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!"

Coaching inspiration, part 1

When I was actively performing and directing theater, I found that every ~4 years I'd learn that everything I knew about theater was wrong.

Improv revelations have been more evolutionary than revolutionary, but if anything at a faster pace. This post is attempting to describe my latest thoughts about coaching improv based on some recent reflections.**

Coaching IMO comprises three main activities:

  • Helping a team define or refine their style and goals
  • Designing and compiling exercises (possibly forms) to push the team closer to those goals
  • Giving notes and challenges

The trouble with notes


The challenge of notes is the limitation one coach's power. Yes I can give a team notes. But how many improvisers write them down, review them before rehearsal or a show, let them sink in and change the way they play? And if they change that improvisor's behavior for one rehearsal or one show, will the next change build on the last? Or get thrown out the window when she changes something else?

I was the improviser who wrote a lot down. And it just got me in my head. I was playing from a place of obligation. I was trying to dance around a litany of notes rather than playing from a place of inspiration. I was owned by my head and not my gut. I still play that way some times, in some situations. But I have tasted and seek the freedom of playing from inspiration. And it has encouraged me to think differently about coaching others. 

So what would replace notes?

If notes put me into a place of obligation, then what is a reasonable alternative?

1: Train your instincts

First, I had to shift my point of view. Let's think of practice as a place to train instinct and performance as a place where performers trust and run on instinct. Rehearsal is swinging two bats, and the show is all muscle memory. I don't believe there is any value to thinking about anything a teacher or coach has said while you are on stage. On stage, shorten the distance from head to mouth (or foot or jumping hug). On stage, every move is the correct move. That is not lip service. That is truth.

This is a hard concept for me to explain to new groups (or old groups!). Because you may still make a move that we (you and I, us as a team) will talk about afterwards. Or that you will think about and wish you had done differently. That does not imply you should have done it differently in the moment. You followed your gut and that is always correct. In the long run, those conversations and reflections ideally help to re-calibrate your instinct. 

The one thing we can't recalibrate is moves you don't make. Sometimes I will have players who will say something like, "Yeah I really wanted to... (edit there/make this move/enter as your grandma)." Those are moments where they either didn't trust their instinct or thought of a better idea later. Hard to do much about either. If you can make it through a 20 minute set trusting all of your instincts, you will not only be a better improvisor, but I think you will feel you have already reaped dividends from your time and monetary investment in improv.

More on this next week. This post is already long.

**Two caveats: 1) Coaching takes many forms. If I am coaching a practice team of new students or subbing someone else's team, this may look different. 2) I am not prescribing this as the way anyone else should coach or saying I'm the best coach. I've gotten both positive feedback and constructive criticism on this style of coaching. This is just offered as my thoughts on my coaching.

Beyond Yes And: Information in Every Line (part 1)

Both my YETI approach to starting scenes and the Change Machine form rely on adding information in every line. But what exactly does that mean? And what type of information is valuable to add? Why did I rename the blog a few months ago? I will answer these questions (and more!) in this short series. 

Early on in our improv careers we are taught "Yes And." Often this is taught as saying the literal word "Yes" followed by the word "and." At least this is how I learned it, and taught it myself in Level 1 classes.

This may be a necessary introduction, but it is not sufficient for our improv to become easy (i.e. stop feeling like work). To get the momentum of a scene building, we need more than "yes and." Allow me demonstrate:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and he is vomiting on my shoe.
Janet: Yes, and his face looks awful green.
Frank: Yes, and we should get him to a hospital.
Janet: Yes, and they will have doctors who can cure him!

This scene is a reasonable "Yes And" example IMO. And if played with interesting and believable characters, it could be fun to watch. I still think it feels like work. With every line, each player is inventing new facts about Ralph.

My thesis: those 5 lines are really just adding one piece of information.


The distinction I am making is between "details" and juicy, bite-your-teeth-into-it bits that I call 'information."

So while Janet and Frank are adding a lot of details–e.g.

  1. The cousin is vomiting
  2. Frank is wearing a shoe
  3. The cousin's face looks green
  4. The cousin is so bad off to as require a hospital 
  5. Hospitals have doctors
  6. Doctors cure sick patients

I would argue all of these are really ONE piece of information: Janet's cousin is sick. It's the bit we started with. Details #5 and #6 aren't really specific to this scene. If anything #2 is a new bit of information, but is likely just added to support #1, a reformulation of "the cousin is sick."

Improvisers, even vets, will often tread water like this. Usually we are just filling silence and it's easy to repeat what's been said, sometimes we are being polite or waiting for something "interesting to happen," and on rare occasion we do this purposefully to allow time for our partner to get their premise on the table. 

