Tension

Two couples sit in traffic, idle in their cars discussing various things: where they are going, their children, what’s on the radio. These two improv scenes have the same set up, the same two chairs, and are perhaps even performed on the same day. While one works, the other bombs.

In both scenes the actors ask questions. Neither scene has much “action” per se, mostly two people sitting and talking. Yet while one of these scenes dies on the vine, the other blossoms into something fascinating and fun. Technically the scenes are pretty much the same, so what give one life and the other death?

Tension.

Often in improv we talk about stakes. Raise the stakes, improv coaches and teachers call out as if their students/team were some sort of poorly funded siege army. Your scenes must have stakes.

Raising our stakes

What does this mean? One of my pet peeves is when teachers use terms that are either poorly defined, hard to define, or inadequate to the situation. “Stakes” is a term that fails under all of these criteria. Instead, I prefer to use the term: tension.

In theater, as in life, there are two major points of tension. For years, the Portable Reality Show, my improv group, has referred to this as “death and porn.” The fact is that most scenes in theater (improv, scripted, day-to-day drama) are about two people getting into it, either through sex or conflict. And, frankly, often both.

Imagine my delight when I took a workshop with Chicago’s Joe Bill and he let this pearl of wisdom drop: F*cking or fighting, it’s always about one or the other. The audience is always wondering which one will happen.

Very homoerotic 

There are, of course, other ways to build tension in scenes. A sudden drawn out silence, secrets, the possibility of failure, and intense emotions can all work. Many short form games have tension built in – they sustain audience interest simply because of the large possibility of failure (at least in the audience’s minds). This is probably why audiences like short form games like endowments, or well-done “mutants” scenes even though these types of games rarely have “stories.”

However, when creating scenes and stories without the benefit of these handles, improvisers must stop being lazy and take responsibility for creating the tension themselves because this is the life force of the theater.

Humans love tension. Why do we listen in to hushed arguments in public places? Why do we stay friends with crazy people? Why do we fall in love?

Tension.

One of my best friends growing up would have been best described as an asshole. He was obnoxious, always in trouble, and always getting me in trouble. I am sure my parents hated him, but I idolized him. He was so damn interesting. And who can forget a first kiss? It is the tension that makes this moment so magical. Will it happen or won’t it? The delicious “just before” feeling is often better than the kiss itself.

Would it have been better if he ate her?

I suggest brainstorming with your group different general/technical ways to add tension into scenes. Even a supposedly boring “teaching” scene can become fascinating if the audience is wondering if the student is about to kill the teacher, or f*ck him.

Tension.

Today’s Improvmantra: Look for tension in your life. Sometimes it can be positive, but often it draws us into things we probably shouldn’t be doing. Even if they are so damn fun.

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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.
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2 Responses to Tension

  1. Excellent. You always make me want to join and improve class. Just read a Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel. The guy’s great with tension.
    In the novel, the protagonist is working with a woman who doesn’t like to be touched, He doesn’t ask why, and she doesn’t say. Near the end, she slowly hovers her hand over his. Finally she touches him.
    Tension. Awesome.

  2. improvmantra says:

    Yes. Tension and release… good stuff.

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