10 Ways to Own Your Own Scene

Do you ever get an offer and just think, my goodness, what the earth do I do with this? I was recently endowed as a prostitute. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It threw me to be honest. Maybe reading this statement threw you. It’s that moment, isn’t it? The moment when you think: woah, where did that come from? And where the heck is this going?

Regardless of the curve ball, I had already chosen high status for my character so I committed to not dropping my point of view. My scene partner then held me responsible for the losing of his erection. Wow. My boss moves weren’t doing it for him apparently. I was doing improvised prostitution wrong.

Turning around a scene from within isn’t always easy, especially when your scene partner has an idea where they want things to go. So what options did I have in this situation? Did I have to accept the cards I’d been given?

Not the credit cards, no.

In improv we do, to an extent, have to accept the cards we are dealt. That’s the foundation of our craft. Accepting them is the first step. Once they are in our hands, how we choose to play them is up to us. Although, that doesn’t mean our moves are always going to be well received. Some people don’t like it when you lay a trump card.

I want to think of improv as a collaborative effort. I don’t enjoy it as much when it’s a competitive sport but I acknowledge that everybody gets to choose their own improv style. Accepting others play differently is necessary.

“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding.”

Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough

In order to own our own scene, it’s important to know you don’t have to hold to every rule you’ve been told makes ‘good’ improv. You get to decide. You can get up from the game table if compromising improv is all that’s being served.

On this topic, I’d really recommend reading Patti Stiles’ book Improvise Freely. It has helped me feel so much more confident regarding my instincts. Before I started to explore how I could own my own scene, scenes owned me. That put me in a tricky position. A scene partner could decide where a scene went and I had to follow, dutifully. Sometimes with a mop.

I was once, to my detriment, a fully paid-up member of the “Yes, And” club.

I have since revoked my membership.

I did a show recently where my duo partner’s character asked mine to marry him. I knew how my character would answer. I said “No.” The laugh from the audience was so big we cut the scene and moved on. It felt great.

Even if we’d continued with that scene there would have been two strong viewpoints to take forward. This thinking was inspired by Patti Stiles’ advice in an interview she gave for The Art of Yes. A far less progressive answer to the marriage proposal would have been to say “Maybe” and then have to spend the rest of the scene debating the decision. If I’d said “Yes”, perhaps we could have discussed the flower arrangement or where our mothers would sit in the church.

“No.” in this context, felt the more interesting answer.

Afterward, an experienced improviser in the audience came up and commented with surprise, at my lack of “Yes, And”. I explained how Yes, And was about accepting an offer. Not actually having to say “Yes, And”.

Holding people to account for not using Yes, And literally, doesn’t give them credit for being accountable for their own decisions onstage. If we want improv to move forward into the territory of equality, we have to let go of this firm grip on literal “Yes, And”.

“When I was first starting my improv education in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), I thought yes meant I had to actually say yes to everyone’s ideas – even if that idea made me uncomforatble. This led to many times where I felt incredibly used and unsafe. I later learned that our role isn’t literally to say yes to everything, it’s just to accept the offer and continue to move forward together.”

Hayley Kellett, Improv & Consent: Why “Yes, And” Doesn’t Always Mean Yes, quoted in Improvise Freely

Floating the ‘rules’ in order to do what works for you, and your character, can feel scary but Stiles demonstrates how the ‘rules’ are made up anyway and don’t work so well when used universally. They won’t make sense in every situation. We can say “No.” We can time out. We can leave the stage.

I was in a class once where my scene partner threw something critical at me about my character’s mother. I rolled over and did a “Yes, And”. Liz Peters (from The Maydays) – who was teaching the class – stopped the scene and asked me, “Is that really what you wanted to say?” “No,” I said a little scared. “Well, say what you want to say. He’s out of order.” Thanks, Liz.

It’s a brave move, to go up against “Yes, And” but it can also be an inspiring one. It can feel like taking on the boy’s club. That’s a big thing to buck against but heck, if we want to own our improv we have to. All of us. Every one.

“Simplistic rules reduce awareness and replace it with conditioned behaviour. When we condition improvisers, we replace possibility and perception with predictive responses. This leaves improvisors vulnerable to others who are using this rigid rule to control and manipulate scenes. Empower improvisers to question, to be free thinkers. Give them the tools – not rules.”

Patti Styles, Improvise Freely

Here are 10 potential tools to explore in your improv to take responsibility for your improv and also yourself. We can sit in a space of feeling offended by someone else’s offers or we can do something about them so let’s see what we can do to take back our power.