I'm here to address the former. What does it feel like when we add information in every line? And how, practically, do we approach the work such that it's easy to do (that's my whole point after all!)? Well I ended with more questions, but it was just too much for one post. 

As this series builds, I will reshape that scene so information is added each line. In the mean time, watch this opening scene of Cakcowski & Talarico's performance at the 2014 Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Watch it line by line. There are a few lines that repeat info (particularly when playing to the rhythm of the scene) but Craig and Rich freely add information on most lines. It makes it feel like we are watching a scene in progress. It brings laughs more often from the crowd and it quickly builds a solid foundation for them to explore. Enjoy!

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%.

ACTION, or If Romeo and Juliet had Been a Fairly Typical Improv Show...

This is my prediction of what Romeo and Juliet would be like if it was done by many improv teams (abridged):

  • Romeo and Juliet fall in love
  • The Prince says Romeo can't hang around. 
  • Romeo is all like, "but I love Juliet"
  • The Prince is like, "Oh man that sucks."
  • Juliet maybe is like "Guys, if you don't figure this out, I am gonna...kill myself!" 
  • Romeo steps in like, "Yo J, don't kill yourself I love you too much."
  • Juliet is like: "I don't know maybe I should. But Romeo does love me..."

And on and on. Not as compelling as the original is it? What's the problem? We never get to the point where DRAMA transpires and people are able to emote about it.

I think a lot of improvisers are afraid of action. They are afraid to make bold moves, to offset the course of a scene or show in progress. They are afraid to drink that poison and leave their scene partners to deal with the consequences. 

But we go to the theater and to movies to watch people deal with the consequences of their dead lovers! Not to watch them debate whether or not to drink the poison (notice I didn't pick Hamlet).

The more I coach teams to move toward action, the more I see truly incredible and surprising moves. Often their teammates are surprised but once we move past the initial surprise we get into such rich and deep scenes where we deal with the fallout  rather than swimming in the muck of indecision.


  • I am not promoting unmotivated "invented" action. If we're at your family reunion and you stand up and start throwing baseballs at your Aunt June, that doesn't make any sense and confuses everyone. If we're at your family reunion and the scene has been about how your childhood was taken away by your Aunt June, who made you work in her store since you were 4 and you never got to do anything normal kids do. Then your biological father shows up with a bag of baseballs in tow to make up for lost time, and you stand up and start throwing them at your Aunt June, bravo!
  • This sounds like the old improv adage: Show Don't Tell. I support that thinking, and they are related. But to me, this is a shade different. Show Don't Tell means rather than talking about going to the store, just go to the store. Going to the store may not be that big a move though. It may just be something we were talking about. I am particularly advocating that you make bold choices that we are afraid of specifically because they could potentially change (or deepen) the course of the piece. 

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. 

How I think about short form

I really enjoyed performing short form for many years, and I still love watching it when it is compelling. I would say the same about long form -- anything can be done well or poorly and anything can be performed for entertainment, art, comedy or theater.

So how do I think about short form? Not much differently than long form actually. Many people do look at it differently. Because the games change every 5 minutes, they think, "We better have scenes that get there faster and get more laughs per minute." In truth, many long forms (aka Harold) typically have scenes shorter than 5 minutes. And in long form we encourage players to know their want / what their scene is about within the first few lines. So how much faster could you get to the point? Further, the audience typically does not know or care to know the difference. So why should we treat them so differently? As long as our scenework is compelling, they won’t care how we get from point A to B.

What practical affect does that have on my approach? I look at short form games/constraints as an opportunity to push my in a way I wouldn’t normally play. I mean that both in a larger sense (my work during some period) and a narrow one (this specific scene).

Let’s say I’m working with a group that tends to be very talky. We might think of some games or workshop some games to address this. For example, we might play Film Dub/Dub Scene*. Often when I see this game, there are a lot of jokes at the expense of the mechanism: a long line of gibberish turned into a short line of dialog or vice-versa, someone going against the intention of the player, etc. For this team, I would focus it differently. I’d think of it as an opportunity to focus on one thing at a time. If I’m acting in the scene I would think entirely on that: acting. How can I use blocking to help tell a story. Use my movement to create physical space where there is emotional distance. Listen to the dialog and punctuate beats with changes in movement. Initiate movement or space work as gifts to my dubber. And the same goes for dialog. I can just focus on dialog -- on creating natural lines that are begged for by what it happening on stage.

This to me is a fun way to play. And I kind of fun I don’t get to have a lot on stage in long form.

*a game in which 2-3 players do a scene in gibberish and 2-3 players stand off stage “dubbing” the dialog.

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.