Give and take: character success in improvisation

I had a fun chat on Google Plus last month with a few gamers about different approaches to managing successes and failures in the fiction. The conversation was originally framed around roleplaying games but I was invited in to talk about improvisation. How do we mediate ‘giving and taking’: who gains advantage or disadvantage in a situation or narrative? Glancing back over it it seemed worth sharing, with a bit of tidy-up. Here you go.


Although improvisation and gaming have fundamentally different agendas – in brief, the distinction between playing just for the experience vs with the aim of including an audience – ‘give and take’ is relevant to both. For now let’s just look at this in terms of character success; obviously there are other even more crucial things to give and take, like focus, space to develop ideas, spotlighting and endowing one character or another.

The clearest example of ‘refusing to give’ is when performers are unwilling to get their character in trouble. I saw some clear instances of that at an improv show recently, the defensive instinct where unconsciously we see risk to the character as risk to yourself. None of us are totally immune. In every style of improvisation it’s vital to get past that, but the ways in which we give and take are going to differ from style to style.

In narrative-focused play, the ratio of give to take may depend very much on the role your character plays in the narrative – we are probably enjoying seeing the ‘big bad’ be successful and fearsome earlier in the story, but later their invulnerability is likely to be up for grabs. A stand-alone scene with a high-status character may have them ruling the roost for two minutes and then we want to see them toppled.

In game-style play (associated most strongly now with the UCB) it’s possible for the give and take to become hardwired into the scene. Once an action has been determined to have consequences, it will continue to do so rather than fizzling out because that is the pattern of play thus defined. Example from one of our rehearsals: the loafing paleontology grad student will continue to find fossils wherever he sticks his shovel, to the disbelief of his professor, whose string of certificates have never resulted in a successful find….because that is the pattern we are exploring in this scene. When grad student gives – “Oh… nothing here!” – then we have jumped tracks into a different style of play (no bad thing, but doesn’t negate the point).

In more Chicago-style slice-of-life play, my sense is that give and take (in terms of character success) is driven much more by the implications for relationships. In fact, the give and take is the relationship. Example from a recent Alex and Julia show:

J “I feel our sex life was more exciting at the beginning." 

Me "But it was awkward! Now we’ve settled into a groove. You have sex, you come. It’s nice!" 

J "Exactly. Nice. Which isn’t the total of what sex can be.”

The last point is weighty, so I let it land instead of quibbling. You could see that as a form of success. We allow this established fact to have significance and move forward, ok so our sex is nice but that’s not enough for her. What does that say about her, and what does that mean about our relationship? So it’s a success with consequences, that we then explore (I start to see her as a specimen collector of sexual experiences).

Outside of the relationship, other successes/failures aren’t trivial (do I command my environment or am I frustrated by every bottle I try and open?) as these serve to ground the situation in detail and give life to the characters. But the ones that serve the relationship dynamic are key, and at this stage in my development I can’t see any rules of thumb around them: every choice to give or take moves the relationship into new territory that can be richly explored if you are honest and true to the characters and the established situation.

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