2.2 – More “Two Person Scene” Practical

How do we build our two person scenes after the initiating sequences? Practice.

Let’s review the components of strong two person scene initiations:

1. From the moment you enter the stage, actively engage either your environment or your scene partner with an emotional perspective dialed up to 11.

That is all.

With that, or those, emotional perspective(s) established, we seek to build sustainable scenes through heightening the pattern of the games at play and establishing and heightening the pattern between the games at play.


Two players up. When I say, “Go,” each player will choose an emotional perspective toward an active scene element, thereby establishing an initiating sequence.

Remember there are four options for initiating sequences: Personal / Scenic, Personal / Personal, Scenic / Personal, and Scenic / Scenic.

Remember that whichever form this Offer sequence takes, that we have at least two Personal Games and one Scenic Game at our fingertips in every “two person scene.”

Remember that we can engage our initiating emotional perspectives dialed up to 11 because we have other Personal Games and Scenic Games at our fingertips to switch our focus to if our current trajectory is unsustainable.


from a Personal / Scenic initiating sequence.

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.”

Player 1 has a choice; he can continue to invest in his personal game

Player 1 – “There’s no cat and no cradle.”

… or he can engage the scenic game initiated by Player 2.

Player 1 – Go fuck yourself.

Both are valid choices. For the sake of illustrating initiating emotions dialed up to 11, let’s follow the latter.

The scene is currently engaged in the Scenic Game
. Where do they go from here? They heighten the game at play. In doing so they remember the exercise of endowing their scene partner through their emotional perspective.

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.
Player 1 – Go fuck yourself.
Player 2 – Fuck myself? No. Not this time. I’ve had it with your self-righteousness.
Player 1 – Stop being a little prick and go fuck yourself.
Player 2 – Little prick? No. Not this girl. This girl’s going to cock some sense into you – big cock some sense into your myopic, selfish world.

Tense, huh? I’m illustrating a point with aggressively conflicting emotional perspectives. Where do they go from here? The scene is tense (especially for the audience) and the players are no doubt center stage up in each other’s face. Where do they go from here? They can continue to escalate the conflict hoping they’ll find an edit before they punch each other…

or they can remember that there are other games at their fingertips that will allow them to disengage from this tense scenic game. What’s required is a cap for this scenic game that was triggered by Player 1’s “attitude” and Player 2’s aggression.

Player 1 – I’m sorry.

You want the audience to root for you? Make your character lose
. What would have happened if Rocky beat Apollo Creed in the first movie? Not a sequel.

Unmitigated tension is a bomb that players have to hope goes off in conjunction with an edit. Managed – not “mitigated” – tension is a time bomb that players can manipulate to demand an edit. In the parlance of Chapter 2.0, we’re talking about y = x versus the sine curve.

Choosing to lose also allows you to win the audience. We don’t like watching players give-up, but we love rooting for affected characters. “Losing” makes you sympathetic.

Either player could choose to lose
. In this case, Player 1 – with “I’m sorry” – decided to lose in the face of Player 2’s aggressive pursuit of the scenic game that pitted the two players at odds. Player 2 could have just as easily diverted the tension by investing in a personal game – “Ah, man; I spilled my drink.”

Where can their current trajectory lead? Player 1 does have a personal game already in play.

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.
Player 1 – Go fuck yourself.
Player 2 – Fuck myself? No. Not this time. I’ve had it with your self-righteousness.
Player 1 – Stop being a little prick and go fuck yourself.
Player 2 – Little prick? No. Not this girl. This girl’s going to cock some sense into you – big cock some sense into your myopic, selfish world.
Player 1 – I’m sorry.
Player 2 – You’re sorry? No. Not this-
Player 1 – I just… (refocuses forlornly on the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) ssiigghh. I just get overwhelmed when I think of how simple life used to be.
Player 2 – You get overwhelmed when you think of how simple life used to be
Player 1 – (cutting Player 2 off again) Yeah. It used to be I could make Cat’s Cradle all day without worrying about what I was actually contributing to society.

Deep, huh? Again, I’m illustrating a point. Player 1, choosing to defuse the scenic game, focuses back on his personal game which, at the time of initiation, was simply the Cat’s Cradle connected to a sigh. But now, given Player 2’s endowments, Player 1 reacts to the Cat’s Cradle through the lens of being forlornly “selfish.”

Player 2 has attempted to remain focused on her half of the scenic game, choosing to heighten the pattern of her frustration toward Player 1. But now it’s her turn to lose. Player 2 here has to remember that she, too, has the potential for a personal game at her fingertips. How would she react to the environment of the scene if Player 1 wasn’t on stage?

Player 2 – (takes a deep breath and engages the environment, picking up an object she has yet to define in her mind) I look at this – at all these toys in your childhood bedroom – and I… (gets verklempt)…just realize how important it is for a child to be loved.

