2.1 – “Two Person Scene” Practical

We’re going to build “two person scenes” on patterns of emotional behavior.

LET’S WARM-UP

Get everyone standing in a circle. Give them all a single emotion. Make them emote. Change the emotion. Repeat.

The key is starting the emotion at a ten
. Push it to eleven. To twenty.

Next, one by one, have each player enter the circle and express an emotion of their choosing for thirty seconds. It’s not a scene – players in the center are not to interact with the players forming the circle, and players forming the circle aren’t to interact with the player in the center.

So no dialogue. No monologue either. The player in the center is to show emotion, not talk about it.

And playing at eleven doesn’t equate to being loud.

This exercise – a variation of I Am Superman – also helps us recognize that we don’t need someone on stage with us in order to commit ourselves on stage. We can handle thirty seconds alone, sixty seconds, many minutes (though not a whole show, because that wouldn’t be improv at its best). It may suck sometimes, with all those eyes watching you sustain yourself, but we can do it. This exercise also helps us recognize how it can suck to be on stage alone – get out there and support your scene partner.

Next exercise. Everyone’s in a circle. In turn, have each person turn to the player to their left with a mimed object in their hands for that player to react to emotionally. I don’t care if the person turns to the player with an open palm, a non-descript “something” in their hand – what’s mimed is not important. The mimed object and physical offer matters only to trigger the reaction. Players’ emotional reactions need not – and, for the sake of the exercise, should not – depend on the context of the physical offer. Don’t wait on “why.” Fuck “sense.” Commitment and repetition are all the “why” the audience needs. React emotionally.

We’re now done with our circle. But let’s recap the lessons of this warm-up.
1. Start with strong emotion; don’t wait to reach your emotion’s apex.
2. Show your emotion; don’t just talk about it.
3. Start with a strong emotional reaction; don’t get caught up in having to know “why” before you empower the object of your reaction.

ENDOWMENT EXERCISES

We want to leverage the power of The Details. To leverage the power of emotional Reactions through The Details, it helps if those details are active in the scene. If the object of our reactions exists in the time and space of the scene, they are more likely to trigger those emotions. We can fume about how mad our mom makes us, but if mom is actually on stage with us then we are actively fuming as a direct result of her presence. We want active emotions in our scenes.

So let’s practice creating active details. Let’s endow our scenes.

Get two people on stage. Give them a physical object to focus their endowments on – a golf ball, an axe, a sunset. Each player is tasked with two things only: Defining the object and feeling about those defined characteristics.

Visualize the object. Decide on and commit to an emotion
.

Example 1 – “The golf ball has so many dimples. It’s so cute.”
Example 2 – “This axe is bad ass.”
Example 3 – “The amount of color in the sunset is terrifying”

Focus outwardly on the object through your emotion. See it, and color what you see with the emotion.

Example 1 – “It’s so small.”
Example 2 – “This looong handle. These sharp blades – like Janus’ head – making me a god.”
Example 3 – “The baby blues. The blaze oranges. Its yellow belly. Fucking terrifying.”

Remember: “Sense” is not important. Even the golf ball’s whiteness will be cute if you act like you feel that it’s cute. It’s fun for the audience to see you force an emotion despite “sense” – especially one seemingly non sequitur at the outset. A terrifying sunset? It’s more fun that the standard old beautiful sunset. Sure, down the road you’ll recognize that the terror comes from the pollution causing the colors, but the audience’s fun is less contingent on your defense than on your commitment to the feeling. “Oh, my god, oh, my god, now it’s purple” progresses the scene in a much more active direction than any explanation.

Go beyond visualizing the object. Imagine it. And, through emotional reaction, experience it. Remember weight and resistence – the keys to mime.

Example 1 -“It’s so light, like a bird egg in my hand.”
Example 2 – “Hefting this mother requires muscles.”
Example 3 – “Ugh. It’s so oppressive. I’m literally – not figuratively – literally petrified. Except for my mouth.”

What is the object’s capability? If we want active scenes, we have to get active with our objects.
Example 1 – “Little rascal, trying to roll away.”
Example 2 -“Yeah, Log – axe and I turned your ass to butter.”
Example 3 -“We only see it on the horizon. It’s all around us. Surrounding us. Choke(*choke*)ing us.”

This exercise also helps us avoid the common eddy of commenting on someone else’s emotional commitment instead of investing in our own. Yeah, maybe a straight man forcing the player to defend his fear of the sunset’s colors will be funny. But that straight man has effectively made his partner the only person to watch in the scene. In improv as improv does best we utilize the strength of both players in tandem. If I decide that sunsets are terrifying, that’s a fun choice. Fuck you for calling me out on it – I haven’t decided why yet. Questioning a player’s commitment is especially tough when green improvisers are involved – they’re too likely to give up on their commitment when pressed. I want to support your fun choices, not undermine them.

