What We Talk About When We Talk About Relationships

I’ve heard a lot of improv teachers say, “Make your scene about the relationship.”

This is sound, undeniably helpful advice. But it’s incomplete and confusing. I’ve seen other students nod when their improv coach tells them to focus on the relationship, but I suspect they don’t know what they’re nodding at. After all, what the hell are you supposed to say and do to make a scene about relationship? (Four italics in one sentence? You best your ass I did.)

I’d argue that the quickest and most compelling way to make a scene about a relationship is by creating and/or talking about plot.

This would baffle some of my former teachers. Plot, they’d say, is dangerous and distracting.

Now please understand, when I type “plot” I don’t mean a constant barrage of shit happening. It’s not about moving incessantly around the stage, shooting people with imaginary guns or outrunning the cops in an imaginary car. But it is about doing stuff, or talking about stuff you did or will do. (And in another post I’ll tackle that improv canard, that talking about the past or future is a no-no.)

Consider The Princess Bride.

That movie has at least three fantastic, funny, compelling relationships. What makes the relationships so fantastic isn’t watching the characters stand around talking about their feelings; it’s watching the characters do stuff that illustrates how they feel. 

In other words: Show, don’t tell.

Now, if you’re a naturally funny person, you can get away with doing that scene we’ve seen way too many times: two people, standing about three feet apart in the middle of the stage, riffing cleverly on some topic. But (a) most of you aren’t naturally funny all the time, and (b) we’ll still get bored after a few minutes. Don Rickles can do 25 minutes without growing stale; you probably cannot.

Nope, instead, you need to do stuff. So does your scene partner. You need to talk about stuff you did (and maybe pop out of the scene to see it). You need to talk, in detail, about what you plan to do in the future (and maybe pop out of the scene to see it). Shit needs to happen.

Back to The Princess Bride

We know that Princess Buttercup and Wesley are soul mates. We know that Wesley spent most of his adult life searching for her. And we know that she has longed for him ever since. We know they go to extraordinary lengths to end up together.

How do we know all of this? Because they talk about their pasts (as does the narrator) and because they do all sorts of wacky things: escaping the Prince’s search party, battling those weird mole creatures, storming the castle, fighting off Montoya and Andre the Giant, defeating Wallace Shawn in a battle of wits, and even coming back to life. (“He’s only mostly dead!”)

Plot. That’s a lot of plot.

And all of that plot serves to drive home just how in love the two are. It’s all there to prop up the notion of love conquering all. The plot sells not only the relationship between Wesley and Buttercup, but also creates the movie’s primary theme.

But that’s just one movie. Think of your favorite movie. And then think about the key relationships in that movie. How do you know how the characters feel about each other? Is it because they stood in front of the camera for 90 minutes saying, “I love you so much” or “I’m jealous of your success”? Of course not. At some point they may blurt out those bald emotions; but it’s usually just a moment, and it’s usually wedged between plenty of plot.

So the next time an improv teacher tells you to make a scene about a relationship, just start doing stuff and talking about stuff you do. Not only will it be more fun to play, but it’ll make it extremely clear to the audience how these characters feel about each other.

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