Be Dynamic: Sharpen Your Vectors

There’s more than one way to build intensity over time.

Keep Them Separated

Both scenes work in an improv context. No doubt. But I prefer the second iteration.

The second scene is more dynamic. Yes, both Bobs are altered by scene’s end and both scenes progress, but in the second scene Bob’s change is clearly delineated to establish a rhythm and to set expectations for heightening repetition with the audience.

It’s one of many improv lessons we can learn from The Clown.  Let’s learn more.

A clown engages the audience and establishes a rhythm so the audience stays engaged and follows him.

From “Improvisation in Drama” by Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow –

“…The clown includes us in his game; right from the start we are implicated in whatever he is doing.  He is doing it for us; if we laugh he may repeat the action.  If we don’t laugh, he will almost certainly repeat it, insisting it is more important, magnifying its significance until its very triviality becomes the occasion for our mirth.”

Unlike too many improvisers, the clown uses his whole body to establish and heighten his rhythm.  Think about watching a clown try to hammer in a nail.  He lines up the nail and the hammer, his attention focused on his objects withBozo the Clown intense concentration.  Then he swings.  And he hits his thumb. Does the clown just immediately react to the injury, as if the audience were watching him from an unseen perch?  No.  More than likely, that clown is going to look at the audience and give them this face —>

The beat of feeling the hammer’s impact. The dynamic change from looking at his tools to sharing his face directly with his audience. The establishment of a committed behavior he can now repeat and heighten.  These moves of the clown make him hitting his finger with a hammer funnier than a regular actor hitting his finger with a hammer while “playing it real.”

In Improv As Improv Does Best Two Person Scene Theory, we talk about keeping your Personal Game (how you react to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing) distinct from your Scenic Game (how you react to who your scene partner is, what your scene partner is doing or how your scene partner is acting)Doing so enables us to craft sustainable scenes built from characters’ interdependent patterns of emotional behavior.

Improvisers “trying to act” often struggle to separate their games. If I’m an employee in a boardroom who thinks what he’s hearing is bullshit (Scenic Game) but doesn’t want to lose his job (Personal Game), I’m most likely to allow my personal game to mute my scenic game in service of “playing it real” such that all I do is look uncomfortable but not take action in either direction.  In Improv As Improv Does Best we talk about “Playing It Raw” instead of “playing it real” so we can demonstrate and heighten those feelings and reactions.  This way, in the first 5 seconds of the scene we can hear “…synergetic solutions,” “Bullshit,” “That’s it Jackson; you’re fired,” “Oh, God, I’m an idiot; I’ve got a wife and kids,” “And I’m a softy for a family man,”…  Rather than being stuck in muted emotions that will perhaps build to one apex, a scene made more dynamic by its separation of games can feature multiple apexes.  We can play intensity right off the bat knowing that we can always jerk the scene in a different direction to keep from exhausting one idea. AND the audience quickly understands characters’ patterns of emotional behavior – when the boss again launches into corporate-speak they will anticipate the employee’s next explosion, and that engagement heightens their reaction.

Our Clown can help further enhance this dynamic.  The dynamic can be made more dynamic by committing our faces and bodies in the direction of our feelings.

Too often we keep our eyes completely focused on our scene partners. And this makes sense; our scene partner is the only other truly tangible object on stage with us. As discussed, our mime improves if we focus on “seeing” and “feeling” the environment created around us. “Looking at” and engaging with these endowments as we feel about them helps establish and emphasize our character’s rhythm making it easier for the audience to engage and anticipate the rhythm.

Here’s a warm-up exercise to help focus our focus –

RED & BLUE BALL: This is a variation of the classic warm-up with emphasis on making your eyes go where your attention is. Everyone stands in a circle. The instructor chooses Player One. Player One will turn to the player on her left and say, “Red Ball.” That player will turn to the player on his left and say, “Red Ball.” And “Red Ball” will continue thusly around the circle going clockwise. Player One will turn to her right and say, “Blue Ball.” That player will turn to the player on his right and say, “Blue Ball.” And “Blue Ball” will continue thusly around the circle going counter-clockwise. Now Player One will also have a physical ball (I use a half-red, half-blue bouncy ball, but any type of ball will work). Player One will bounce the ball to a player across the circle, saying, “Red and Blue Ball” (or whatever describes your ball). The ball is bounced to each player before returning to Player One, establishing a sequence that will be repeated the same way every time as the warm-up proceeds. Once the rules and the physical ball’s sequence are established, the group is ready to begin. The group is charged with keeping the “Red Ball,” “Blue Ball” and “Red and Blue Ball” passes going concurrently with the explicit instruction to always speak in the direction of your contribution and strive to turn one’s head to anticipate the pass given to you. The challenge is continuing to look left and right in turn and not just focusing entirely on the physical ball. Of course, handling the physical ball – not missing or dropping it – does require focus; it just can’t have all your focus and the group should work together to adjust their pacing to keep all the passes in play. As the group gets more comfortable, push them to go faster with the passes and make their heads turn more sharply with their contributions.  Note, in the strictest form of interpreting body movements, looking away is interpreted as passive while focusing on the object of your attention indicates commitment and or passion.  Let’s harness the power of commitment and focused emotion.  Help make the audience believe that you care by physically focusing on the thing you profess to feel about.