Now that Player 2 is focused on her personal game, Player 1 can continue to heighten his.

Player 1 – Being a child was great. Oh, how I miss it. This Play-Doh Factory…you could make one thing then mash it up and make something else.
Player 2 – Your dad slaved away to buy you this Fisher Price cash register so you could practice being good with money in a safe place.
Player 1 – This Lite-Bright? siiiigggghhh. Everything I made came alive but nothing was ever permanent.
Player 2 – Jesus Christ, this attitude of yours! You and I are having a baby!
Player 1 – Go fuck yourself. Again.
Player 2 – I fucked myself with your frozen sperm, but it was your frozen sperm! You and I are having a baby!

Sine curve. A more-dramatic-than-comedic sine curve to be sure, but, again, it’s to illustrate a point. The funny in this scene played out on stage comes from the bold reactions, the details and the patterns of emotional behavior. A scene where a couple negotiates whether or not to have a baby is drama, but the zig-zag of emotional behavior through bold reactions is comedy (See: Clowning).

The audience didn’t “know” who these players were to each other right off the bat, nor what the “scene was about.” I didn’t know either of those two things when I started writing this scene; I just followed the patterns of emotional behavior and the scene wrote itself. It’s always better in a scene to discover that you have a gun in your pocket than to force your fingers into a gun’s shape because you’re trying to get a reaction from the audience.

This scene was engaging right off the bat because the players made bold emotional choices without knowledge of “why.” They trusted those emotional choices enough to heighten them and follow their patterns. And choosing to cap the initial scenic game’s progression by returning to and focusing on individual personal games allows the tension of the established scenic game to heighten even while it is not directly addressed. Diverting attention to personal games also allows the players to discover “what the scene is about” instead of having to either force an explanation because unmitigated focus on the scenic game requires them to retreat to exposition or follow the initial y = x trajectory to the fight-or-fuck moment and hope for an edit.

This scene as played out doesn’t have to end here. It can, but, since the players are now comfortable with their personal and scenic games, they aren’t playing in desperation for an edit. If the latest outbreak of the scenic game is allowed to continue, Player 1 need only say a variation of “I’m sorry” again once then tension reaches its second sine curve apex. Then there’s a whole room of toys on which Players 1 and 2 can refocus their personal games.

Focusing on building the pattern between Personal and Scenic Games in a two person scene allows players to engage any individual game dialed up to 11 without forcing focus onto exposition. “Why” did Player 1 react the way he did? Because he set up a pattern of behavior wherein he always reacts that way. “Why” did he acquiesce in escalating that behavior? Because he’d reached the point when he always acquiesces.

This pattern between patterns allows the improviser to discover his character’s “why,” but the committed pattern alone is all the “why” the audience needs to get on board and take the ride.

So. Rather than focus on on-stage script writing, in pursuit of improv as improv does best, an improviser focuses on defining the Triggers and Caps of his patterns of emotional behavior.


There’s an esoteric exercise I like to use as a warm-up to explain Triggers and Caps that I call My Three Rules, but, in the spirit of the “practical,” this post will continue its exploration of the concepts through two person scene work.

A Trigger is the active scene element that instigates a player’s emotional behavior. A Cap is the active scene element that tempers a player’s emotional behavior. Walking backwards, both triggers and caps can be defined in retrospect.

Defining triggers and caps along our trajectory can help lead us Pavlovian-ly through sustainable, exciting scenes. We’re navigating a kayak through rocky rapids while facing up river; triggers and caps let us play confidently amidst the chaos.

One Trigger is the active scene element that you initiate toward.
It makes you feel something. Maybe in that initiating moment you made yourself feel something about that element, but now, and moving forward, you’ve given that element that emotional power over you. More of it will make you feel more of your something.

Be specific and focus your trigger to a point so you’ll jump when pricked with it. Player 1 walks out, feeling the rain around him with opened palms and a grouchy face, and says, “I hate the rain.” Evolving, he would do well to focus on what it is specifically that makes him feel, and specifically the effect. Player 1 says, “I hate the ping of raindrops on my skin” while reacting with sharp pains to each individual rain drop that hits him. That’s empowering an element.

Player 1 initiates a scenic game – choking back tears – saying, “I’m really proud of you, man.” Players 1 and 2 would do well to define specificity around the trigger. Player 1 could focus on endowing his scene partner – embracing even the obvious – while heightening his affected emotional behavior. Gasping, “You’re standing!” Retching, “You have feet!” Gushing sobs, “The world exists!”

If you’re lost in a scene go back and visit where you were more confidently. What was your emotional perspective and the active element in your initiation? Give more power to that cause-and-effect reaction and let that pattern you’re establishing lead you to success.

