In I'd Like To Have An Argument we explored the ins and outs of a very common type of improv scene - one that is primarily focused on an interpersonal disagreement. One of the things we touched on in that post was the idea that if we're not entirely comfortable onstage, it often raises our Fight or Flight response.
In a high pressure situation like an audition, the chances of being uncomfortable onstage skyrocket. Nerves are going to be an issue. We know we're being judged. We know we need to execute. Plus, there are a lot of uncontrollable variables. What if we don't get more than a couple short windows to showcase our abilities? What if we get steamrolled, or tagged out too quick, or talked over? It doesn't help that everyone else is nervous too. Or that by now we've recognized how nervous we are and get even more nervous that we're being too nervous.
All this adds up to being uncomfortable, and discomfort means Fight or Flight. Unfortunately, in an audition, if we actually want a chance at being cast, Flight isn't an option. So we Fight. We have the overwhelming urge to lash out; to protect ourselves. Obviously this is not ideal. If we had our way we'd be totally comfortable. But it's practically impossible to control these natural responses. They will be a factor. So instead of trying to ignore them, we should learn how to use them effectively.
If we're going to Fight, we should know how to Fight well.
Traditionally in narrative (and improv is a kind of narrative) there are four types of conflict:
human v Human
human v Self
human v Nature
human v Society
Let's take a closer look at each one and see how we might be able to apply them to our scenes.
human v Human is by far the most common type of conflict in improv. While there's a spectrum of v Human conflict ranging from passive plotting to active violence, most of the conflict we'll run into in improv is in the form of an argument. Passive plotting generally moves far too slow to pay off in a 3-4 minute scene, and active violence is both hard to pull off logistically (and safely) and will burn out far too quickly.
The reason it's so prevalent is twofold. The first is that the other human(s) onstage with us are the only thing* that isn't invisible, so they draw our attention. We tend to turn our focus on our scene partner, as we should, but if we're in Fight mode, they might be in for a battle. This is the other reason v Human is so common. It's dynamic. Arguments can twist and turn as we change topics and follow tangents. They can start one place and end so far away that we forget what the original disagreement was about.
But this dynamism is a double-edged sword. One one hand, an argument can be funny and interesting enough to sustain a scene from end to end. On the other hand, an argument can make it feel like the scene is moving when it isn't. Often we get so distracted by trying to put our character in a better debate position that we don't notice that the scene hasn't gone anywhere. On the inside it feels like we're doing something because we're sparring over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher, but from the outside all the audience is watching is a dishwasher not getting unloaded. Eventually, someone needs to lose. A good v Human scene has both sides losing in some places and winning in others. Arguments are like improviser duels. If it's exciting I don't care if it ends in a draw. If it's not I should at least get to see someone die at the end.
For a closer look at argument scenes, here's another link to I'd Like To Have An Argument.
human v Self is a fairly common in scripted comedy but underutilized in improv, and for good reason. Internal conflict is both nuanced and generally unspoken, which makes it difficult to express accurately and compellingly in the heat of the moment. It's also very much an individual conflict, so it doesn't inherently require a connection to another character. This is clearly not ideal for improv. That being said, it can absolutely work in the right circumstances.
The best way to utilize v Self conflict in improv is by having one character's nature get in the way of something everyone in the scene wants. A clumsy waiter, for example, very much wants to serve their patrons, who in turn very much want to be served. But if the waiter's clumsiness continually and increasingly prevents them from successfully serving those patrons, everyone in the scene is in conflict with their clumsiness. The patrons will likely be upset at the waiter's incapacity to serve, but the waiter will be just as upset. They wish they would stop dropping plates just as much as the patrons do, they just can't figure out how to do it. The waiter's desire to overcome their own shortcomings is what makes the conflict internal and therefore v Self. If the waiter chooses to defend their clumsiness, suddenly the conflict is v Human - waiter v patrons.
