You cannot control your scene partner

Many years ago in a show one of my teammates looked over toward me and called, “Wench! Oh Wench.” Naturally I rushed the stage. “Yes,” I called in my best falsetto. I pushed up my “breasts” and batted my eye suggestively. He had called for a wench and he was getting my sauciest one.

Yeah, that’s me

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm left him completely flustered. After the show I could tell he was frustrated with me. It all boiled down to the scene with the wench. My coming out had completely flummoxed him.

“Um.. Yeah, but you called for a wench.”

“But I didn’t mean you!” he said, exasperated.


A couple of years ago, I was in an improvised Western. Black hats, white hats, improvised horse chases. It was a blast. One night, the show had come down to a final shootout. The evil, black hat mayor of the town was facing off with the white hat cattle rancher. The rest of us improvisers stood in the wings. The two men faced off and slow motion drew and shot. And shot. And shot. And the black hat didn’t die.

We all stood there, the actor playing the good guy, the rest of the troupe, the audience…. Finally, realizing something was supposed to happen, the guy playing the white hat grabbed his chest, cried out, and fell to the ground. The pause was just long enough to be awkwardly funny. But what the hell? The bad guy was going to win? The rest of the cast all rushed the stage at the same time and basically shot the shit out of the evil mayor, but I will never forget that moment thinking, “Crap! Why isn’t that guy dying? Doesn’t he know he’s the bad guy and the bad guy usually dies in the shoot outs?”

Yeah, that was him


The two stories above illustrate a truism for improv: You cannot control your scene partner. You might think you know exactly what is supposed to happen next in the scene, but in improv, anything can happen. The only thing you get to control in improv is your own reaction to what is happening. As improvisers we know this, but it is so easy to forget.

Of course, this is true of life too. We cannot control your life scene partners. They will sometime do things that we think are wrong, or stupid, or will drive us crazy but their actions are beyond our control. All we can control is our reaction to what they are doing.

This fact has been driven home recently by my 10 week old daughter. When I think she should sleep, she is awake. When I think she should wake up, bombs falling on us would not stir her. She is, at 10 weeks, beyond my control.

In improv when someone tries to control a scene and his scene partner, we call that “driving.” People who constantly drive scenes are no fun. Improvisers don’t like playing with people who drive. And yet, people try and control their life scene partners all the time either through guilt, or anger, or fear, or other forms of emotional bribery.  Actions so common that we hardly bat an eye at this behavior. The subconscious fall-out is the same, however. Nobody likes it when someone tries to control them.

Yeah, that’s you

This morning my daughter’s bio-rhythm decided that 4 am was morning. She was up and ready to play. I could have tried to get her back to sleep. I could have tried anyway…. Instead we lay on her playmat and babbled at each other. My reward: giant smiles.

When we are on stage, improvisers usually know better than to “drive” a scene by attempting to control our scene partners. The challenge lies in reminding ourselves to extend the same courtesy to those folks with whom we share our lives.

Today’s Improvmantra: Check your agenda. What happens if you don’t try to control the people around you?


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
This entry was posted in Attitude, Improv Life Lessons, Parenting, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to You cannot control your scene partner

  1. I’m sorry, but if you’re working with amateurs who don’t understand the principle of offer/accept, either they need to be ditched, retaught, or you need to find a more professional acting company.
    And as for your children smiling at you…
    … well, you know that it’s a greater feeling than any ovation you’ll get from an audience.
    Great post. Well written.

    • improvmantra says:

      Well… Don’t misunderstand… It isn’t like these actors did anything wrong. Improvisers react to things in many different ways and there are no mistakes. That’s the beauty of the art form. By not dying, the actor playing the evil major actually made the end of the story even better. Instead of just dying in the shoot out, he was “killed” by all the rest of the town folk shooting him, which was pretty fun. In the first example, our groups tends to debrief a lot in rehearsal, so discussing my choice to be the saucy wench was good for us to think about our scene work. These stories aren’t examples of bad improv, they just illustrate the fact that there is no way we should try to control what our fellow actors are going to do. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Jonathan Hibbs aka Uncle Jonathan says:

    “Die old man, Die!” and “Eat the Muffin.” The first phrase is one I gave my troupe to ensure that my character would die if they wanted him/her to die. The second phrase is the reminder of a lesson I learned long ago about accepting offers…if someone tells you to eat a muffin, EAT THE MUFFIN!
    Improv is like water, take the path of least resistance. Go with it, add to it, and soon you will become a raging river.

  3. I think you just gave me my final rule. 🙂 Thanks.

  4. Kate says:

    It’s no fun to be a pawn- I’d rather be a player in a scene (and life)!

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