What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
I’m a big, “we can still be friends” guy after a break up. And when I say it, I mean it. I start dating someone for a reason, and, just because we stop smashing face, that doesn’t imply that I dislike her. It just didn’t work out.
But every time I make an honest effort to “still be friends,” inevitably, the old issues resurface. She’ll know exactly how to push my buttons – the attraction and conflict buttons. Old wounds will reopen, and I end up leaving, remembering all of the reasons we broke up in the first place.
And that seems pretty universal.
But aside from breakups, every other aspect of our lives revolves around conflict management. We’re constantly trying to put out fires, to apologize for mistakes, to keep bridges from burning. And that’s probably a good thing. If we held grudges and never moved on, we’d all end up spending a lot of time at home alone watching Netflix with our cats. And while we’re watching Netflix, we’d notice how in every movie and TV show, a serious conflict is introduced and then resolved in no more than 3 short hours.
With all of this conditioning, it’s no surprise improvisers are constantly trying to resolve conflicts in their scenes, the same conflicts we learned how to start last week.
And while the issues that arise on stage are seemingly infinite, the resolution is always the same. This scene-work standard is a move I like to call the handshake. It can come in many disguises – a hug, a nod of the head, or for the boldest, a kiss. But don’t let these Groucho Marx glasses fool you. This class of signaling devices is just a fancy way of burning all the rum to create a smoke signal, just another way to say “someone better cut this scene RIGHT NOW.”
Generally, we see “the handshake” crop up for three reasons:
- Human beings naturally want to resolve conflict. We don’t like being jerks, so when our scene partner makes a good point about the issue, we want to be nice, concede our seemingly unrealistic position, and resolve it.
- The classic Freytag dramatic structure has conditioned us to seek conflict resolution in our stories. Books, movies, and TV shows generally don’t leave conflict unresolved or open-ended.
- Improvisers run out of things to talk about or max out on heightening and cannot sustain the tension.
I knew instinctively that the handshake was a weak move, but I couldn’t succinctly express why. This past weekend, however, I had the pleasure of taking a workshop with Susan Messing, and she said something that instantly made me understand:
Drama is when someone touches the hot stove and says, “I’ll never do that again.” And they don’t. Comedy is when someone touches the hot stove and says, “I’ll never do that again…OH FUCK THAT’S HOT.”
To keep our scenes funny and/or interesting, we cannot resolve the conflict. Once we do, the scene is over. And ending our own scenes, diffusing that tension, is a weak move because:
- It’s unrealistic. If you’re arguing about a real issue – love, religion, abortion, whatever – people are generally pretty set in their ways. If you’ve ever had a political argument with a friend who has an opposing viewpoint, you know that despite any rational argument you present, both parties ultimately just agree to disagree. If improv mirrors life, then your characters can’t “agree to agree.”
- You drop the funny. The expression of real, specific conflict on stage is the gas that drives the scene forward. When you resolve the conflict, when you effectively run out of gas, what are you going to do? Sit there and make small talk until the scene is cut? Agreeing to disagree is impossible too, because then you lose the scene.
- You need it to pull from later. If the conflict of the scene is resolved, it’s more difficult to time-dash or call back characters or game because whatever you’d bring back is already over, resolved, and put away.
- You can’t always assume your teammates will edit exactly when you want them to. If people on the sides are timid, not listening, or don’t realize you’re handshaking, then you end up abandoned and looking silly.
So now that we understand why the handshake is a weak move, how can we save ourselves when we feel impending handshake-based doom?
- React honestly and emotionally. Double down on your character’s point of view and heighten.
- Confess something or return to your characters thesis statement using an I want/I think/I feel statement. It should force your partner to respond emotionally. Their emotional response will force you to have an emotional response, and then you’re off to the races again.
- Live in awkward silence. If you heighten and can’t sustain that level of intensity, then step away from the argument by giving a little win. Agree to disagree, take a moment to collect yourself, then do something to incite the argument again. Keep poking your scene partner to get back into the conflict if it wanes.
While most issues in life are resolvable, either by agreeing to disagree or by a little cooperation from both parties, there are some ties we just have to cut. On stage, treat every conflict like your last “we can still be friends” breakup. Make sure your character has the honest desire to resolve it, but inevitably, finds themselves, like me, frustrated, angry, and horny as hell.
I’m hosting an E-MPROV jam tonight. You can watch it at www.E-MPROV.com at 11:59pm EST.
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