Conflicted about Conflict: A Taxonomy

If you're like me, you have struggled with conflict (haha).

Early on, we avoiding conflict and focus on agreement. That's because greener improvisers tend to fight for no reason, so as instructors and coaches we push toward like-minded characters early on.

But when I go to see a movie or play, I want to see characters grow and change? I want to see them go throw moments of struggle and see what they are really made of. During Kevin McDonald's recent sketch workshop, he pointed out that for him there is a difference between comedies with lots of gags like Anchorman (he found it funny but it didn't stick with him) and Airplane (also funny but lasts, he cared more, and is also based on the 1957 drama Zero Hour!).

My solution: rather than talk about avoiding or leaning into conflict, how about we talk about two different kinds of conflict?

Manufactured Conflict

"Conflict is about as necessary as the Mad Scientist's daughter in a science fiction film." - Truth in Comedy, Del Close and Charna Hailpern

This amazing quote refers to what I would call Manufactured Conflict or Improviser Conflict. It is two improvisers arguing, either over the facts of the scene that are not yet totally clear, or just for no good reason. And it comes from a place of fear.

We fear that nothing interesting is happening in the scene, so we manufacture a more "interesting" scene by disagreeing with people. Here are some common patterns that lead to Manufactured Conflict: 

  1. This sucks: Borrowing Susan Messing's language, this is when one player dislikes his or his partner's choices.
    "Ugh a Florida vacation, I'll turn into a lobster!"
  2. Missing essentials: For no good reason, we are missing something we need (in order to get to the actual scene).
    Say we are robbing a bank. Virginia asks Opal, "You got the guns?" Opal replies, "Oh I thought you were bringing the guns..." and we see two minutes about who was supposed to bring guns. 
  3. Picking Fights: For no good reason, a character picks a fight with another character.
    "That is not how you [whatever object work the other player is doing]"
    "Ok kids get in the car." "I don't
    wanna get in the car."

If the audience isn't waiting with bated breath to see how the conflict resolves, it is probably manufactured conflict.

Dramatic Conflict

"Conflict is drama, and how people deal with conflict shows you the kind of people they are." - Stephen Moyer, actor

I was frustrated with avoiding conflict because as this quote indicates I felt that moments of conflict were when you saw the truth in people, and I wanted to create those moments for characters on stage. I started using the term "Dramatic Conflict" from Ken Adams' How to Improvise a Full-Length Play to refer to this other type of conflict. The key difference is that in this type, the actors' objectives are what is in conflict and the audience can see those objectives from the work on stage. 

Here is the high-level picture (mostly from Adams with my notes and commentary):

  • Two players begin discovering circumstances (he calls this the platform).
    Virginia sits at a chair miming a desk, papers, etc. Tom pops his head in the door:
    Tom: I'm going to head out early to catch the end of my son's soccer game.
    Virginia: I'm glad you're here, Tom. These numbers just aren't adding up.
    She motions to the chair in front of her.
  • We have hit what Adams calls the Moment of Engagement as Virginia's objective has impacted (in this case obstructed) Tom's. This puts us into Dramatic Conflict.
  • During much of the scene, the characters will struggle to achieve their objectives.
    Perhaps Tom replies, "You haven't finished the IRS audit!"
    Perhaps Virginia orders dinner.
    Perhaps Tom brings out photos of his son.
  • This is still different from the improvisors attempting to achieve their objectives, which is often the case in Manufactured Conflict. This might entail an improviser introducing information that hurts her character but helps tell the story of the scene (like in the IRS line above). The players are still agreeing and collaborating to tell the story of the conflict and the audience is watching the struggle, the loss, the journey those characters take.

Now just because both characters have an objective doesn't mean they have to be at odds with one another. There are more types of conflict, and more ways beyond conflict to put characters through a struggle. This is not a prescription, just a useful idea for advanced improvisers and perhaps a way to worry less when you feel you are in a good scene that has "conflict!"

You CAN Edit a Scene Too Early

I was taught that you can never edit a scene too early. This may also be expressed as "by the time you think 'it's time to edit', it's already too late" or "follow your feet" / "listen to your body."

I don't necessarily disagree with any of these, but I would like to propose a different way of thinking about the problem.

Rather than think of the edit, let's think of the scene.

This way of thinking pre-supposes that after a certain point (that is usually a couple of minutes in) our scenes are going to fall flat. And before we get there, we should edit. I think that's a pretty negative way of thinking. And what does that thinking have to say about masters like TJ & Dave or Cackowski & Talarico. What would their shows look like if they were to edit at the first sign of a possible "traditional" edit opportunity?

I believe that following the "never too soon" thinking leads to short-sighted improv. The improv itself actually starts to build to a big laugh line with no expectation of getting past it, with living in those consequences. I prefer that we think of ourselves as capable of improvising each scene for the length of the show if necessary. We focus on repeatably creating meaty scenes and editing not to "save" the scene from potential future ruin but just because it is time for the story to move on (or whatever however your form prefers its edits).

