry child who hasn’t eaten in several days, then we’re now in the territory of a sugar-coated Les Mis. Even the most apparently benign offer can become invigorating when polished by this stakes-enhancing process.

2.) Increase the passion. It’s also viable to elevate the stakes through internal changes as opposed to adjustments in the external world of the play. Just mildly craving a donut (I should have eaten before writing this post) is less likely to propel you to action than loving donuts above all else. If this desire moves to the level of an obsession or uncontrollable compulsion, then once more our seemingly innocuous treat has taken on epic proportions worthy of the stage. Leaning into an unexpected juxtaposition, as is presented by our trivial donut example, opens up comedic and satiric pathways; substitute the donut for something of more profound or obvious value, and you’ve set your protagonist up for a riveting dramatic journey.

3.) Increase the obstacles. Another stakes-raising angle emerges when you consider what stands in the way between you and your desired objective as a character. A conventional theatrical equation observes that “objective” plus “obstacle” equals “tactic” or action. After all, if nothing stands in the way of us and our wants it becomes a rather simple matter to just achieve our goals and then move on. Moving our tempting donut from a counter in our private house, to a friend’s kitchen table, or a public supermarket display, or even a top-of-the-line safe in a well-guarded mansion, provides increasing levels of obstacles that our characters must overcome in order to succeed. When we pace or stack these obstacles artistically and appropriately (not starting with the most impossible problem first) we set up the characters for exciting action as they must deploy well-chosen tactics to keep hopes of success alive. This reflects the “to make matters worse” narrative technique that serves as a helpful complication when crafting longer pieces.

4.) Increase the commitment. These complementary and potentially cumulative ingredients won’t amount to much without appropriate commitment on the part of the relevant characters (and the players underneath them). It’s possible to have a dramatic goal, heightened emotion, and thwarting obstacles in your path, but ultimately it’s our commitment to the journey that elevates our characters and engages our audiences. Playing at the top of our intelligence, deploying a full array of imaginative tactics, and keeping the prize front of mind all can make the resulting action enticing. Yes, a character may certainly step away from the field of battle, momentarily turning their back on their dreams to lick their wounds or plot a new strategy. But if the character (or player) doesn’t care and just passively plods forward, uses the same ineffective tactic time and time again, or ultimately gives in, they are likely adding little to the story or are cueing the finale of an epic tragedy as they embrace their loss or comeuppance. It follows that if the onstage character doesn’t care about the donut that we won’t either.

Final Thought

Not to poke holes in my own donut example, but I’ve focused on largely negative outcomes and complications here – it’s equally helpful to explore the “to make matters better” side of the coin, although this is less prevalent in the dramatic canon that tends to thrive on crisis rather than carefree wish fulfillment. If our donut is not just any donut, but rather your favorite, or has been declared the most delicious donut in your city, country, the world, or the history of all humanity, this provides a similarly successful but positive ladder towards greater stakes. Obstacles are a little trickier in this light as they, by definition, prevent you from easily getting your goal but even these can be framed as whimsical distractions rather than ominous impediments. Or, to truly invert the formula, it may now be a case of former obstacles no longer being in play: you used to be gluten-free and living a donut-free life, but just finally tested negative for the condition due to an experimental drug protocol…

Dynamic stakes often act in tandem with an equally robust sense of urgency so consider exploring this upcoming entry.

Related Entries: Drama, Objective, Urgency Antonyms: Passivity Synonyms: Heighten

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Escalating Scene

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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