A two-person scene is hard enough in improvisation.
Add more people to the equation, and it gets more difficult to manage. When the lights come up on four or more people, I remember the advice that Mick Napier taught me back training at The Annoyance: think more of the same. Rather than finding points of differentiation, aim to bring your disparate characters in alignment over the context of the situation and how you all feel about it. While an eight-person monoscene with eight disparate points of view can be done, it isn’t easy to improvise!
However, I want to take a closer look at and unpack the dynamics and methods for three people improvising together in a scene. In general, three bodies in play tend to align in common relationships, and there are both pitfalls and strategies we can employ to heighten each dynamic.
2 Vs. 1
The most common type of three-person scene is what I call a 2 Vs. 1 scene. This is when two similar characters (in status and point of view) are opposed to one different, unique character. These scenes are especially common in unfamiliar improv environments, like at a jam or with mixed teams who don’t know each other well. Usually what happens is one improviser will come forward boldly with an unusual character, and the other two players will instinctively ally against the unusual character. Who knows why this is the most common dynamic of three people improvising? It’s typical to gang up on people who aren’t like the status quo. Strength in numbers and all that jazz. It’s also the way many schools of improv teach: identify the unusual thing right away and respond as the “Straight Man.” Whatever the reason — I see this 2 Vs. 1 dynamic more than any other. And this straight man formula can work to create contrast and comedy successfully. But often, this scene will be the product of a more whimsical or weird improviser making a bold, courageous initiation, followed by two more hesitant improvisers (ironically, usually two “straight, white men”) who back into the scene as the opposing voice of reason, normality, or banality. These scenes tend to immediately vear into arguments, where the unusual player is trying to justify the validity of their unique point of view, and the two “straight men” are there to point out how it is weird or against the status quo. A tug-of-war over the direction of the scene can ensue, where the scene’s forward momentum is stopped because the improvisers are essentially engaging in a power struggle.
(Again: there is nothing inherently wrong with this dynamic— it is the building block on which most sitcoms are written. See Appendix A: Seinfeld vs. Kramer. But sometimes, it can be challenging to manage this scene without it devolving into an argument. It can even feel like a personal attack toward the unusual player sometimes. So…)
I teach two solutions to avoiding an argument. The first is something I learned from Susan Messing at The Annoyance, and it is one of my favorite approaches in all of improv: Protect The Freak. This is where our two straight men, instead of pointing out how unusual the wacko character is, choose to protect the freakish choice by subverting the logical rules of reality. By bending to the freak’s world view. The straight men specifically do NOT call out the freakish character as unusual. They react to the freak as if he/she/it’s completely normal, totally correct in point of view, and perhaps even the paradigm of how one should act in this world! It is fun to subvert the rules of reality like this. The easiest way to achieve this is to elevate the status of the unusual character. For example:
- Batshit crazy initiating character charges the stage, screaming, “Burn them all! My enemies shall perish in the fires of feces!”
- The other two improvisers respond with, “Mister President, an excellent idea!”
Now we have established that the freak is a high-status genius who is the epitome of how a leader should act. Anything the freak does or says we will protect and elevate.
While this approach may seem like it’s going against the grain of pointing out the unusual thing to find the game of the scene— this is actually creating a unique game in its own right, with our normal world logic turned upside down. This allows the freak to be what it is without fighting to justify its weirdness, and the two straight men can enjoy supporting and protecting the unusual choice, rather than putting baby freak in the corner.
But not many people are going to take this approach without learning of it first. More likely than not, you will find yourself in in a 2 Vs. 1 dynamic where you must protect yourself because the other improvisers will straight man hard against your freak. What I suggest you do in this situation is to not fight back. You win when you lose as the freak. Do not give up your freakish point of view, but do not try to justify the rightness of existence. Avoid using the word “but” in reply. If the other improvisers are shitting on your choices, then ask, “Please sir, can I have more shit?” Say “yes, and” to every criticism they make of your unusual character! Yes, you are an idiot! Yes, you are an imbecile! You are the worst…and you know it! And then keep playing the fool, and making yourself look more and more ridiculous, and lose and lose and lose in the scene. Let them bulldoze you and ask to be buried deeper in the rubble. This inversion of our typical need to “fight back” allows the scene to heighten…and ironically gives the freak the balance of power in the scene despite “losing.”
