Agreement & Conflict in Improv
It has always baffled me why so many people who come to my improvisation workshops have such a hard time grasping the concept of playing “agreement” instead of “conflict”. Part of it is, if they come from a traditional theater background, they don’t quite get how theater can be done without conflict. But a lot of people I work with have no theater background. So the answer for not grasping the concept of “just saying yes” must come from a more fundamental factor – fear. That fear is based on the misconception that improv is hard to do and you’ll look stupid when you try. Therefore, you have to work really hard to do it right. So people get in their minds that they must come up with a really clever idea and play that and somehow try to control the improv with an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) insistence that the other player get on board with their idea (which is only legitimate if the improv takes place on a boat.) Wait! Make it easy on yourself, I say. Just listen and when the other person says something, accept that and go with that and then say something back and let the moment be between the two of you instead of feeling the responsibility to make the scene work. It’s called “trust” – trust of the other person and trust in the moment to happen with out your manipulating the hell out of it. When people do that, they are surprised how easy it is, and how much less stressful improv becomes, how their fear is replaced by fun and how much better, and funnier, by the way, the results are.
I have this one student who starts every scene with an argument. She thinks that that will make something happen. She has in her head an idea that if she plays an angry wife and the guy plays a cheating husband some resolution will come out. But how often does that happen? All you have to do is the math on the marriages and divorce rates of angry wives and cheating husbands and you’ll see that set up won’t lead to any satisfying resolution in life or in improv. My student feels it’s her responsibility to carry the burden of the scene and that introducing conflict will do that.
It’s not your responsibility! Make it easy on yourself, trust the other actor to take the improv to the next level. As counterintuitive as it might sound, conflict in an improvisation will come from agreement. If the characters in a scene have an argument (and since arguments happen in real life so it should be able to happen in improv), the players must keep their “improv eyes” open for the agreement and how the conflict can resolve itself. The conflict in improv is really a search for agreement. And, as an improvisational actor, you move through the scene committed to what your character’s goal is. With that focus, all you have to do is play that objective strongly and come up with obstacles to place in the way of your goal. The comedy comes from overcoming the obstacles on the way to the goal. You don’t have to go for jokes, just go for the conclusion of the scene, playing all the bumps on “the crooked road to comedy”. Again just like real life. As you try to attain what you want, obstacles arise. That’s another thing you can trust.
When I went to do “Comedy in Rwanda” one of the things I was interested in learning about was what is universal in comedy. I learned something trying to teach the concept of “agreement” to Rwandans. In Rwanda, bartering is still an accepted practice. Not realizing this, I had them play an “agreement” game where a player would go into a customer service desk and ask for anything he or she wanted and the service/salesperson must help them by strict agreement, going with, agreeing to and “over accepting” everything the customer wanted – the “yes/and” adjustment. But in Rwanda the scene didn’t get past “I don’t want to pay too much” and the back and forth of the barter. This turned out to be the perfect metaphor to explain how to improvise using agreement. Even though they are bartering and “arguing” over the price, in the back of each person’s mind, they both know that they want to reach an agreement, so the shopper gets the item and the seller gets his money. They are arguing, but with a sense of finding the agreement at the end. Conflict in improv is like bartering. How do you get to the agreement? The Rwandans understood agreement in improv in these terms and were able to move forward.
In fact, my young Rwandan improvisers, more like “zoomed” forward than “moved” forward. But more about that later…