In reacting to “I’m really proud of you, man,” Player 2 could choose to help focus her partner’s trigger, coyly responding, “You liiiikke my baaaadge”. Now Player 2 is in control of a dynamically active element – a great gift in a scene. She can play up the specific elements of the badge – “De-tect-tive.” She can heighten through expanding around the badge – “You like my blaze orange sash?” while sashaying. Now, whenever Player 2 plays her half of the scenic game, Player 1 HAS to heighten his emotional behavior. The scene has a rule that triggers fun for all, players and audience.

A Cap puts a top on the game. One Cap is the moment that earns your scene an edit – game topped and ended. But if your first Cap is also your last then you know you played an y = x or Ax + By + C = 0 scene.

Another Cap is our Reset button from group games. We’ve reached the end of this pattern. Now replicate it.

A Cap can also put a top on a game to save it away for later. Knowing that you can deploy a cap without it requiring an edit should help give you confidence to aggressively heighten the emotional behavior instigated by its trigger. In the scene where Player 1 is proud to the point of sobs over the fact that his partner and the world still exist, the height of that game will be hard to sustain – he can only gnash his teeth, bellowing maniacally, “Existence exists!” for so long. But what if Player 2 chooses to suddenly hiss, “Shush. You’ll wake the other Morlocks”? Player 1 could continue the triggered game into this new context, getting some new life out of the new details – “Praise the lord, the Morlocks are alive” – but he’s running an old game on borrowed steam. Better to put the heightened game away for a while, and Player 2 just provided a perfect opportunity for Player 1 to be affected off an unsustainable path – in hearing about the Morlocks, Player 1 changes from estatic to scared into a statue. A bold choice from Player 2 is endowed with the power to change Player 1’s emotional behavior, and a fun game is put away while it is still wet.

Caps, like Triggers, can be defined and refined in retrospect. Player 1 doesn’t have to wait for Player 2 or any bold new element to choose to cap his current emotional behavior. If Player 1 feels too dependent on – and/or too aggressive toward – Player 2, he can can always just choose to feel something personal. The Player 1 that’s drooling pride over Player 2’s badge could suddenly stop and say, “I’m late” – to say it, he doesn’t need to know what he’s late for, he just has to feel being late. Remember, you have at least two personal and a scenic games at your fingertips in a two person scene – think about having a few additional initiations at your service. Feel like you should feel differently? Feel differently. I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m depressed. Why the change? Pick an active element. Because you just said “blueberry,” that’s why. Because I only just now noticed this painting’s of a matador. But don’t wait for “why” when you need a Cap.

Triggers and Caps shape the oscillation and flourish in our trajectory, connecting and embellishing the curves of our patterns of emotional behavior. The timing and progression of activating Triggers and Caps define the slope, height and depth – and beauty – of our progress through scenes.


By activating Triggers and Caps, we establish the overall game of the scene as the pattern between individual games in the scene.

Player 1’s Personal Game is laughing at the comics in his newspaper, then referencing how the jokes are particularly funny given his specific circumstances.
Player 2’s Personal Game is searching frantically for his cell phone, freaking over the fact that he’s running late but will need his phone to find his destination.
The Scenic Game is Player 2’s vehement belief that only idiots fail to keep up with technology and Player 1’s demand that he be respected in his own house.

From these games, the overall pattern of the scene can be crafted in myriad ways. But let’s remember, Offer, Set and Cement – with each move we seek to focus our path.

The first two Triggers are the focus of our initiations – an emotional reaction to an active element. They are the Offer; they are anything. “Ho, ho. That’s my Marmaduke.” “Futher mocker, I have to find my phone.” And now we have a Personal / Personal initiation sequence.

How long do we focus on heightening these two games through their triggers? As long as you feel like.

But, there are advantages to capping a game right away, especially when capping one game means triggering another.

Player 1 – Ho, ho. That’s my Marmaduke.
Player 2 – Futher mocker, I have to find my phone.
Player 1 – I had this dog once – big girl by the name of Tiny – she usedta hop up on my lap, too. (mimes playfully being crushed)
Player 2 – Print is dead, dummy.

Demanding a different reaction from your scene partner with a different reaction yourself is a strong sign of a Cap.

Advantages to quickly stuffing a strong game trajectory back in your pocket? It builds tension, especially when two successes happen: The strong game had sharp triggers that the audience can recall. And the next curve of the trajectory is even more fun to be a part of. If I initiate with “Kiss me,” and you kiss me, we’ve triggered dynamite. And we’ve avoided waffling through a negotiation. Sure, we could keep kissing. But if we break away after the first passionate kiss? Then, while we might be licking the wick of that particular piece of dynamite, the audience knows that this game’s wick still smolders, and now we’ve also lit up another stick.