This can be a bit difficult to describe but here’s a sample dialogue of how this could play out:
Freak: “Oh what a gullumphing, giggly, goody-goody morning! I can’t wait to lick every person I see on the street and pee in the river!”
Straight Man 1: “Your son thinks he’s a dog again, Dan.”
Straight Man 2: “I know, we’ve been taking him to therapy — no use. He still thinks he’s a dog.”
Freak: “Woof, woof, look at me — Yes I da biggest bitch of all! I wrote a rap today! It go, ‘Bow wow wow, yippee kay-yay! Who let the dogs out? I let the dogs out!”
SM1: “Ugh, how is he ever going to get through eighth grade? He’s going to be held back if you don’t do something.”
SM2: “We’ve tried taking him to tutors, but he just humps them instead of studying Shakespeare.”
Freak: “You are right! I hump…therefore I am!”
SM1: “He meant to say, ‘I think therefore I am.’ What a dumb boy.”
Freak: “Yes, I am the biggest boy idiot of all! My tutor tried to tell me which way was up, but I don’t believe in gravity! Only the force of horniness!”
SM2: “I can’t even follow him anymore.”
Freak: “I can not follow myself! I chase my own ass for hours! I’m one horny boy!”
Not a great example scene, but perhaps you get the point. The freak can heighten his or her agenda without fighting back, thereby avoiding an argument and allowing the game of the scene to heighten.
This 2 Vs. 1 dynamic can manifest also as a 1 Vs. 2 scene. It’s really just any situation where an unusual point of view is pitted against a straight man point of view. We can protect the unusual thing so the scene can heighten without devolving into an argument.
Ah, my favorite dynamic of three people onstage! The lights come up and we see three identical dum-dums, all in the same body, voice, and sharing the same deal. A scene of similar characters who all feel the same way! A scene without conflicting points of view! I become so excited when I see three “peas-in-a-pod” onstage, and I don’t hold my breath waiting for someone to trip the scene up out of fear. Because improvisers do not think that three people improvising the same deal is inherently interesting enough to heighten over time. They are wrong. This is my favorite type of scene to watch when the improvisers embrace playing with one another and heightening the scene to Planet Awesome.
The challenge is not to give into your fear and invent an arbritrary conflict. 45 seconds into many peas-in-a-pod scene, one improviser will declare a hard right turn that feels out of character and create a divergent point of view out of nowhere to contrast with the other two characters. They will force what was “3-of-the-same” into a “2 Vs. 1” conflict. It will feel arbitrary, it will feel laborious, and it will feel like the choice was made from a place of fear. It depresses me every time I see this happen.
When you are playing “three-of-a-kind,” you have the benefit of three minds working toward the same character’s deal. You can heighten this to God-only-knows where! It is such a gift! The way to keep the scene interesting is by each person invoking curiosity to find out more about this one shared character. To keep heightening and saying “yes, and” to every idea. To chew each idea thoroughly before moving onto the next. If one of three peas-in-a-pod comes up with an idea, why then — everyone agrees to “yes, and” that idea until it is thoroughly explored.
And to avoid things getting predictable, employ curve balls! Surprise yourself by boldly improvising from your right-brain and creating unusual choices that are within the character’s deal but that you never would have pre-planned in a million years. Curve balls work wonderfully in this peas-in-a-pod dynamic because the other two characters are going to support and reinforce your choice inherently!
The sky is the limit for three peas-in-a-pod, if you double down on the shared character’s point of view and don’t wrench into arbitrary conflict. Have fun!