Fun warm-up? Let’s move on into other focused exercises and scenes.

Not ready to move on?  Need a palate cleanser?  Here’s The OffSpring reminding us to “Keep’em separated.”

Ready to keep going?  Here are a series of exercises building into Two Person Scene work.  They are pulled from the Character & Emotion Curriculum and elsewhere on this site.  Enjoy!

Personal Engagement: If you were all by yourself on stage, how would you feel about who you are, where you are and/or what you’re doing? Finding an emotion and an active scene element to feel that emotion in reaction to can be the continued catalyst for a successful scene.

If I say, “I love cats,” I’m just emoting.  If I say, “I love this cat,” I’m emotionally reacting.  If we make the object of our emotion active in the scene – actually tangible/ observable/ repeatable on stage – then we have something to react to instead of just talk about

What is it specifically that we’re feeling about who we are, where we are and/or what we’re doing?  What is it specifically that we’re feeling about who our scene partners are, where they are and/or what they’re doing?  If we make a decision to connect our feeling to a tangible/observable/repeatable anything on stage, we can progress the scene by heightening our feeling and that “anything.”

Suggested Exercises:

PERSONAL ENDOWMENT CIRCLE – One by one around a circle, each player engages an emotion and makes explicit what it is that is evoking that emotion. These are Self Contained Emotional Statements.


  • I love this cat
  • I hate pulling weeds
  • Des Moines, you’re impressive
  • I’m proud of my shoes
  • I’m afraid of my face
  • I’m sad I have no friends


  • Specificity breeds details – when you know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling about, then our creative minds have a clear direction to explore.
  • Active elements keep us physically active – it’s much harder to sit still when you love this cat than to sit in a chair and talk about loving cats.
  • Connecting our emotion to an active scene element can make us react through rather than think through our scenes. More of that element evokes more of our emotion and we can play Pavlovianly.
  • Don’t wait to be joined before making a choice – We don’t need anyone else. You’re never alone on stage, even if you’re the only improviser not on the wings; you have a world to explore and to react to.

Scenic Engagement: We also have our scene partner to endow and react to.  The danger is when improvisers rely only on their scene partner – as they are the only other tangible presence on stage. This is why we focus on SELF CONTAINED emotional perspectives toward activities/ environment / objects first.

You want to decide how you feel about who your scene partner is, where your scene partner is and/or what your scene partner is doing.  Finding something active about your scene partner to feel about will help facilitate a scene you can both react through instead of think through.

Suggested Exercises:

SCENIC ENDOWMENT CIRCLE – One by one around a circle, each player turns to the player to their left, engages an emotion and makes explicit what it is about the player to their left’s character that is evoking that emotion.


  • I love your hat
  • I hate how smug you are
  • You dead-lifted 200 pounds?
  • I’m proud you’re my son
  • I’m afraid of your soul
  • I desire your friendship


  • Give gifts – it’s much more fun to be endowed with information (“Ugh, you got fat”) than to be burdened with requests for information (“What are you doing?”).
  • Want something? Feel the absence – to avoid head-butting, don’t “demand,” focus on “desire.”  You can want something from your scene partner, but you don’t want to become hog-tied fighting for what you want.  How does not having what you want right now make you feel?
  • Give the gift of freedom – if you tell me, “I hate how smug you are,” I don’t have to directly respond to your feeling; I can focus on what I’m smug about (“I’m a golden god”) or I can do anything I want (“I’m tired of this wallpaper”). You don’t want your scene partner to feel constrained to address or discuss your feeling (which is more likely the case with “Stop being smug,” “Why are you so smug?” or “Let’s talk about your smugness.”)
  • Give the gift of dynamite – If you say, “Your tap dancing makes me so horny,” you better believe I’m going to tap dance.