Player 1 – Ho, ho. That’s my Marmaduke.
Player 2 – Futher mocker, I have to find my phone.
Player 1 – I had this dog once – big girl by the name of Tiny – she usedta hop up on my lap, too. (mimes playfully being crushed)
Player 2 – Print is dead, dummy.
Player 1 – You will respect me in this house!
Player 2 – Fiiiiine. (beat) Fittie tucking, where’s my phocking fune!
Player 1 – Ho, ho, Mister Bumstead, you’ve spoken to me again.

A lot of Triggers and Caps tucked into a tight pattern.

But it doesn’t have to look like that. We are playing “two person scenes” after all. Enjoy your pauses. Your explorations. Your Details. Your perspectives. Any single game in the scene above could have been exposed more before being capped. We can follow demanded tangents – like the fact that old technology was harder to lose.

The key is remembering that you can set up a pattern of patterns so no one game ever has to be beaten up and dried out. And feel the freedom of being able to start scenes dialed up to 11 knowing that you have the keys to keeping the scene sustainable and progressing.


Player 1 – You’re my exact double!
Player 2 – We look identical!
Player 1 – You have my haircut.
Player 2 – You’re wearing my same shirt.
Player 1 – You’re wearing my same smile.
Player 2 – I’m a realtor!
Player 1 – I’m Sagittarius!
Player 2 – I’m Chris!
Players 1 & 2 in unison – Me, too!

They have engaged the fun, headlong trajectory of a Scenic Game. Now, take a breath. Break away. Change gears.

Player 1 – (drawn away by his nose) I smell hotdogs.
Player 2 – (drawn away by her ears) Ice Cream Man’s coming.

Get lost in there a while. Inhale. Listen. Rev it. You’ll find your way back to the mirror. Or maybe you’ll find your way into an expansion where each player has a conversation with a separate tertiary player on either side of the stage while heightening their related games.

Circle back if you feel it. Spiral out if you feel that. Cut reflecting trajectories in separate fields of play if that’s where your feelings lead you.

Trace your game moves, activate Triggers and Caps, and follow your feelings. Build the scene’s pattern of patterns while walking backwards, focusing the flow your emotional behaviors direct you in.


In the Rule of 3s, the 2nd iteration is typically the least impactful. Don’t lose faith in the pattern. Commit and the audience will follow. If you’re worried about what’s happening, the audience will worry with you. Do it again – whatever it is – and they’ll be convinced you meant it the first time.

Don’t self-consciously revert to an inward focus because you think you need to fix a scene.

Look,” “Listen,” and “I mean,” are red flags that an improviser is abandoning active reactions in favor of defensive justifications. Here’s an example from real life:

Player 1 starts the scene drenched in drunken frustration. Player 2 engages the scene with weathered tolerance, dutifully clearing and cleaning mimed bar tables. Player 1 grabs a shirt and attempts to clumsily force it on. Player 2 screams, “Damnit, Frank, those shirts are for people who finish a Four-Floor Burger under four minutes!” Player 1 relents and self deprecates. Player 2 softens, acknowledging that Frank may be stupid but he’s loyal. After rebuilding his drunken frustration, Player 1 grabs a pair of pants and attempts to kick them on. Player 2 screams, “Frank! Those are Shot-tober Bar Crawl participant pants!” Player 3 walks on as the bar manager, “Is there a problem here?” Player 2 softens and assures Player 3 back off to the wings.

So far, so awesome. I can see that Player 1 is now an excited improviser; he knows what direction to heighten in and what path to follow. I can also see that Player 2 has crept back into her head; she’s thinking, “wait, what’s going on here? I have to explain.”

So when Player 1 reaches out, picks up a heavy object and places it on his shoulder, Player 2 doesn’t even notice from inside her head. She turns to him and says, “Listen, I know you don’t have anyone to be with and that it’s Christmas…” She keeps on talking. Player 1 listens, standing with his hand propping up the shouldered object Player 2 still hasn’t seen. Soon all activity is gone and both players stand facing each other in the center of the stage.

Now, Player 2’s tangent into exposition didn’t have to be a “problem.” After diverting the audience’s attention with her monologue she could have snapped back to the active moment screaming, “Now put down that Pint Proletariat Parrot!” But she didn’t. Why? Because she was in her head instead of following the scene’s patterns.

There are no mistakes on an improv stage. But there are missed opportunities. Don’t miss opportunities because you’re in your head instead of focused outward, leading by following.

Getting good at pattern work demands a dedication to developing pattern-recognition skills through practice and critical analysis. Getting good at improv as improv does best requires – as does anything we want to get good at – an enthusiastic engagement in the process and a confident vulnerability allowing us to try, fail and try again.

NEXT: Being Tertiary

8 thoughts on “2.2 – More “Two Person Scene” Practical

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