When we whine that we don’t want to do group game work anymore, we ask, “Can we just do some two person scenes?” We want to breathe. And we equate “two person scene” with “time to breathe up top.” There’re just two of us; there’s less impetus to force our voice into the scene. We’re free to discover the scene without fear of hijack.
We can walk up to center stage to face our partners, careful not to make any sudden moves, meet them eye to eye – chests turned out slightly to the audience – and in our round, enunciated theater voices negotiate the reality of the scene. “Well, if I am your lawyer then I need to know why you’re in the pokey in the firsty place.”
What happened to the Self Contained Emotional Statement? Where’d your patterns go? “But…uh…we’re doing two person scenes now.”
There are many approaches to two-person scenework. I prefer to do two-person improv as improv does best.
Leveraging The Details, Reaction and Games, the key to sustainable, dynamic two person scenes is setting up patterns of emotional behavior.
PATTERNS OF EMOTIONAL BEHAVIOR
PATTERNS OF EMOTIONAL BEHAVIOR
You have to feel. You have to react emotionally.
We placate improvisers allowing them to live between actors and stand ups, freeing them from the responsibility to feel convincingly or assume a strong opinion. “I make clever observations.” Go fuck yourself.
A troupe recently defended passivity as “playing it real.” I slaughtered them and ate their babies.
“That’s how I would have reacted!” Depends on the vocal improviser, but my response is usually either, Well, you’re boring, why am I watching you? or this little explanation: What’s funnier, a guy milling mixed feelings in his head while sitting paralyzed and fish-faced across from a pretty date, or a guy who first openly boasts his lustful feelings only to shut himself down with dictates of decorum? The answer is either can work if the audience believes you are feeling. And active feeling is easier to discern across a packed house.
Actors imagine it real. They are never themselves on stage. Think about it. Nope, nope, there I go being an improviser again. Feel about it.
PATTERNS OF EMOTIONAL BEHAVIOR
Yes. Feel about it.
In the grammar of The Self Contained Emotional Statement, there is an implicit object bearing the feeling of the all-important self.
We have to act emotionally. We have to react to stimulus. We are what we like.
“It’s a two person scene.” This is our chance to really dig at The Details, baby. The clever shit. What in this world is making me feel this way?
Check yourself: Am I explaining more than I’m exhibiting my behavior?
Our default should be toward active stimulus in the scene because it’s what’s active in a scene that provokes reactions. Bemoaning (convincingly) how the Armageddon is really shaking up your vacation plans is a better scene when asteroids are hitting the stage. Expressing hatred for a politician is best when the other player is the politician or you only endorse Romney to annoy her when she annoys you by picking her teeth.
Give something existing – but, better yet, happening – on stage the power of your reaction. See new details in what you’re experiencing through the focus of your emotional behavior. A cup you see on stage will be white, but stained with lipstick, and maybe there’s a logo. But the cup you see and feel about on stage will definitely have just the sweetest little puppy/kitty mash-up photo across its copious girth.
Imagine it real. And let emotion be your guide to and inspiration from The Details. React to what you discover on stage.
If you are ever lost in an improv woods: Feel Something about Something.
And in the spirit of “two person scenes,” let’s remove the constraint from The Self Contained Emotional Statement. A self contained statement allows the greatest flexibility for group game play, but the flip side is that choosing to comment on your scene partner is a solid sign to the ensemble that you want a “two person scene.”
Feel Something about Anything.
Feel things. But feel about things.
Exhibit behavior through emotional reaction to active stimuli on stage. And repeat.
PATTERNS OF EMOTIONAL BEHAVIOR
The same pattern mechanics from our group game work are applicable to “two person scenes.” And they can be played just as tight. Though they don’t have to be. Remember, the extent to which we prioritize Pattern over its brother and sister elements dictates the “gamey-ness” of the scene. But to ignore Game all together in our “two person scenes” is to tie your hands in creating improv as improv does best. So, we’re still focused on Personal Games and Scenic Games.