Two Person Scenes Heightening Emotion:   Establish an emotional perspective, heighten the emotional perspective through reaction to active details, and edit – That’s scene. 

We want to avoid negotiation, conflict and the tepid, talked-out “discovery” that stagnates scenes’ growth.

The KEY LESSON is for each improviser to choose BOTH how they feel A) about what they have personally going on and B) what their scene partner has going on.

Suggested Exercises:

ENDOW AND HEIGHTEN LAY-UPS –  Player One initiates from stage left.  Player Two initiates from stage right.  They can start with anything. But they should strive to establish at least two emotional perspectives apiece: A Personal Emotional Perspective toward who they are, where they are and what they’re doing on stage that doesn’t involve the scene partner. And a Scenic Emotional Perspective toward what their scene partner is doing and what defines their character.

Given more lines,…

Players invest in what they initiate with more detail and/or emotional reaction.  “If this is true, what else is true?”  I love this cat and I LOVE this tiger. I abhor my scene partner’s fashion sense; I really hate the plaid of his bowtie against his lime green frilly shirt.

Players who found their Personal Perspective should ensure they have a Scenic Perspective.  Players who found their Scenic Perspective should ensure they have a Personal Perspective.

Your Instructor eyes should be focused on identifying the rhythm between perspectives; there is no right or wrong rhythm, but how cleanly students find their rhythm may dictate how comfortable they feel in their scenes.  Did they each invest in one perspective before deciding on their other perspective?  Did they quickly decide both perspectives and then oscillate between them?

After a few lines back and forth, teacher calls “Scene” and two new players start the exercise.


Do a run where every player gets through the exercise at least once, then point out scenes where initiations were “Personal / Personal,” “Scenic / Scenic,” “Personal / Scenic,” and “Scenic / Personal.”  Identify strengths and struggles within each.  The following provides Instructors potential notes on the variations.

  • Personal / Personal – Player One engages a personal emotional perspective and Player Two engages a personal emotional perspective. The advantage is that, with each player grounding in “something for his/herself” the scene immediately has more “stuff” to play with.
    • Agreement…is awesome. “I feel this way.” “So do I.” There’s magic in two players agreeing to bold choices when they can’t know where it’s heading.  Don’t know what to say? Agreement is always a great choice.
      • Player 1 – (basking in the hot sun) “I love this beach.”
        Player 2 – (basking in the hot sun) “Awesome effing beach.”
    • Disparate initiations…are like the Seinfeld opening where George is into one thing and Jerry another; it’s fun to watch them selfishly engage their own thing before finally acknowledging the other’s thing
      • Player 1 – (basking in the hot sun) “I love this beach.”
        Player 2 – (holding his stomach) “Ugh, I regret eating that hot dog.”
    • Complementary initiations…agreeing with some facts of the initiation but, for example, bringing a different emotional perspective to the same object or bringing the same emotional perspective to a different object.
      • Player 1 – (basking in the hot sun) “I love this beach.”
        Player 2 – (modeling a swimsuit) “I look hot in this bikini.”
    • Heightening initiations…like a more intense version of agreement; To heighten your character, I’m going to choose to be you
      • Player 1 – (basking in the hot sun) “I love this beach.”
        Player 2 – (making sand angels) “Yeeeaaahhhh, beach!”
    • Scenic / Scenic – Player One engages an active aspect of Player Two with an emotional perspective and Player Two engages an active aspect of Player One with an emotional perspective. This opening is often very dynamic, as characters engage with and react to each other; the dangers are the opportunity for players to be too wary of other’s choices to keep from making choices of their own, and/or players negating each other’s realities as emotional perspectives hone in on conflict.
      • Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life.
        Player 2 – I laugh at your weakness.
    • Personal / Scenic – Player One engages a personal emotional perspective and Player 2 engages an active aspect of Player One with an emotional perspective. This opening is good in that it shows a Player One who is willing and able to make a choice for his/herself without another player on stage; the danger is that Player Two, in immediately engaging in Player One, will never establish something Personal for him/herself.
    • Player One – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.”
      Player Two – “Oh, I’ve had it with your attitude, mister.”
    • Scenic / Personal – Player One engages an active aspect of Player Two with an emotional perspective and Player Two engages a personal emotional perspective. This is the rarest, as typically if a player initiates with an endowment of the entering improviser, the entering improviser feels some pressure to reach to that endowment. But Player Two can exhibit real savvy in establishing him/herself with something personal even when Player One’s initiation narrows the scope of the scene.
    • Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life.
      Player 2 – Oh, hey, my Diamond of the Month Club package arrived!


