Jimmy Carrane Susan Messing

4 Ways To Stop Doing Argument Improv Scenes

Oh, the argument scene. Most of us do them. I know I do, and sometimes they work, but most of the time they don’t. I wish I could say that prevents me from doing them, but even after all these years of improvising, when I get scared, it’s my go to type of improv scene. I know they’re not fun for the audience to watch, but I keep doing them. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different same results, but if you read this blog, you already know I am pretty insane.

I have found with my students and myself that doing improv scenes that devolve into arguments is a really easy habit to get into and one that can be even harder to get out of.

It’s something I saw in my last Art of Slow Comedy improv class. With a couple of weeks to go before the students’ big performance, I started to see a lot more arguing scenes coming up in class. One night at the end of the class, one of my brilliant students pointed it out to me, thank God, and over the next two weeks, we worked on ways to avoid this trap.

When it came time for their final performance, this very dedicated group of improvisers ended up doing one of the most inspired student shows I’ve seen. They rose to occasion by taking risks, having fun, and making moves and edits that I have only seen advanced improvisers make. To say I was proud it understatement. I had a performance high the next day from their show.

So I wanted to share some things that you can do to avoid having every one of your improv scenes turn into an angry argument:

  1. Play vulnerable
    When someone comes out and starts with a problem or wants to fight with you in an improv scene, our natural reaction as improvisers is to get angry and argue back. But instead of being angry, try to play another emotion. Go vulnerable and play someone who is scared, sad, or filled with shame and guilt instead. For example, if someone starts a scene by blaming you for something, make it your fault and take full responsibility in the situation and heighten the stakes for screwing up.Example:
    Player A: I can’t believe you’re late again for work, Bill.
    Player B: I know, I know. I missed the big client meeting this morning.
    Player A: Not good, Bill. We did not have your Power Point presentation in there.
    Player B: I hadn’t even started it. I think I am still drunk from last night. I’ve got to get some coffee.
  2. Mirror Your Partner
    This is so easy, you’ll feel like you’re cheating. So get over your judgement and do it! If your partner enters the scene and he is jumping up and down because he’s so excited, do the exact same thing — mirror him. This automatically puts you in agreement. Your entire being is agreeing with your partner, and it makes it almost impossible to get in argument.
  3. Make Positive Choices
    When my class gets in an angry, argumentative rut, I have them do a series of unrelated scenes with the focus on making positive choices regardless of the situation. I usually have one person initiate a heavy or argumentative invitation.Example:
    Player A: Your father died.
    Player B: Frank, I am glad you are the first person to tell me. You’ve been like an uncle to me.
    Player A: It was a car accident it happen a couple hours ago.
    Player B: He loved that old Jaguar. I am so glad he went out that way. Was there much damage to the car? He mentioned he was leaving it me.
  1. Substitute Blame for Agreement
    If you do find yourself in an accusatory, angry scene, then agree your way through it. When we hear something strong at the top of the scene in an angry tone like, “I hate you,” we usually want to get defensive and our tendency is to blame the other character in the scene. But responding with “I hate you, too” will not help you get any mileage out of the scene. Instead, think of specific details about why the other character may hate you. What did my character do to the other person?So if someone starts a scene accusing you of something, such as “You stole my boyfriend” or “You didn’t pay the rent this month,” use this as an opportunity for a confession. Take a couple of seconds and then say, “I stole your boyfriend because I wanted your attention,” or “I didn’t pay the rent because I am addicted to Sudafed.”Example:
    Player A: I hate you!
    Player B: I can be a pretty bad Mom, Andy.
    Player A: You won’t let me go and play and sleep over at Kevin’s.
    Player B: That’s because Mommy needs you. She’s lonely after Daddy left us for that much younger, skinny bitch.

Do you have any tips for avoiding argument improv scenes? Let us know below!

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8 replies
  1. Keli Semelsberger
    Keli Semelsberger says:

    I love these and also use the polyana method, where no matter what negative thing is thrown at me i use my justification skills to spin it into something positive.ie: a- i hate you! B – hate is so close to love i feel we are on the right track. A. But i never want to see you again! B. Then just feel me, let our spirits merge! And on. Its still two opposing views but the polyanna one is using the blocking behavior to forward actipn from another piv without it being an arguement. I think the difference of an apposing view scene that works and one that doesnt is the energy of the interaction. Like in life.

    Reply
  2. Carolyn Cole
    Carolyn Cole says:

    I see the defensive reaction (argument) as a missed opportunity to ‘Yes…and’ the accusation. When you go vulnerable (#1), that is a Yes…and. When you accept self-blame and elaborate/justify the blame (#4), that is a Yes…and. When you make a mirroring physical move (#2), that is a Yes…and.

    The argumentative response is not agreement. It is one that doesn’t accept the lower status assigned by the initiator. It is a fight for status that is not fun or very interesting.

    Another way to react is to embrace something in the accusation as your character trait, then love having that trait and justify it.

    All that being said, I have been in/watched scenes that began as a mild argument, built some tension, then gave way to something wonderful…

    Reply
  3. Juan Andrés Molina Cardona
    Juan Andrés Molina Cardona says:

    Jimmy, I think I don’t understand the Positive Choices. Please correct me if I’m wrong: As I see it, it’s about searching for the positive way to look at any sad, angry or argumentative dialog the other improviser throws at me. To always see the bright side.

    Reply
  4. A
    A says:

    I’m going to keep these ideas in mind tonight at rehearsal, thank you!

    There’s something else I noticed while reading your examples. Out of 10 characters in the scenes or referred to by the speakers, only 2 are specified as female. There’s the “bad mom” and there’s the woman she calls a younger skinner bitch. Two of the speakers in the scenes weren’t named or identified by gender, so giving them women’s names would help populate this imaginary world with women like the real world, including women who aren’t Mom or younger skinny bitch. Something else I’m going to keep in mind at rehearsal tonight.

    Reply
    • Half the Audience
      Half the Audience says:

      A,
      I like the way you think! Can you just imagine– a world populated with so many female characters? Like maybe almost half?? It would almost seem… real.

      Reply
  5. Tony Rossi
    Tony Rossi says:

    This is such a great elaboration into the “yes, and…” approach. Instead of just saying yes to your partner, it gives details on HOW to do it without feeling stupid or wondering if you made the right choice. Great read, Jimmy. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    This is my third attempt at a response. I agree that arguments should be avoided. and you give lots of great ways to do that Jimmy. Especially when the argument seems to occur because the improviser believes that arguing is the way to heighten the scene. But any true relationship(and that is what we are after aren’t we.) has disagreements and arguments. So if you do argue 1. Get to the deeper core of the argument quickly(i.e we aren’t arguing about the dog. we are really arguing about the fact that you don’t pay attention to me.) 2) once the core of the argument is found, find a resolution so you can move forward. The biggest problem with arguments is that they can stop the forward movement of the scene, unless there is a reveal that takes you forward. Bottom line I guess is never say don’t to an improviser, but say okay if you do that what happens to your scene and how do you make it work. Just my view.

    Reply
  7. Dave O
    Dave O says:

    As usual, sound advice that’s easy to put into my own context. I have the urge to deliberately play around with this concept. I wanna try breaking scenes with the intention of mastering the fixes. Kinda strange way to do it, but maybe it will eventually pave the way for some great scenes.

    Reply

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