I just got asked on email about exercises that help coach relationships in improv, so I thought I’d share some of my favourites.
Many thanks to Mark Beltzman and Andrew Gentilli for introducing me to lots of these, and to Conor for inspiring the blog.
That makes me feel
Play a scene where each player starts each line by saying “that makes me feel…” followed by naming the feeling. It’s hard at first to name a feeling straight away, but it gets easier with practice. If you don’t have words just use sounds, which happens in real life sometimes anyway. For instance “that makes me feel rrrrahhhhh!!”
You look you seem
Scenes where you say “I feel…”, “you are being….”, “that makes me feel….”, “you look ….”, “you seem….” as much as possible and then make those emotional calls.
Talk to each other about each other
Scenes where the director asks the players to “talk to each other about each other” and gently side coaches to bring them back to that whenever they drift away. For instance:
Player 1: Dad lovely to see you again.
Player 2: Thanks Timothy, you too, it’s nice to be out of prison.
Player 1: I can imagine, that’s why I took you to this football match, take your mind off things and all that.
Player 2: Thanks Timothy, oh look hot dogs.
Player 1: Oh yes, hot dogs! Shall we get a hot dog?
Player 2: Yes please with mustard and ketchup and onions.
DIRECTOR: Talk to each other about each other.
Player 2: You really look after me Timothy.
Player 1: Thanks Dad, well you looked after me when I was small.
Plater 2: Well I had too, I’m your Dad! But you’ve gone above and beyond.
Player 1: Foul! Oi ref!
Player 2: Ref you bastard are you blind?
Player 1: Let’s invade the pitch!
Player 2: The referee’s a wanker!!!
DIRECTOR: Talk to each other about each other
Player 1: You’ve always hated authority figures haven’t you dad?
So in that scene the players were talking to each other about each other, but when the hot dogs popped up they accidentally got distracted and ‘yes-anded’ a hot dog instead of the relationship. Same again with the football foul they saw on pitch. So the director who is outside this can help out by getting them back into it.
It feels quite vulnerable talking to each other about each other on stage, so sometimes without realising we create distractions to avoid these moments, but actually the relationship is the fun stuff to go into.
I think this was invented by Roy at The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas. I love this exercise.
Two improvisers play a scene as above, trying to talk to each other about each other. Another improviser represents an “emotional focus ball” that floats between them. If they are talking to each other about each other, the relationship, then the emotional ball stays between them and near them or on them. If they start distracting away from the present relationship the emotional focus ball flies away to represent that, and they have to win it back.
It’s basically a physical version of the director’s side coaching in the game above.
Name the relationship
Another exercise is mini-scenes where you have to establish relationships within five lines. At first this can feel forced but eventually with practice it gets easier and more natural.
Just saying it is fine, even if it feels a bit crow-barred in, because then you’re in the scene. For instance starting with “Dad, I need to borrow the car for a job interview” is fine.
Mark Beltzman used to say that naming the relationship is just the first quick game you do at the top of the scene, and then you are free to play another game by talking to each other about each other.
When it comes to naming the relationship it can come from a natural place. Look at your scene partner, before the scene even starts, they are already giving you emotional and physical offers before the scene even starts. Connect to how you are actually feeling, and then blame the other character and the scene for those emotions – you feel like this because of them, your emotions are a valid part of the scene. What does this little moment at the start of the scene, even before the scene, make you feel like? What relationship does it remind you of? Who do you feel like? Who do they feel like to you? Those little whiffs of inspiration you get dancing around inside, turn the volume up on them and saying them out loud and proud as offers.
What’s special about this relationship?
Someone said once that as they’d just done a scene with a husband and wife wouldn’t another one just be the same scene? No it wouldn’t, because each scene we’re exploring what’s special about that specific and unique relationship.
Husband/Wife, Mother/Daughter, Father/Son, Friend/Friend etc are all the initial labels of the relationship, that we can put in at the start of the scene. But by talking to each other about each other we can explore what is unique and special about that particular relationship in the present moment.
Maybe it’s a Father that wants to hang round with his Son’s friends as one of his equals. Maybe it’s a Father that hates his Son and wants to banish him to a far away land. Maybe it’s a Father that loves his Son and wants the best for him. Each one is a totally different relationship and story.
So don’t let the label of the relationship limit you. There’s no end of depth you can go into with any relationship and any role you get given in improv.
The story of Romeo & Juliet isn’t “there was a bloke called Romeo, a girl called Juliet, they fancied each other, here’s lots of other stuff now”. The relationship is the story in many ways.
Step on stage to build a relationship
I’ve actually found it unhelpful to say to improvisers “do a scene”. It’s not actually an activity they can do, to do a scene. It’s a bit like saying to a racing car driver “do a car” instead of “drive”.
The scene is what happens around us, it’s bigger than us, so you can’t “do a scene”.
Instead I’ve found it helpful to get improvisers to replace the words “do a scene” with “step on stage to build a relationship”.
Meisnuer Technique training is awesome for playing relationships in improv. It’s a bit out of scope of this blog to go into detail about what that actually this, but have a look into it.
Agreement and Relationship instead of Conflict
This is a classic IO exercise. Actors are put in situations that would usually breed nothing but conflict, but instead they have to find agreement and relationship. It’s very good at helping people really listen to each line and realise how much is there for them to bond over and find the love!
Hope that helps,