This model trust scenes and players to survive past that first big laugh. And in doing so trains them to deal with the consequences of their moves.

When I first present this idea to groups, we often play 5 or 10 minute scenes, then go back and talk about the first moment that their Harold edit instincts kick in. It is often within 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Yet more often than not, the scene work that plays 3, 4, 5 minutes out is beautiful and unexpected territory, and we are thankful to have seen it. When we go in strapping in for a long ride, a number of things happen:

  • We more often push past the part of the scene that we've "figured out" in our head and begin stumbling again–listening to our scene partner and playing on the edge of failure
  • Small specific choices early on and even mistakes get magnified into show-affecting themes
  • Solid meaty scenes tend to get solider and meatier. Fledgling scenes tend to get more fledgling*
  • We heighten past the point we used to think was the top and again find amazing subconscious places to go (thanks to Chris Trew for first introducing this idea to me).

* Another key point: this is a place to retain your Harold edit instinct. When a scene did not start well, I would go back to: you can't edit it too early. This is less a note about editing and more a note to improve our ability as a team to make sure we get into that easy, less work, scene's building momentum place quickly. This will of course never be 100%.

After 12 years, I am learning what improvisation means to me.

I used to say that every 2 years, I learn that everything I thought I knew about theater was completely wrong. 

My pace of improvisation epiphanies has been similar, but recently they are at least trending in the same direction. At the core of this is a solidifying understanding of what sort of work–to use Susan Messing's nomenclature–gets me off. I'm going to attempt to put into words what improv I strive for these days.

Improvisational theater is an art form that is capable of doing something that no scripted performance art can: it allows 2 (or more) performers to enter a blank stage with blank minds. Neither they, nor the audience, have any idea what the scene or show that is about to be performed will be about yet the lights come up and immediately something is happening. Something engaging. Those actors rather than needing to invent a story in the moment can just play the moment. They use an almost monastic level of control to allow their thoughts and ideas of what the scene is and where it is going to come into their head and flow out. And moment to moment, the scene unfolds before them. This allows for unique and beautiful creations that would not be possible in sketch or plays. 

In a YETI workshop (more on this soon) I taught recently at The New Movement in New Orleans, a player began with a strong posture choice–slumped shoulders, legs wide, very masculine. Her scene partner crossed the stage cautiously. I asked her if she felt her partner came too close or stopped too far away and she said, "I felt my character was on a bus, sort of a creepy unsavory dude." This is the default for a lot of improvisers: what is the narrative? The plot of the story. I asked them to replay the scene and focus on just what information was in front of her. Make that great choice but try to hold off on figuring out where she was and who she was and just listen to her scene partner. How was she holding herself? How was she regarding her? To use TJ and Dave's terminology1, what was the "heat" between them?

With little training, this is something we can all instinctually learn to pick up and react to. And with some training, we can become quite good at it.

And in improvisation, the process is the product. The audience is along for the ride. They watch this with us. They are on the edge of their seats. They discover as we discover and get surprised as we, often genuinely, get surprised.

So, what are the implications of this way of thinking? I will list a few of them here, though I am definitely still exploring this:

  • If approaching improv this way, comparing your work to its written counterparts 2 (sketch, plays, etc.) is a misguided endeavour. We should study those counterparts in our effort to become better improvisors, though as critics of our work and others', I do not believe we should hold up written work as the standard. It is perhaps more akin to other improvised collaborative art such as improvised jazz.
  • This way of viewing improv does not discount the other ways as invalid. I do believe there are some truly funny people (one referenced in this article) who are very talented at more premise-based approaches. Perhaps there should be different names for the two ways of improvising. We currently distinguish between short form and long form improv, and I think maybe this distinction is more important. Maybe call that "Writing on the Spot" or call this "Collaborative Scenework."
  • With great power comes great responsibility. With written work, if I want to explore or wander into dangerous/taboo/offensive territory, I can run it by a friend who has more experience than I do with mysogony, abuse, addiction, racism, etc. to ensure that I am handling the issue appropriately and being funny for the right reasons. Even if I am improvising in a premise mode or planning ahead in my mind, I can run a quick broadcast delay. The approach I am describing here relies on the performer to have that responsibility in themselves.


  1. In their new and incredible book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book, TJ and Dave define the "heat" and "weight" of a scene. This is an incredible way of looking at opening moments, and the whole book is great too!
  2. Matt Besser in an interview with SplitSider: "We always comp are our scenes to sketch comedy because we believe a great improvised scene is something that you can write out and it’s a great sketch."

How to teach improv?

