By Sanjay Rao
“Make it about the relationship”. You probably get this note in class and rehearsal all the time. It’s one of those golden rules of improv. When in doubt focus on the relationship. Say you’re in a tag out run and you’ve tagged in with your hilarious quip. It gets that big laugh but no one tags you out or edits the scene. Or you’re in a scene and so much craziness is going on you don’t know what to do. Now what? Focus on the relationship!
The relationship between scene partners tends to be the most compelling aspect in any scene regardless of style or format. It’s also something that you can always go back to. That weird, quirky way you mispronounced a funny word has only so much fuel behind it but a good, believable relationship can power an hour long show (just ask TJ and Dave). But how do you make it about the relationship especially if you’re already confused or in your head?
So how do you focus on the relationship? One very simple and useful way is to call out your scene partner’s behavior. This doesn’t necessarily mean what they are physically doing. Let’s take an example. My scene partner has grabbed their mimed shovel and starts digging an improvised ditch. The scene is not about digging a ditch. HOW are they digging the ditch? Are they happy about it? Are they sad about it? Are they being lazy about it? Are they perfectly content? These are all behaviors that you can call out. It’s the “how” that fuels all of it. Once you know how your scene partner is behaving then we can explore how that makes you feel. Going back to the last example, your scene partner is digging a ditch and he’s angry about it. Better yet something more specific like it makes you feel proud of them. Anything is valid here, just let yourself feel something!
After we have that established we can fill in the gaps of where we are, who we are, why we’re here, what do we want, etc. Now you know how you feel about one another in relation to this activity that is happening RIGHT NOW. We’ve developed a relationship! An added bonus is that since we started with an activity (in this case digging a ditch) the scene is more active and engaging. Once an audience is truly engaged the jokes will come out more naturally and land harder. All the little games you find along the way, like mispronouncing a word, will mean more because they will be built on top of a relationship that serves as a foundation for the scene. But getting an audience to be engaged isn’t as simple as that. You have to do all this stuff well. How do you do it well? Practice!
A very basic exercise to build these muscles is to have one scene partner come in and start an activity and add an emotional element. After a beat a second person enters the scene and calls out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Going back to the previous example, if the first person starts digging a ditch happily the second person will call out “You’re digging a ditch happily!” and then he or she will make a choice about how they feel about that. After letting that sink in, the first person can then call out their behavior, “You’re happy too!” From here we begin the scene by responding to the last thing and we can fill in the blanks like who, what, and where. This exercise will help you read behavior as well as starting scenes more physically and emotionally active.
If you want to go deeper you can study the Meisner exercise that actors have been using for ages to learn to read and explore behavior. It’s a fantastically simple yet endlessly complicated exercise that a single paragraph of a blogpost would not do it justice. There are, however, several acting teachers both in the improv community and in the Austin acting community that can help. I’ve provided some helpful links and videos below. I can personally attest that doing this type of work has helped my performances tremendously and I sincerely hope it helps you too!
Information about the Meisner Technique:
Acting Teachers in Austin:
Helpful Improv Workshops Coming Soon:
Learn Some History You Bums:
Sanjay Rao is a writer, actor, and comedian based out of Austin, TX. You can catch him around Austin, TX performing improv, sketch, and stand-up and has played on stages around the state of Texas in addition to New Orleans, Phoenix, and New York City. You can also see him in various films, series and short videos on the web.