Similarly, if the second player feels that sunsets are “beautiful” for contrast, I don’t want to see a debate of made-up facts. Show the audience the contrast through committed, individual feeling, not through negotiating dialogue. Heightening emotional perspectives enables a progression; debating reactions’ validity stagnates a scene. Remember wanting the toy your brother is enjoying: if you demand it, he’ll say “no;” if you engage something else on your own, he’ll trade you his toy for yours. More on losing to win later.

First, let’s repeat the exercise. This time we’ll endow each other.

Without a suggestion this time, two players on stage will begin to endow each other – creating active details and feeling about them.

Remember, we’re not changing the “Self” part of the Self-Contained Emotional Statement for a two person scene; we’re just relaxing the “Contained” restriction.

Player 1 – “I love that curl in the front of your hair.”
Player 2 – “I’m not a big fan of your boldness.”

Just as it avoids debate and negotiation, this exercise helps us avoid the contrived conflict caused when one player chooses to question the other player’s perspective instead of committing to their own. The audience doesn’t want to hear you say, “Oh, so you won’t like it if I come closer,” they want to see you move closer out of desire for that curl and see the other player be put off by the resultant closeness.

Explore the other player through emotional reactions.

Player 1 – “It adds the perfect asymmetrical element to your otherwise perfectly symmetrical face.”
Player 2 – “Wow, THAT is a lot of cologne. Not. A. Big. Fan.”

Don’t explain yourself; just keep doing what you’re doing. Focusing outward on the other person through our emotional lens will help keep us from the classic improviser’s self doubt problem causing us to validate our behavior through monologue, which often only serves to undermine our actions because often the story we create to explain our behavior is way more questionable than the simpler choice to commit to the emotional perspective by heightening the emotion.

Showing the audience boldly-pursued, juxtaposed emotional perspectives actively creates tension.
When the tension needs to be diverted, that’s what caps are for (more on that later) but, as the improviser’s default is to give up on commitment, this exercise forces players to commit to their emotional perspective through their trigger object beyond the point where the scared improviser pulls the ripcord.

Player 1 – “Your curl. In my mouth. It’s like God’s Ramen.”
Player 2 – “Okay, your perpetual five-o-clock stubble? My eyeballs are not big fans.”

To recap this exercise:
1. Endow the scene with active details for reactions’ sake.
2. Engage your environment through an emotional perspective.
3. Engage your two person scene partner through an emotional perspective.
4. Commit to your emotional perspective despite – and to spite – “sense.”
5. Focus outward through your emotional perspective; don’t give in to self doubt, relapsing inward and falling on exposition.

PERSONAL AND SCENIC GAME INITIATIONS

Let’s combine environmental endowments and player endowments into an exercise that will help us build Personal and Scenic Games.

Form two lines of players, one on either side of the stage. These will be blind scenes in which the player on stage right initiates by engaging the environment emotionally, though without sound, and the player on stage left, who starts the scene with her back to the stage, initiates by turning and feeling something about the player on stage right.

The player from stage right doesn’t just mime pulling baked goods from the oven, he decides to feel about what he’s doing – he’s visibly pleased while opening the oven. How he’s feeling is infinitely more interesting that what he’s doing. And associating an emotion with an active element in the scene will help facilitate subsequent reactions.

The player from stage left turns toward the stage action and has to react to her scene partner. “I adore your muffins.” “Holy crap, you’re making breakfast? You’re amazing.” “That’s a terrible color on you.” These and a limitless number of variations exist at this player’s disposal for initiations – what’s important is for this player to feel something toward an active characteristic of her scene partner.

In the first moments
of this exercise then, players have planted seeds for the patterns of Personal and Scenic Games that will sustain the scene. The player from stage right, in feeling pleased about his baking, lays the foundation for his personal game. The player from stage left, in feeling about her scene partner, establishes her half of the scenic game.

In running the exercise there’s value in simply running through these two players initiations, cutting the scene, sending each player to the end of the other line, and starting again with two new players. We are practicing making bold choices that define our characters by an emotional perspective.

In subsequent iterations of the exercise we relax the constraints on players but remain focused on how players’ initiations establish emotional perspectives that provide the basis for Personal and Scenic Games. For example, the player from stage left no longer has to feel about her scene partner but can choose to feel about any active element of the scene. With this freedom, this player can initiate with a personal game of her own to juxtapose with her scene partner’s.