  1. Look out for yourself before your scene: – We can get taught the scene is sacrosanct. It is not. It is just an improv scene. You are far more important. Do what you need to do to take responsibility for your emotional landscape even if that means disappointing others. No one else is going to know what’s going on for you fully so you have to put yourself before the scene. We need to take responsibility for ourselves because we all have different limits.
  2. Know your boundaries: – Explore your edges so you can be clear about what lines are important to draw in order for you to not betray yourself. If you are new to thinking about boundaries, start by noticing how your body feels. If you start to feel icky during a scene you might be coming up against a boundary. Consider what boundaries you need to have in place to honour your time, your energy and your emotional well-being. Once you recognise where your own boundaries are, then follows the need to communicate them clearly to others.
  3. Have the hard conversations: – If you’ve reached your limit, it might well be the time to reach out and have a hard conversation about that. Sometimes hard conversations can reveal to you that you are not the only one who feels a certain way, that you are not alone and that other people are falling over themselves to improve a situation. Sometimes, however, you discover that there are some people who don’t want to have hard conversations. Both ways you learn and you can choose the people you want to stick around. Recently some of the guys I improvise with have been asking how I felt about the status choices they made in scenes. I love this! It opens up a conversation where we can discuss together what character dynamics feel appropriate to put in front of an audience. We can also establish together our collective limits.
  4. Accept the reality but pick your offers: – Offers can take on multiple forms. They might be physical, environmental, emotional, verbal or status related. You don’t have to respond to every part of an offer to move things forward. You can accept the reality the offer has created but only take part of the offer forward. Patti Stiles in her book Improvise Freely describes a time she accepted a sleazy line but focused on the accompanying gesture and what else it might mean. She effectively turned a lewd crotch scratch into grounds for a divorce. If you want to know just how she made that happen, I recommend you read her book.
  5. Boss your character: – No one knows your character as well as you do. You know what they think and feel. You know what they want to say. You also know what will change them. By giving your character license to behave the way they need to you can practice giving yourself the same license. I once had someone come up and tell me what I ‘should’ have done in a scene that had been highly praised by a teacher. I dutifully thanked this guy but I told him my character wouldn’t have done what he suggested as it wasn’t in her motivation. The guy looked like I’d slapped him in the face. This is your permission to own your creation, own your character, own your improv. Let someone else do them… or be annoyed. Whatever!
  6. Encourage saying and hearing no: – Hurt surrounding the word “No” is not uncommon. Especially for improvisers. We have a cult to avoid it. But “Yes, And” is a ‘rule’ for beginners that got out of hand. It far outgrew its original purpose, like an unattractive marrow that could have once been a tasty contained courgette (zucchini). No one should be manipulated into saying yes to something they really don’t want to do, especially not in service of a rule that was invented to get beginners to loosen up and agree with each other. “Yes, And” is no sword to die by. Say “No” when you need to and inspire others to do the same.
  7. Be discerning about the suggestions you choose: – I recently witnessed excellent boundary assertion regarding suggestions. At the time when a suggestion was taken that was upsetting and/or potentially triggering, an aware person in the room would call out and ask for it to be changed. One such change was from bunny hunters to bunny rescuers. It led to an awesome song that had the audience swaying and singing along together with their hands up on top of their heads like rabbit ears. Bunny hunters would have of course led to a completely different song and likely not provided the warm feels the audience lapped up.
  8. Introduce the ‘time out’: – Sometimes you’re going to get into a scene which you really don’t want to be in. Maybe it is creeping you out. Maybe someone has landed you in it. Maybe you have said something that is leading you down a path that’s just too dark. I’ve lost count of how many times something has fallen out of my mouth in an improv scene, I wanted to scoop right back in again. It happens and it is how we navigate it that counts. We need to know, that ‘timeout’ is an option. I’ve seen pros like Kaci Beeler and Roy Janick from Parallelogramophonograph call ‘timeout’ in online shows. They’ve stopped for a moment and reset something. It’s a bold move – it’s the brave move – and it has enabled them to create the best show for them and their audience. Chances are if we as improvisers feel uncomfortable with the direction things are heading, people in the audience will too.
  9. Practice using ‘new choice’: – You may have heard of the improv game ‘New Choice’. It’s a game where during a scene someone says a line and then immediately someone else calls out “New choice!” and the first person has to say their last line again differently. “New choice!” does not have to be confined to an exercise. Try practicing “New choice!” throughout rehearsals, throughout shows, introduce it to an audience at the start of a jam with a game so that if anything really icky comes up later and you need to call “New choice!”, everyone knows what it means.
  10. Agree gestures pre-performance to indicate that you are uncomfortable: – With your regular playmates consider creating a way of signaling that an improviser is uncomfortable from within a scene. This seems even more essential now that we are navigating so many different comfort zones as a by-product of the pandemic. We are getting more used to elbow shakes and air hugs and no-contact high fives. We are becoming accustomed to asking what someone’s boundaries are physically so why not set up some signals that make it easier to notice on stage when someone really isn’t comfortable? This could provide an antidote to the danger of instead establishing a push-pull game of the scene with someone else’s genuine discomfort.
  11. Normalise leaving a scene: – We are taught never to leave our scene partners on stage alone. Why? Because we were told this as beginners to encourage us to support each other. Sometimes powerful improv moves are made when someone is left alone on stage. Sometimes it sends a message. Leave a scene if you have to. Get out of there. Don’t rip yourself apart to please an audience who won’t all know this ‘doctrine’. I have definitely been in scenes that in hindsight I wish I’d left.

I’ve played my share of uncomfortable scenes. As I have grown more confident in improv through practicing the craft, I have come to understand how my trust for others only goes so far as the trust in myself to cope with what others might do.

Jonathan Pitts gave some excellent advice once in a workshop I took with him on vulnerability in improv. He said, “If someone is not being open with you on stage, you can choose to close. If they are not connecting, it is not your fault.”

My experiences have taught me that we can’t control anyone else, not in life or in improv. The only person we have any control over is ourselves. We can own our responses. We can own our offers. We can own how we choose to play.

We can own our own improv and our boss moves can encourage others to do the same.

This post follows on from The Boundary Line – a previous post concerning boundaries in improv. To read more about boundary discussions click here. For more on the topic of taking suggestions, try our post Suggest This that can be read here.

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