Personal Game – how you react to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing
* I love cake; when I eat a piece I’m overcome with joy and I sigh involuntarily
Scenic Game – how you react to who your scene partner is, what your scene partner is doing or how your scene partner is acting
* Greg is my hero; when he criticizes me I’m destroyed and flagellate myself
* We are scared of ghosts; when we hear a noise we freak and run around
The games represent a pattern of behavior established through evolving rules.
Sorry to repeat myself, but this is 2.0.
And what have we covered to this point? We’ve committed to feeling. We’ve committed to feeling about something. Something makes us feel. Catalyst and reaction. A behavior is established.
Attention to patterns and games can help those established behaviors explore more sustainable, detail rich and active scenes. Games define the trajectory of the scene initiated by Details and Reactions.
If beauty is defined by symmetries and proportional asymmetries – and it is – then we can craft beautiful trajectories in our scenes through pattern mechanics. Some people can draw beautifully perfect arcs and angles free hand. There are profound artists that never bother with technique. But in learning how to be a better artist, I find it helpful to evaluate and define trajectories as technicians do, with math terms.
The initiation is a point in space. From the initiation to the next contribution a line is drawn, defining their relationship. Offer, Set. In math terms, a line is plotted by the relationship between the y variable and the x variable. Player x + Player y = Scene.
We know Flat Scenes, (Ax + By + C = 0),when we just follow our story straight ahead, never looking back, never reaching any interesting height or depth.
We know Scatter Shot Scenes, where we jump from topic to topic, from character to character. No one has any idea what’s going on or how anything’s connected. Though, with this shotgun approach, you do hit occasionally.
These are two types of scenes that Game can help us eradicate from our sets by helping us hone in on the progression of our Details and Reactions.
We know Steady Slope Scenes, ( y = x ), where we invest heavily in heightening the tension of a plot or an emotion or a gag. Ramping up or sliding down, we certainly have Game in these scenes. These scenes can be done very well. But often not for very long.
Flat, Scatter Shot and Steady Slopes Scenes hang a lot of their goodwill on the strength of their edit. A flat scene is hard to edit because there are no highs. A scatter shot scene renders you too slow on your feet to catch the joke you didn’t see coming, and now you have to wait until players find the next laugh where you can cut it off before it can go someplace brand new.
Patterns and games enable us to graph 3D Calculus, drafting undulating worms with our scenes across the X, Y and Z axes.
Let’s get from flat, scatter-shot and steady-slope shaped scenes to undulating worms by way of trigonometry. Picture a sine curve. It’s the one the looks like a roller coaster. Nope, no, that’s a cosine curve you’re picturing. The sine curve starts at the origin (0, 0) on the scale of contributions.
Now picture each apex and nadir as moments in a scene where one perfect arc of contributions meets another perfect arc of contributions heading in a complimentary direction. Now picture each point where the sine curve crosses the X axis as moments in a scene when one character’s transformation leads to another character’s transformation in a complimentary direction.
I like to think about these nodes where one pattern meets another – they define for me a more sustainable and dynamic improv scene where energy is neither saved for the big finale nor wasted in scatter shot nor deadened with a flat line.
A preteen is geeking out to be able to share the room of an admired older cousin. The older cousin is annoyed as hell, but needs to “play nice” or he will be punished.
This scene could be played muted and flat as inner conflicting emotions render each player paralyzed to make choices. It could be developed scatter shot, with players jumping between addressing different motivations in slap dash attempts to gain tension. The tensions could simmer and then boil on a steady slope, exploding when the older cousin can’t take it anymore and lambastes the preteen who suddenly feels like a geek and bawls – and maybe the energy grabs the edit.
Focused on oscillating game trajectories, though, we can get to that energy sooner because we can sustain it with patterns. Let’s paint our scene on the sine.
WALK BACKWARDS WITH ME
Player x and Player y take a step onto stage (0, 0).
The preteen, backpack high on his shoulders, says, “I’m so excited to get to be with you this weekend.” The older cousin, looks nervously over the stuff in his room, and says, “Yeah, well…I’m under orders to make you feel at home.” (1, 1)
x – Yeah, General Mom, right?
y – (disdainfully) Uh, huh.
x – I’m stoked to be here. Stoked. Wait. That’s surfer, not military.
y – It’s fine. Just, uh…
x – (snaps into a salute) It’s an honor to be here, sir.
y – Are you fucking serious right now? Are you going to be up my ass all weekend?