In the past few years I have found myself stumbling into a fair amount of teaching -- at the Steel City Improv Theater and more recently at Carnegie Mellon -- and I've never been taught how to teach. I've never read literature or student-taught or studied different learning styles (which grinds the gears of the real teachers in my family).

With both software (how to write good software) and improv (how to do fun meaningful scenes more often), I find a similar problem: the masters just have a lot of experience. There are different schools of thought and most of it has nothing to do with learning rules and following them. It's a lot of context-sensitive applications of that experience. 

So how do you teach something that comes down to experience? There have been many discussions at the theater about this. While there are definite subtleties, I believe the philosophies break into two fundamental camps:

  • Start with the basics: yes and, physical/object work, who/what/where, pattern/game. These are the lingua franca of improvisation that allow you to talk about early scenes. The theory is that learning the basics allow you to understand what you are doing when you transcend the rules. But: is it possible to lose the forest for the trees?

  • Start the way you want to play. If you believe in true emotional connections, comfort and honesty, start there. If you believe in pattern and game, start there. The theory is that by doing good work students will discern the "rules" for themselves -- or their own rules -- and learn to follow their fun. Mick Napier was an early pioneer of this idea, and it has been wholly embraced by folks like Chris Trew of The New Movement (where they don't teach suggestions!). But: is it possible to feel overwhelmed and lost when you start at the end?

I don't believe there is one correct answer. I have been shifting more toward the latter approach but I find a lot of value in the former when coaching and with some groups of students.  

If anyone knows more than I do about teaching, or just has experiences to share -- I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Amie and Kristen on Talking Shop in April!

Photo credit Erin Pitts

In just two short weeks, I will be back on the mic and interviewing New York and Philly natives Amie Roe and Kristen Schier!

I am so excited to talk shop with these incredibly talented improvisers. I first saw them in Jan 2011 when Irony City coordinated a trip they took to Pittsburgh for a performance and workshop. I also made a point to see them at the Del Close Marathon last year and they were easily one of the best shows at the festival.

But don't take my word for it. The Amie and Kristen Show has won 16 awards at festivals throughout the US and Canada, and they were voted Best Improv Group by their peers Philadelphia's 2011 Witout Awards.

Mark your calendar now for Saturday, April 20 11pm at the Steel City Improv Theater.

Notes: Paul Grondy Workshop

Paul Grondy

Last Saturday (March 30), I left Ric Walker's workshop and high-tailed it to Paul Grondy's. I have been a huge fan of Paul's ever since I heard Kevin Mullaney talk to him about Harold on the IRC podcast.

Some great quotes from Paul:

  • There is nothing funnier than the committed portrayal of someone else
  • You don't make comedy, the audience does.
  • Taking the comedy out allows us to slow down, take more time between line and response, and give yourself time to consider.
  • I don't want to be inspired by my own brain.
  • Just do acting work up front. You risk a boring scene but it leaves you room to trust in the comedy happening.
  • If you match someone's crazy, it's ok but realize you are doing a shorter scene. Otherwise, give the crazy focus and fuel it.

Paul’s priorities in an improv scene:

  1. Be somebody -- play that person realistically and authentically, and the audience will listen to your dialog in context of that character
  2. His scene partner -- helping build his or her idea
  3. Kick-ass object work
  4. A good location
  5. Then, saying some funny stuff

We played two versions of an exercise called "yes because." The first was about making a completely ridiculous offer into an honest and believable reality. The second was about taking a mundane offer and playing it honestly, resisting the temptation to take it to crazy town. They were very different but both really fascinating.

We finished the workshop with an Armando where the goal was to play normal people behaving normally. We were told that nothing was to happen in these scenes. I found it very hard to resist that built-in urge to heighten and play hard. But it was wonderful! The lesson (as I understand it) was not that one should never heighten but that these instincts can easily push us over the line into creating comedy or (dare I say it) trying to be funny. It was interesting how hard it was to play normal people behaving normally.

Posted with permission from Paul Grondy.

Notes: Ric Walker's Speed of Response Workshop

Ric Walker

I took two amazing workshops last weekend. The first was Ric Walker's Speed of Response. If you have the chance to study with Ric, I cannot recommend him highly enough. He has a very light and fun approach that I appreciate.

This workshop was not what I expected, but I loved what I got. What I took out of it was a a better understanding of how my brain works -- particularly how it learns -- and what I can do to help it learn better and faster. With the eventual goal being to improvise smarter faster.

