Improvising believable relationships

Improvising believable relationships

Characters on stage go from two separate people in separate worlds to a relationship when they have emotional connection, history, feelings, status between each other, knowledge of each other, behaviour and games where they are affected by each other.  ‘Brothers’ is just a word on stage, it’s everything else that makes it a relationship.

I was lucky enough to be taught by John Cremer when I started impro (my favourite ever teacher of anything) and he used to stop scenes sometimes and say something like:

“You’ve got two people on stage, an elephant, five nuclear weapons, a radar, a big red button and a gun. What’s the most interesting thing on stage?”

The answer was always The Relationship between the two people. It’s the only actual real thing on stage, all the other stuff is made up, but we can have a real emotional connection and relationship between the two people on stage.

At the start of the workshop we went around the group and everyone talked about a positive relationship they had in their life and what made it a relationship, what were they like together, what were the factors that made it a relationship.

In this exercise I was at first surprised by the lack of depth in my own answer and some others. I was presumably talking about someone I’d known for ages but couldn’t think what to say.

Then I realised I’d blocked myself right from the start, as I was originally going to talk about Edgar (who I started Hoopla with) but blocked myself as it was ‘too much’. We went to school together from when we were 4 years old, got drunk together for the first time when we were 14, went through every break up we’ve ever experienced, sat on walls at parties talking about what life is all about, got beaten up together, argued over a lack of water on a back packing trip in Australia.

It was impossible to explain in a couple of lines, because the relationship is part of who I am and has been there for my life. The same with any major relationship in my life. There is so much depth that I found it impossible to sum up.

When we meet someone new in life (like going out with someone) the major conversation for years can be the two of you talking about the relationships we have with Mothers, Fathers, Friends etc and over time the other person builds up an image and feeling of what each relationship is like. But the other people might have built up a different image of the relationships, as relationships aren’t tangible set in stone things, they are entirely relative and depend on the perception of the viewer.

So the challenge of the workshop became could we have as much depth on stage, with an improviser we’ve just met,  as we have with real people in our lives.

Scripted actors can spend days building up the back story of their character and their relationships, borrowing bits from their own life, changing the imaginary circumstances. But as improvisers we have a split second to define a relationship, we have to be instant method actors.

Relationship Presents

Similar to the well known impro exercise of giving presents to each other, except this time you give a relationship and build on it. Play it in pairs as an exercise. One improviser gives the other a relationship as a gift (they actually mime the gift) and they then pass it between them adding details to the relationship. At this point in the exercise they are talking about the relationship, rather than being in it as such. It’s more fact based and history based than emotion based for now. For instance:

A: We’re brothers
B: We’ve been going to the same school together for 12 years
A: We’re twin brothers
B: We both like canoeing
A: You’re better at canoeing than me
B: We’re canoe rivals

Relationship Presents With Feelings

We then repeated the exercise except this time we added lines about how the offers made us feel, and how we felt about each other. For instance:

A: We’re brothers
B: We’re twin brothers
A: You’re better at canoeing at me
B: That makes me feel smug
A: That makes me hate you
B: That makes me sad, but I can’t help competing
A: I’m really competitive too, we’ve been seeing the same girl
B: We compete over everything

So now we have facts and history that we give, but also emotional connection and relationship. ‘Twin Brothers’ is a label. Behaviour and emotional connection is what gives the relationship.

Using Lines From Real Life

This came about when I realised I use of my own real life in impro shows but had never thought to actually teach that. I’ve found grabbing things from real life can suddenly make scenes matter more and give them greater depth. You’re not planning the whole scene, as the circumstances will change pretty rapidly, but it can give you an emotional drive and reality right at the start.

For instance if I find myself in a scene where I have to split up with someone, then I’ll often start by using something from a real splitting up that happened. If I have to do a scene where I meet my Grandmother, I might as well treat her at the start like my real Grandmother. It adds reality, and also adds emotional content without having to think it up. You never have to tell anyone where this stuff comes from, and after a few offers it will be far removed from the original reality anyway.

So we did some scenes where an obvious relationship name was given, and the actors then used lines from real life at the start of the scene to help generate a real relationship. We first did this in pairs as an exercise, then in scenes in front of the audience.

Scenarios included:

A teenage Grandson coming to visit his Grandfather
Husband and wife of 25 years having breakfast together
Older cousin coming to visit younger cousin

The relationships became real when they had status between each other, when the characters were affected by each other, when they had attitudes to each other, when they had history, when they had behaviour. With the behaviour particular breakthroughs came when a character behaved a certain way and the other one picked up on it as something they always did. For instance “Grandpa you’re always nitpicking about everything, how long is the water boiled for, how long am I here for, what grades did I get” and “you’re always trying to take away my power, our therapist spoke about this, making the tea is my job, don’t take away my power!”

The last scenario in this exercise was a different – British division of NASA. This doesn’t imply a relationship from our own lives, so the challenge for the actors was to still build a true relationship in an unusual situation. They came upon the relationship of boss and reluctant employee, and so were able to channel their own experiences of bosses and employees. It was awesome! We had a teenage Astronaut who didn’t want to go into space because it was hard work, and a NASA boss who didn’t want to send him but had to because they were understaffed.

Unusual Cirmcumstances

We then gave a series of scene challenges, using suggestions that are notoriously difficult to improvise in. I personally think they are difficult to improvise in because they have no implied relationship and quite often feature people who didn’t previously know each other. It’s quite hard to improvise scenes between two characters who don’t know each other and have no connection or relationship. Unfortunately these are also the kind of suggestions that audiences are likely to give, as they think they are helping the actors by keeping them safe by giving them safe places where nothing happens. These kind of common suggestions include:

Bus stop
Train station
Garden Centre
Pet Shop
Post Office (notice you don’t get bank suggested as much, because it implies bank robberies, which is exciting while Post Office implies queues and complaints)

So we now attacked each suggestion one by one but with the point of focus for each improviser on having a relationship with the other person. They weren’t strangers in the supermarket, they knew each other, they had history. I found having improvisers going on with the aim of ‘naming and building a relationship’ brought about loads of awesome stuff automatically. Suddenly everything on stage actually mattered.

For instance in the tube train scene an improviser stood on stage and grabbed hold of the overhead bar, which is a great way to start. The train stopped at a station, the doors opened, and another improviser walked on. I’ve seen tube train scenes time and time again where they would have just stood there not looking at each other, and another improviser enters, and another, someone farts and blah blah blah blah.

This time though it was awesome.

The entering improviser pushed his way through an imaginary crowd (awesome mime) and then put himself right up in the armpit of the other improviser, looked him in the eye and said ‘hello Ted’. He was then defined as Ted’s stalker. But going deeper they had a relationship, he’d been stalking him for weeks, Ted had seen him on his road this morning, stood outside his house, and they worked together. “What do you want?” “A kiss”.

At every single line of the tube train scene they were now trying to build the deepest connection and relationship they could, make things more important.

Lots of love,


Blog by Steve Roe from Hoopla.
Relationships in improv are explore in our Level 3 Scenes Course.
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