Yeah, we can get to it that soon. We can hit our reactions hard while feeling relaxed that we can sustain our pace by oscillating between our games. Player x has been focusing on his part of the scenic game: He is excitedly kissing his cousin’s ass. Player y started with his personal game of restraint, but played up its tension with the scenic game of his being annoyed by his cousin excitedly kissing his ass.
Now what? Player y can return to his personal game immediately, quickly acquiescing and apologizing, returning to restraint and waiting for the preteen to build up his annoyance again. But – big BUT – Player y should wait for his return to the personal game of restraint to be a reaction to something active on stage, thus setting up the Pavlovian responsibility of recreating the pattern when revisited.
So Player y heightens his insult barrage until met with something new to react to. Now, maybe Player x is too dense to wield the power of reacting himself; there are other options. Player y can choose to return to restraint for a reason of his own making – as long as he does define a reason, even in retrospect. Player z could also pipe in from offstage, serving the games in play with a shout for decorum from General Mom – but that’s the 3D portion of our Calculus and we’ll get to that later.
In this example, Player x will decide to react. He can build tension himself, but he should be aware of the precedent he’s setting for the progression – if he waits for a long string of insults before creating a reaction node, then he is probably going to have to wait for a longer string during the next game pass.
y – …God help me if I have to –
x – (suddenly bawls)
y – Hey. Hey!
x – I know I’m a geek. That’s a fact.
y – Hey. You’re not a geek.
x – (blubbering) I am, too. I’m in ninth grade and I’ve already broken the wedgy record.
y – 1,891?
x – 2,456
y – Wow.
x – See? I’m a geek. I’ve kissed negative girls.
y – You like Goth girls?
x – Negative as in the number. Girls signed a pledge vowing they would never hook up with me and travel back in time to talk sense into any girl that ever does.
y – Hey. (softening) You want to see some porn?
x – (sniffles) What?
y – Check it out. (pulls magazine out from under mattress) These girls can’t say no to your seeing them naked.
x – (reacting) Eeeeew – (recovering) oooooh. Yeah, that’s…gnarly.
y – (shaking his head with an endeared sigh) Yeah. Okay.
x – Yuck-a-rific, there’s come on that girl’s hair. Humph. That’s shooting the curl, am I right?
y – (sucking his teeth) Yeah, man, that’s right.
x – Oh, my God. I mean, praise Jesus, a gang bang! That girl’s hanging ten.
y – Are you fucking serious right now? I’m not going to tutor you in ass all weekend.
x – Oh, right, military not surfer speak. Twenty-one dick salute at attention, sir.
y – (snatches the porn away) I can’t fucking believe we’re related…
See the sine curve? See how we can sustain a scene by establishing emotional behaviors and heightening them with patterns? Feel about something and that reaction sets up the game we then cement with repetition. Find the relationship between personal and scenic games and define the trajectory connecting them. What triggers each game? What caps off the sequence?
The curves’ deltas open up more doors for edits, and knowing we can ride the wave helps us play without panic. If the scene is edited “too early” that’s often a good problem to have and you’ll have in your pocket defined patterns of emotional behavior to return to in subsequent beats.
It won’t always be a sine curve, but, when we play “two person scenes” focused on patterns of emotional behavior, – doing improv as improv does best – we will paint beautiful trajectories, symmetries and proportional asymmetries.
We might create juxtaposed tangent curves, like when Jerry rants about his thing and George rants about his thing and the game between them is they don’t acknowledge each other.
We can draft scene trajectories that clover leaf in different quadrants, like a scene where a couple grades their admiration of each of the states meeting at Four Corners.
Performing, we just plot the points the best we can – taking each step walking backwards, responding to the path traveled. In coaching, I run regressions – defining common trajectories between plotted points. In learning improv, be a student of the math – evaluating how scene variables equate, add up, and correlate.