Another way to use v Self conflict is with a Peas-in-a-Pod scene. If both characters share the same internal conflict, watching them explore it and attempt to overcome it together can be very fun. Again, it requires both character's natures to get in the way of a shared goal. Maybe two chemistry students are attempting to run an experiment but keep getting distracted by stuff happening out the window. When they come back to the lab bench and realize their experiment ran afoul while they weren't paying attention, they're likely to be mad at themselves. But it's in their nature to get distracted, so it keeps happening over and over in increasingly ridiculous ways as they get increasingly frustrated with themselves. An even more nuanced version of this Peas-in-a-Pod v Self conflict might be that the students have different individual tendencies that work concurrently to prevent them from accomplishing their shared goal. Maybe one student keeps getting distracted by the window, while the other's impatience causes them to turn up the heat too far on the bunsen burner. The distracted student's distractedness prevents them from keeping an eye on the impatient one. The impatient one's impatience seizes the opportunity to strike while left unchecked. The defining factor in this example that makes it v Self is that the blame for the failed experiment is directed at the tendencies, not the individuals. The distracted student recognizes that they keep getting distracted and wishes they could stop so they could keep a better eye on the impatient one. The impatient one recognizes that their impatience keeps causing them to rush the experiment enough to ruin it and similarly wishes they could control it. Both students blame themselves, not each other, for their failures. Therefore the conflict is internal - v Self.
human v Nature puts our characters in conflict with their environment. The obvious scenarios in this category are weather like storms or inhospitable climates, but any antagonistic environment, like a challenging corn maze or a haunted library, would fit this type.
The important thing in a v Nature conflict in improv is that we find a way to make the environment a dynamic character in itself. Just as a v Human conflict has give and take between individuals, the environment needs to continually find new and interesting ways to antagonize the characters on stage. This can be done internally through dialogue ("oh no, the waves are getting bigger!") or externally with object work and sound effects from the sides (miming a flying book, ominous ghostly laughter). Treat the environment like a living breathing being and the conflict becomes much more sustainable. As long as we find new and interesting ways for the environment to be threatening, there should always be something for our characters to react to.
Just like v Self conflict, v Nature is a way to avoid fighting between characters. Nothing unites people better than a shared external threat (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). We might have the urge to try to blame someone for putting us in this dangerous situation, but if the threat from the environment is both imminent and immersive, it will naturally be our primary focus. If we need to find the maze exit before the sun sets, we don't have time to figure out whose fault it was that we got lost in the first place. In a v Nature conflict, blame is secondary to exploration and joint struggle.
human v Society conflict pits our characters against social norms and hegemony. This is is a particularly rich type of conflict in improv because we are creating the universe in which the scene exists, so the rules and norms of that universe can be vastly different from those of our own. This is where comedy can work as social commentary - flipping, twisting, or amplifying the rules of our universe to highlight ridiculous or unjust features. It's also a place where we can explore points of view we would never otherwise consider or support, like a sad murderer who just wants to murder but can't because of society's backward views.
In improv, v Society conflict functions a lot like v Nature except that the external threat is social ostracism instead of death by environment. Peas-in-a-Pod/Us-Against-the-World scenes will be particularly effective in this category, since the more we avoid in-fighting between characters, the more we can explore the societal ramifications of our point of view. Two murderers might disagree about what type of murder is best, but they can both agree how annoying it is to have to take the long way home to avoid driving past the police station.
Like v Nature, v Society conflict requires that society be personified. A scene that is simply characters complaining about societal rules won't sustain itself for very long. There needs to be some dynamism to keep things moving. We need to find ways to let society fight back. We can do this by creating representatives that embrace the societal views that our characters are in conflict with. Maybe it's a restaurant owner who refuses to serve murderers. Maybe it's a politician pushing a bill that requires murderers to use separate bathrooms. Unlike v Nature, a v Society scene will need to move our characters in space and time fairly frequently so we can explore as many different aspects of society as possible. It will probably require a significant amount of side support and utilize a lot walk-ons and tag-outs to keep things moving. Because the representatives of society are meant to function as arms of hegemony and not fully-formed characters, we shouldn't dwell on them for too long. If we treat Society as a character, the way to best explore that character's depth is with breadth. We should try to cycle through as many different societal representatives as possible for our anti-Society characters to interact with. Because of this, a v Society conflict scene will generally be more of a team effort than any of the other types. It's also a great type of conflict to utilize in Harold, because it is so rich. Even if our murderers interact with three or four representatives of society in a 1st Beat, there should still be plenty of ways to heighten and explore in 2nd and 3rd Beats.
Knowing these four types of conflict and how to execute them effectively should open up more options for us when we feel the need to Fight. Especially knowing that v Self, v Nature, and v Society conflict tend to focus our attention inward or outward instead of at our scene partner, choosing them over v Human conflict is a great way to avoid the common argument. Hopefully, if we embrace our discomfort instead of trying to hide from it and recognize that we have targets other than our scene partner, we can put our Fight energy to good use.
*except the chairs, which is why we've all started scenes by messing with the chairs