One character likes it hot. One likes it cold. One likes it juuuust right.
These Goldilocks-esque scenes are when three characters each have an individual point of view. No one is identical to the other. This is what I call a 1–1–1 scene.
Naturally, this is more complicated at the outset than the other two dynamics above because you have more differentiation. The audience is having to process not only three different individual characters, but three different sets of relationships. Oh — and they have to put this in context with the who/what/where specifics of the world you are in.
This dynamic taxes an audience from the outset. They have more balls to juggle to get on-board with the scene. So my first advice in this situation is to make your character’s deal laser-beam clear. Hone your character’s point of view to a sharp point so the audience can read your point of view as clear as day. Take out anything that’s kinda, sorta, maybe, potentially, shoulda, woulda, coulda about your character and become 100% clear in your feelings.
Secondly, establish your relationships as solidly as possible with the other two actors. Be aware that, as in life, you feel differently about person B than you do about person C —each is a distinct individual. It is amazing how efficiently one can achieve this with a line directed toward the other two improvisers, like, “Moooooommmmm, Michelle is stealing my Barbies again! Moooooommmmmyyy!!” This line establishes many things immediately:
- You are a whiny brat of a character, who believes he is entitled to everything he wants.
- Your mom is a slave to your every whim (based on how you whine to her).
- You have an acrimonious or contentious relationship with Michelle, who is not a stranger but likely a close friend, relative or sibling.
Not only have you nailed down your character and relationships, but you have established much of the context of the scene: what has just happened (you were playing with toys), who you are (likely all of you are a family unit), and perhaps even where you are (likely in the “play-area” inside or outside of your Mom’s house). This goes a long way toward the audience comprehending and enjoying what is going on because you have answered their most pressing questions. The more you ask of an audience up front with points of differentiation, the more I encourage you to lock down your character’s deal, relationships, and the context of the scene as quickly as you can.
I don’t necessarily advocate getting so much done so fast in two-person scenes. In those scenes, we can take time to enjoy the mystery of what’s going on and discover our scene organically rather getting the who/what/where established right out of the box. Some of the funniest two-person scenes I’ve ever seen, I didn’t know where they took place at the end of the day. But in a 1–1–1 scene with three people, there are so many unknowns that I do advocate nailing your context and your feelings about one another as quickly as possible, so you can get on the same page and play the scene without the unknowns crowding your imagination and worrying the audience.
Steak, Potato, Parsley: 2 +1
And now, for the most special recipe of all three person scenes! This type of three-person scene is rare — at least in NYC. What they are essentially is a two-person scene with one additional player in the background environment. A steak and potato improvising as the main course to the scene, and than one player as a bit of garnish: the parsely.
I’ve heard many instructors encourage actors playing in the background of a scene to take as little focus as possible away from the main action of the scene. Perhaps engage in some object work or interact with your environment subtly. Don’t upstage what’s going on in the foreground. But I want to advocate the parsley character having a full-blown, emotionally-driven side scene and taking as much damn focus as he or she wants!
When I first teach this exercise, I ask a participant to go behind a curtain behind the two-person scene. I instruct them to emotionally enter the scene about fifteen seconds after it is established, and over the course of 60 seconds, assemble a sniper rifle in total detail. Then take a minute emotionally deciding which person to kill first. Pray on a rosary. Flip a coin. Almost pull the trigger…then have a change of heart! I do not share what the parsley is up to with the steak-and-potatoes scene in the foreground. In fact, I encourage them to not worry about connecting with the parsley behind them, until the end of the scene. What follows is a head-snapping thrill ride of a three-person split scene, where the audience creates a story in their heads for why the dynamic parsley is preparing to kill the steak and potatoes. And perhaps right before the edit at the end of the scene, one of the foreground players can turn over his or her shoulder and say something like, “Oh look, hi Mom!” Then I scream, “Edit!” and everyone goes bananas.
