By Darren Held

What Improv Scenes Are About

by Sonnjea Blackwell

There is a lot of confusion in the early stages of one’s improv education about what a scene should be about. My friend and student Nick Oh got me thinking about that, and here is what we came up with…

There are many reasons for this confusion. First off, we start by doing exercises and games, and those have a built-in structure, goal or arc, and so developing a “scene” isn’t really part of that. So when we make the leap to doing two-person scenes, there’s a lot of fear and confusion – there’s no game to play! There’s no exercise to hide in! What the hell do I do?!!

It’s also confusing because we talk about having a “big what” – something that makes this day different from all the other 292 times these two characters have been together. Is the “big what” what the scene is about?

It’s also confusing because of what we watch on TV. Sitcoms are about situational comedy; hence their name. The funny comes from the situation. Or maybe you like to watch crime dramas and are used to the arc of a story being based on procedures. Or maybe you watch the FoodNetwork and you are totally immersed in the “stuff” – the ingredients, the recipes, the techniques. Or maybe you watch porn and… well, you watch porn. Moving on…

It’s also confusing because people tend to think a “relationship” is the title these two characters have: husband and wife, sisters, nuns, kidnapper and victim, whatever. It would be less confusing to refer to these as “character pairings,” because the actual relationship isn’t defined by those titles. Husband and wife… happily married? unhappily? newlyweds? arranged marriage? both cheating? one cheating? mail-order bride? “Husband and wife” tells us the legal status of these two characters and nothing else. Their relationship is how they relate to each other. In other words, it’s the energy that exists between them.

I would say that the scene is about this energy, and the change the energy undergoes as a result of the “big what” being revealed. It’s like a mathematical equation: We start with X energy, we apply the force of Big What, and that creates Y energy. (For you FoodNetwork people: take one relationship, stir in some Big What, bake at 325 degrees for 3 minutes, and voila! New relationship!)

In the universe, nothing is static. The same is true of our own lives. Improv is a tiny little microcosm of life and the universe, and so it should reflect that.