“In both improvisation and sport, what grips the audience is the fact that the outcome is truly in doubt. The players in both have, through arduous training, developed skills with which to deal with the unpredictable; but these skills cannot tame the unpredictable, they can only give the players a better chance of not being routed by it. And in both, the audience’s enthusiasm is a major part of the experience.”Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.xxxix
Theatre provides an engaging glimpse into human behavior and struggles. With few stylistic exceptions – such as an extreme approach to “slice of life” naturalism – stories and their constituent moments are theatricalized with an eye towards maximizing dynamism and thus audience attention. There’s a reason we don’t see many movies, plays, or (successful) improv scenes where a character sits and watches television uninterrupted for several hours, or the duration of a nice refreshing midday nap despite how ubiquitous (or sought-after) such moments are in our real lives. Theatre edits and enhances lived experiences and, in doing so, sets the stage for enthralling the enthusiastic audience of which Sweet writes above.
And therein lies the innate problem of Transaction Scenes. Yes, buying a cup of coffee in a drive-thru, returning a purchase at a customer service counter, or asking for help finding those perfect shoes in our size are all familiar activities for many, but presented as is they are the mundane life chores that performance traditions rightly ascribe to the cutting room floor. Purchases or mundane negotiations hold little potential for sustained interest as the outcome is largely foreseeable and assured. To make matters worse, these predictable exchanges nearly always occur between strangers, another scenario trap; throw in the need for some help with the product in question and you’ve completed the holy trinity of improv blandness by also making it a teaching scene.
Player A begins the scene by pushing on an imaginary shopping trolley (cart) and casually scanning the supermarket shelves. After a few beats, Player B enters and establishes themselves as a shelf stocker. They turn helpfully…
Player B: “Can I help you find something?”
Player A: “I can’t seem to find the turkey gravy…”
Player B: (pleasantly) “It’s actually in aisle five alongside the stuffing.”
Player A: “That makes sense! Thank you so much.”
A beat… as both contemplate what might be next…
Player B: “… can I help you with something else…?”
Several items later the scene grinds to an awkward end.
Exchange Your Transaction For This…
1.) Action. It’s possible that the above exchange could provide a workable scenic balance for a moment or two but left unignited there’s not much brewing theatricality. When an everyday activity becomes synonymous with the stage action you’re in deep water (or actually very undramatic shallow water!) This is similar to making your text and subtext exactly the same in that it robs the scene of complexity and intrigue that should bubble under the “obvious” surface. While activity provides a helpful staging addition – offering players something to physically do together as the story develops – action is the domain of objectives and tactics, and describes the characters’ efforts to grasp success. At the very least, if you find yourself dancing into the realm of a dispassionate and unimportant transaction, make sure there’s something more vital at stake for your character and their world than the turkey gravy. Ideally, your scene partner is inextricably connected to this need as well. For example, Player A is shopping without the means to pay and is striving to build rapport with Player B in the hopes they will eventually come to their aid.
2.) Power. While a transaction on the textual level will rarely add much to your story, a similar dynamic on the subtextual level holds interesting potentials. Status inversions, in particular, can inspire playful games that maintain the appearance of the lackluster transaction while fueling it with energizing undercurrents. Status battles (such as one-upping ladders and one-downing slides) or unanticipated inversions (a disproportionately high status shelf stocker assisting a low status customer) provide promising potentials that refresh the stale scenic template. When status positions are contested, this adds additional spice. Our customer may, in fact, have been fired from this very store recently and is testing their replacement’s mettle in the hopes of getting their old job back. In this light, each seemingly transactional move is now a subtle power play towards a hidden end. A similar result can be achieved by establishing and exchanging strong emotional states: a carefree employee and anxious shopper might find themselves gradually swapping these climates by the end of the scene as prompted by their mutual choices and discoveries.
3.) Secrets. A strategically selected secret can also spice up dispassionate transactions. By shifting the context of a CROW element, you will jumpstart subtextual tensions and perspectives. If Player A is a secret shopper or an undercover regional manager, this adjustment in character should make today’s exchange at least a little more significant and out of the ordinary. Both characters could actually be passionate newlyweds who can’t stand to be apart, so they hide their relationship in the supermarket and A pretends to need help finding an increasingly odd array of groceries. If Player A’s objective isn’t finding the gravy but rather reconnecting to their estranged child that they left as a baby, bolder energies beckon. Or perhaps both characters are expats in a foreign land – or where – and the turkey gravy is a palpable reminder of a lost home with all its holiday traditions. Placing a secret in any or a combination of these scenic elements will usually do the trick of adding heat.
4.) Style. Another useful way to aid our troubled scene is to shift the context entirely so that our uninspired dialogue takes on new meaning. This is the central dynamic behind mapping (discussed here) but layering on a distinct or contrasting time period, genre, or mood can also work wonders especially if this perspective shift enables irony or a grander metaphor: our turkey gravy now stands in for something more significant or thematically engaging. Played with a Shakespearean overlay, as futuristic androids, or in the style of French expressionism, our meandering scene will at the very least gain an element of comedic estrangement, allowing the audience to witness a recognizable exchange through a jarringly different lens. It strikes me that the charm and audience goodwill earned from such an approach might be relatively short-lived – I still don’t want to watch a commonplace transaction in Shakespearean poetry that never evolves beyond that simple premise for a protracted period of time – so the resulting scenes are likely to benefit from applying one of the above strategies too.
When you find yourself having stumbled into a transactional dynamic – and you will – you’ll be well served by heeding some of the above advice. A commercial transaction offers little of interest as they are so predictable and provide little opportunity for discovery and character-based revelations. The same is not true when the transaction in question focuses on pursuing desires, wrestling control, or exposing hidden truths.
Related Entries: CROW, Objective, Secrets, Strangers, Subtext, Teaching Scene Antonyms: Breaking Routines, Change, Stakes, Urgency Synonyms: Stasis
Cheers, David Charles.
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Connected Game: Replay