The player from stage right is visibly pleased while opening an oven. The player from stage left turns toward the stage action and…bellows, “I love cooking with vegan ingredients,”…weeps, “My cake failed,”…smiles smugly, “I’m diabetic.” This player’s initiation doesn’t have to relate to her scene partner’s oven even – she just has to feel about something.

Now let’s drop the whole blind scene angle of this initiation exercise. Now the player from stage right and the player from stage left are both free to feel something about anything. They are each charged with entering and initiating – choosing whether to engage a personal game or a scenic game through an emotional perspective.

What they will not do with their new-found freedom is walk out to center stage, wait for their partner to join them and then talk out the scene. No. No. No. No.

We want bold emotional initiations the moment we enter the stage. And we are now practiced at initiating personal games so we don’t need to check in with our partner before getting started.

They will also not rely on verbal initiations because we are practiced at letting our visual emotions speak for themselves. And we have a stage full of active environmental elements that we are practiced in engaging.

So, focused on what we practiced, and avoiding the pitfalls of lameness and verbal chaos, a player will enter from stage right and a player will enter from stage left and each will choose an emotional perspective to an active scene element that will begin to define personal and scenic games. The two players on stage will initiate scenes by endowing each other and the scene environment through reactions – developing active details that trigger feelings.

With Player 1 and Player 2’s contributions there are four potential combinations that will define the initiating sequence: Personal / Scenic, Personal / Personal, Scenic / Personal, and Scenic / Scenic.

PERSONAL / SCENIC

This sequence is the result seen in the blind scenes exercise. Player 1 engages a personal emotional perspective and Player 2 engages an emotional perspective of her scene partner. Player 1 doesn’t have to engage the environment, but that’s not a bad default to rely on as improviser defaults go.

Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.”
Player 2 – “Oh, I’ve had it with your attitude, mister.”

Scene (for the exercise’s sake).

PERSONAL / PERSONAL

This sequence can contain disparate initiations

Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.”
Player 2 – (looking around in panic) “I heard it again.”

Scene.

…or complementary initiations

Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.”
Player 2 – (flipping nostalgically through a big book) “Those were innocent times.”

Scene.

…or mirrored initiations.

Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.”
Player 2 – (playing with a yo-yo sadly) “siiiigggghhh.”

Scene.

All options are valid. Agreement (complementary and mirrored) facilitates unified heightening and is a critical consideration when building group games, but disparate initiations, as long as there’s no negation or negotiation between them, can foster dynamic two person scenes as well.

Because improvisers default most often to scenic choices, it’s worth celebrating the Personal / Personal initiation sequence. Scenic choices have to be addressed with dueling emotional perspectives while personal choices can be heightened without drag. Juxtaposed, heightening, disparate initiations are unfortunately less prevalent on stage than stagnating conflict or negotiated contrast.

Remember, too, that the fun of improv as improv does best is focusing the channel carved out behind us as we remain open to the myriad possibilities before us. Remember that Self-Contained Emotional Statements best facilitate group games. In the complementary and mirrored initiation examples above, a third player could easily cement a group game scene – can you think of how? In the complementary example, Player 3 could sadly suck on his thumb while holding a blanket, then remove his thumb with a distasteful look and say, “We were stupid enough to love dumb things.” In the mirrored example, Player 3 could act like a cat batting around a ball of string and “siiiiiiiggggghhhhh.”

We don’t, of course, have to have more than two players on stage. The Personal / Personal initiating sequence is just more conducive to the potential.

SCENIC / PERSONAL

This sequence is the rarest because, when Player 1 initiates toward a scenic game, it is often Player 2’s default to react to the emotional perspective levied against her. But because it’s so rare, it can be fun for Player 2 to choose a personally grounding emotional perspective despite Player 1’s attempt to initially engage her in the scenic game.

Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life.
Player 2 – Oh, hey, my Diamond of the Month Club package arrived!

Scene.

SCENIC / SCENIC

This is the least rare initiation sequence in two person scenes. As just addressed, it is a natural default for Player 2 to react to Player 1’s initiating scenic game. And it’s too often an improviser’s default to latch on to their scene partner instead of establishing themselves personally.

Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life.
Player 2 – I’d like to see you try; I’m coated in gold, bitch.

Scene. Because it is a valid choice and the subsequent scene has potential.

But the scene’s sustained success depends on recognizing that the initiating sequence is, just as discussed in group games, the Offer, and that in every “two person scene” we have at least two Personal Games and one Scenic Game at our fingertips.

Sustained success of any “two person scene” relies on the interplay between developing patterns of emotional behavior.

Practiced in bold emotional reactions toward active scene elements we are ready to build scenes through the pattern between Personal and Scenic Games.

NEXT: Building scenes through the pattern between Personal and Scenic Games

10 thoughts on “2.1 – “Two Person Scene” Practical

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