These scenes are so rare because most actors aren’t comfortable with the power of leaving the parsley alone. Let that third-person garnish do his or her thing and don’t worry about connecting it to the two-person scene. The danger is if we force the parsley to join the main dish as an equal player, suddenly we have a full plate of parsley on top of our steak and potatoes and that isn’t too appetizing. The magic of this split-scene is allowing both worlds to heighten on their own and see how they may potentially connect, if they connect at all. I’ve seen examples where the parsley is completely in his or her own world (i.e. a baggage handler at the airport in the background of the main scene getting caught in the machine he is operating and getting sucked into the chute while fighting for his or her life) or emotionally connected to the meat and potatoes characters (i.e. the sniper example above). Whatever the parsley’s world, it is parallel to the main dish of the scene. We get to experience a DaDa-esque dichotomy that tickles our imagination and surprises us out of predictable three-person scene work. So parsley, please: take as much focus as you want and heighten the hell out of your character and scenario! I have mostly seen this type of scene fail because the parsley was flatlining and wasn’t heightening his or her world — please, enjoy yourself and take your side scene to Planet Awesome.
My only caution: audiences can handle both of these scenes taking up shared visual focus, but an audience can not process overlapping sound. We have to manage our dialogue in this 2+1 dynamic. The parsley talking over the meat and potatoes too much does not work — the audience will get overwhelmed and tune everything out. I saw this firsthand running The Annoyance Theatre NY at a show produced there called “Sleep No’ Mo,” which was a comedic take on the infamous interactive NYC show Sleep No More. In “Sleep No’ Mo,” there was improv and sketch comedy on the mainstage, stand-up comedy in the green room, a mime in the fire exit, and a storyteller in the middle of the space. I only ever interrupted a show once in my time running The Annoyance, and it was during this show. Which one element had to moved? The storyteller, of course, because he was talking loud enough as to distract from both the stand-up in green room and improv/sketch on the stage — to the point where neither could be isolated and enjoyed. I moved the storyteller into the lobby of the theater, and everything was able to work simultaneously. Whereas with the mime, I saw people whipping their heads to see him soundlessly trying to hang himself and then whipping back to either stage and enjoying the back-and-forth. I believe as many visual things can happen as we want simultaneously in a three-person scene, but the performers must finesse taking turns speaking. That’s the only challenge to manage in this 2+1 dynamic.
Other than that, give this type of scene a try and see what happens! The funniest scenes of my life have been a steak-potato-parsley set-up. I will never forget it: I was sitting downstage center, speaking a monologue to the audience about my grandmother’s ancient dining room table. Behind me, two men stoically listened to my tale, but every now and then, they slowly turned toward one another and leaned in to lightly kiss on the lips. Then they turned back to listen to my story. And eventually turned back to kiss one another. I could heard the uproarious laughter from the audience and knew something very interesting was going on behind me —certainly more interesting than my monologue — but I had the temerity in this instance to NOT connect the dots and force a connection between my steak/potatoes monologue and their esoteric parsley kissing. Let the two things stay separate! There is incredible power in the courage to let things be distinct. I didn’t know what these guys were up to until after the show when I asked them what they were doing!
That’s my wrap-up on three person scenes. These strategies and challenges for each dynamic are not meant to get you in your head. After all: every rule or suggestion can be broken or bent — this is simply meant to offer a advice of how to attack in each these scenarios. Perhaps next time you’re in a thre-person scene:
- A 2 vs. 1. scene happens and you choose to protect the freak!
- Or it’s 2 vs. 1 and you let your freak lose, lose, lose the scene instead of fighting back!
- Three peas-in-a-pod occur and you resist creating conflict and enjoy yes-and-ing each choice and curve balling your scene partners!
- You find yourself in 1–1–1 dynamic with many unknowns threatening to derail the scene and you actively state the context (who/what/where) and make your deal and relationships lazer-sharp.
- Or you find yourself in the most wonderful of all wonders: a steak-potato-parsley world and you let both scene happen concurrently without forcing a connection.