Here are some high level (paraphrased) quotes that stuck with me:

  • Throw yourself at the edge of failure
  • Asking why helps you learn. Adults don't do this as much and it causes brain calcification.
  • If you are struggling, rather than use filler (e.g. "uhhh"), just take a breath. This reminded me of Susan Messing's gem, "Umm is the pause for the thought that will never come"
  • Being good at argument is counter to good brain function (uh oh)
  • You want ego in the product and none in the process
  • Self-awareness is another thing that helps your brain function improve

Ric said at the top not to expect a huge improvement immediately, but that he would provide us with individual and group exercises we could work on over time. And he certainly did! Here are some of my favorite new ones or new takes:

  • Individual exercises
    • Jump Rope
    • Fast finger pointing
    • Ear prompter (to the radio)
  • Pair exercises
    • Hot hands/slap
    • Ear prompter (with a partner)
    • Simultaneous talking
  • Group games
    • Hamburger
    • Chiminy Chee

We did an exercise at the end that I really liked as well. It was about literally walking through these steps with each line/response in a scene:

  • What did he or she say? (my scene partner)
  • How do I feel about it? (emotion word, not in terms of narrative)
  • What am I going to do about it?

I use a somewhat similar exercise I learned from Kevin Hines' where the first player delivers a line, second says what she feels about that, then the first says what he feels about how the second feels. But Ric's add that extra layer of action which really had a profoud effect. I definitely want to keep exploring this with my own work as well as teaching.

Thanks Ric for a fascinating 3 hours!

Posted with permission from Ric Walker.

Getting the most out of a jam

I came across an amazing article this week from People and Chairs: 7 Tips for Surviving an Improv Jam.  Also recently, Greg Gillotti and I discussed his post: Jam It Up.  

A jam is a different sort of beast than a regular improv show. Different performers have different relationships with jams and those relationships evolve over time. I wanted to share my personal journey with jams, and some reflection on it.

» When I began improvising, I was going to free workshops offered by the No Parking Players at CMU. After the first workshop, I posted to their discussion group apologizing for how terrible I had been. I was playing with funny people and felt bad about myself. I didn't know anything about improv and at that stage, I just felt bad about myself. I don't think everyone is this way, but if you are there is no shame in it. This is a good time to just watch jams and play with groups you can rehearse with while you develop your sensibility. Kasey Daley has talked about standing on the back line at the PIT jam for weeks just to be on stage before jumping into a scene. I think it's all good. 

» My first real jam was the Pittsburgh Improv Jam when it kicked into gear around 2010. I now had years of short form under my belt and some long form. But I was for the first time playing with a whole lot of new people. My comfort and confidence with Irony City now turned to dust as I did shitty scene after shitty scene. Only in this stage, my solution was not to pull back but to dive in. The jam offered me a sandbox to learn to play with new people and live Susan Messing's words, "If you're not having fun, you're the asshole." It took years, and I still hated most of my work there, but I learned how to have fun at that jam, and I feel as though I became a better improviser for it.

» Throughout that time, I got to play at the jam with members of 2 Second City touring companies, SCIT founders Justin Zell and Kasey Daley, SCIT Artistic Director Woody Drennan, Arcade Comedy Theater founders Jethro and Kristy Nolen, Mike Rubino, Abby Fudor, and Randy Kirk, not to mention people I admired for years in the community. People sometimes tell me they are intimidated to play with me. I understand that, but at the same time I loved the opportunity to play with these amazing performers. They made me feel taken care of and helped me understand what it felt like to get through an amazing scene and be out of my comfort zone. 

» Now, I love jams. As a more experienced player, I try to create those experiences for others. I love moments at the SCIT Social where I do a scene with one of my level 1 students for the first time, and I overhear him or her say something like, "What?! I'm doing a scene with Brian!" They don't realize the pressure is on me! And usually they improvise circles around me because they are taking class, and I have to remember my basics. It always gets me thinking more carefully about the work.

Again, this is not meant to be a prescription. Just a bit about my evolving relationship with jams in the hopes it informs others'.

Care about something

A few years ago, I took a workshop with Katie Rich (now on Second City mainstage). She was in Pittsburgh with TourCo and was delighted to take some time out and put together a class for a rag tag bunch of improv enthusiasts. She started the workshop by asking us what every improv scene needs (my apologies to Katie, but I am sure I don’t remember this correctly):

“Big choices”

Then she told us her answer,

“Two people who care about each other. Who have a reason to be on stage together.”

This has been fundamental to my views on improvisation. Even prior I felt this way, but that moment helped put it into words for me. As I performed short form, studied long form, learned game and Harold, played with genre or with montage -- my goal has always been to care about what I am doing and who I am doing it with.

And not only on stage. I believe in passion as motivation. There is a lot of elbow grease that goes into a creative pursuit. I would rather see people fail trying to do something risky and challenging -- pushing themselves to the limits of what they could do -- then see people succeed at a mediocre show that I’ve seen them do before.

And these Katie Rich moments continue to happen for me. I feel passionately about my opinions, but I still lead the way for them to change when I am shown the joy of another way (or possibility).

That is the purpose of this blog: to explore my own thoughts and to create dialog with other improvisers (to get at something I care deeply about -- continuous improvement).

So for all those who care, welcome.