  • Don’t give up your thing – heightening our individual choices together is all we need to move the scene forward. Trying to “figure out” how our things mesh, fighting each other’s thing or dropping our thing in favor of our partner’s thing robs scenes of their potential.
  • Strive to define both a Personal and a Scenic Perspective – If you’ve only been engaging your scene partner, engage the environment. If you haven’t figured out how you feel about your scene partner, have an emotional reaction – any emotional reaction – to what they say or do.
  • Commitment avoids justification – explaining why two people are on stage often saps the energy from a scene. When two players commit to simply heightening their choices, no one will question the juxtaposition of even the most mismatched initiations.
  • Reactionary statements avoid negotiation – when we’re not comfortable with and/or don’t understand what’s happening on stage, we revert to asking questions that often bog down scenes. Simply making choices moves us forward and making emotional choices helps statements stand without defense (“What do you mean, I’m a pig?” versus “Oh, I’m a pig.  You’re a dirty whore.”)
  • Heightening avoids conflict – “I want to kill you”/ “I want to kiss you.” If these are the initiations, we don’t want to debate or argue – heighten the feelings.  You don’t have to address the disparity between feelings right away if ever.  Heighten conflict/tension by heightening your part of it.  Addressing/discussing conflict/tension takes the dynamite out of the scene.
  • Make Scenic/Personal Initiations less rare – it can be fun for Player Two to choose a personally grounding emotional perspective despite Player One′s attempt to initially engage her in his thing.

TWO PERSON SCENES –  Player One initiates from stage left.  Player Two initiates from stage right.  Players heighten what they initiate.  Have players decide BOTH how they feel about “I” and “You” – engaging an active endowment about themselves AND about their scene partner. The rest of the class sits in the audience.


  • Bored? React! – don’t know what to do in a scene? Have an emotional reaction to an active element.
  • Lost? Repeat! – I scream. Why?  I don’t know.  So I keep screaming, heightening the emotion of the scream.  Don’t stop what you’re doing to make “sense” of it; Find “sense” through continuing doing what you’re doing.
  • Be affected – There’s power in reacting in-the-moment to another player’s perspective/actions/choices. When we don’t react to a fellow player’s move that deserves a reaction we risk pulling the rug out from under the scene.        
  • Feel first, understand second (if ever) – don’t wait to “understand your motivation” before making a choice about how to feel
  • Never trapped by your choice – while players should be encouraged to push their heightening before changing course onto a new thing, players should never feel trapped by the things. “I love my teddy bear.”  I heighten why I love my teddy bear (“He doesn’t judge”) but I don’t have to react only to teddy.  “I really love my fluffy duck.”/ “He doesn’t give a shit.”
  • You can not want to do something; do it anyway. Player One turns to join Player Two’s “We gotta clean this house” initiation with an “Ugh. Cleaning up sucks.” Fine. But Player One better still engage in cleaning up the house. What’s funnier? Watching two players argue or watching Player One submit to cleaning up while physically feeling the “suck” of every moment?
  • Forget screenwriting; be a producer. “When I sneeze, garlic comes out!” Clever. “Achoo! Ahh! Garlic!” Better – shown not told.
  • The best tool in avoiding conflict? Losing.  Losing is such a powerful skill.  One, it allows players to disengage from talking-head arguments.  Two, the losing player wins in the audience’s eyes – don’t ever underestimate the endearing quality of a player who is willing to be affected.
  • Attract, Don’t Fight.  Will your scene partner not agree to your awesome idea?  Don’t fight him on it.  Show him why what you want is superior.  This not only disengages argument but it also engages active scene elements. (You want your older brother to build a sandcastle with you.  He doesn’t want to.  Have so much fun building a sand castle on your own that he has to come engage with what you want.) (You want your life partner to come to home.  She doesn’t want to.  That’s okay.  You’re having so much fun at home that you don’t need her.  She’ll come home.)
  • More than one character can be dynamic – “Build a sand castle with me”/ “Let me read my book”/ “Okay, I’ll have fun building a sand castle alone”/ “Great. I’ll enjoy engaging this book solo”/ “Let me read a line” / “Let me build a spire”/ “Come back and build with me”/ “How could you leave this book? It’s awesome.”  That’s fun.

3 thoughts on “Be Dynamic: Sharpen Your Vectors

  1. This is a great article for all improvisers to study and learn from. Thank you for this brilliant resource bank, useful to both students and teachers of this wonderful art!

  2. Pingback: Keep It Simple: Feel & React | Improv As Improv Does Best

  3. Pingback: Red Ball concentration exercise | Improv As Improv Does Best

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