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!"

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. 

And But Because

When teaching the early days of "yes, and," I focus on the word "and." Word choice is often demonstrative, and our intentions are revealed when we choose different words. If you really listen to yourself and the sentence you are creating, the words you say after "and" will likely be different than the words you will say after "but" or "because." Sometimes I describe what those other words tend to signify, descriptions I got from a book somewhere sometime.

Recently, one of my students asked me to break that down for them, so Iooked for that reference everywhere. I even asked some other SCIT teachers. No sign of it.

So I figured I'd recreate it from my memory and my own experience and put it up here for reference. As a bonus, if anyone knows where this is from, please let me know!

  • "Yes, and" says I agree with what you're saying and am going to build on it
  • "Yes because" and "Yes so" say I heard what you said but I want to follow the plot of the story rather than the emotional truth of what's happening between us right now.
  • "Yes, but" says I heard what you said but I think my idea is better. Or I heard but I don't feel comfortable with where this is going

Of course, over time we focus less on words and more on agreeing to the emotional truth, the game, the offer being made. But I think this distinction is interesting early on.