Make Things Worse


“An actor is looking for conflict. Conflict is what creates drama… I am always surprised at how actors try to iron out the conflict that may lurk beneath the surface of the scene, flattening it out instead of heightening it… We are trained as children that the most admirable conduct is that which causes the least trouble, so most of of spend our lives avoiding the conflicts of which drama is made.”

-Michael Shurtleff, “Auditions”


I get knocked for this in improv ALL THE TIME. I’m a fixer. Are we lost? I have a map. Is someone sad? I have their favorite cake. Are the keys missing? I’ve got a spare set.

I rip all the drama out of the scene. In my urge to be polite and nice and kind and friendly (aka likable) I forget this truth- drama is conflict. Not always with each other, no one really wants to watch fight scene after fight scene. And arguing is too easy. But there has to be conflict somewhere. Something needs to go badly, something has to go wrong, someone has to be hurt or scared or SOMETHING. That’s not just where drama comes from, it’s also where humor comes from.

We are entertained and fascinated when bad things happen to other people. If we don’t feel like they are giving us permission to laugh it becomes drama. If we do feel that permission it becomes comedy. Either way, it’s still terrible stuff that happens. The movies The Pursuit of Happyness and Dick and Jane are both about a man losing his job and his life falling apart. In one we are invited to sympathize with him, in the other to laugh at him, but they are both basically the same idea- man losses job, home, etc. and then tries to shield his family from the consequences.

More than one improv teacher has told me that my job is to make things worse. Did their pet die? Tell them they’re fired too. Are the afraid they might be sick? Tell them they have a boil on their face. Are they scared that someone is under the bed? Get yanked under there myself. Are they pissed that someone cut them off in traffic? Reach over and take their stuff while they’re talking. Have fun doing all the thing I would never do to someone in real life.


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