The four pillars of relationships

An overview of creating rich character relationships in scenes

First of all can we agree that every interaction between characters is an insight into their relationship? No? OK, why not? Well, some characters aren’t really characters at all; they’re just placeholders for where a character could be. Take the fast food clerk who delivers the burger to the protagonist or the toll booth operator, the protagonist interacts with them as they might with an appliance. Fine – then don’t have them on stage or on the page. If the function of a character in a scene can be replaced by a machine then it must be, but more likely any good editor will jump the story straight past this dull section and leave it on the cutting room floor.

But in improv there is no editor.

I’ve been performing improv for a decade and teaching it for the last three years at City Varsity; the most common mistakes I see in the beginner’s class is the creation either of flat transactions masquerading as scenes or characters with inner dynamism but no connection to anyone else on stage. To address this, my students and I developed the four pillars of relationships – four things to bear in mind whenever characters interact. These are things that good improvisers all do but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it formally rolled into a single theory.

What is the nature of the relationship? The first step is figuring out the formal definition of the relationship and making it clear to your partner onstage. This is the most important label that other characters might stick on the jar and is a literal one. Brother/Sister, Mother/Son, Doctor/Patient, Cop/Criminal, Wife/Husband, etc. Some of these are more loaded than others, but all have potential to be interesting. What about strangers though? Can’t we do a scene with two characters who’ve just met? Sure, in fact some of the best scenes I’ve ever witnessed feature two strangers meeting, generally done by experienced performers who work together effortlessly. Just like the “say yes to everything” rule, these are principles that must be sublimated in the performer, a foundation from which to play. What makes this a foundation is that by being clear about the nature of the relationship, the other pillars are suggested and so can be springboarded or subverted for scene beats.

From the nature we build shared history. Deep relationships are built of shared experiences, good performers and writers will hint at these without making them the focus of the scene, although it can provide dramatic beats through tilts and revelations. Imagine a scene: a wife confesses to her husband she’s been cheating. He’s furious, he rants. She digs into their past to defend herself – the child they tried to have maybe. A scene becomes richer when the characters reach back into their shared history and gives us more perspective on the moment. This is also handy with side characters; how often have you seen the protagonist walk into a bar or diner and be greeted with familiarity by the barman or waitress? It allows a shorthand glimpse into the regular life of the character and their place in the world. Shared history also exists between strangers. Wait, what? But they’re strangers. I’m willing to bet that every time you’ve met a new person and managed a conversation it was probably because of the things you shared – growing up in a particular time or place, experiencing the same music or books, or bonding over the misadventures of a mutual friend.

The nature of the relationship and the shared experiences of characters are both fixed aspects: Once established, they cannot easily be altered without undermining the scene. If one character identifies another as her daughter the scene cannot proceed if this isn’t taken as fact. A performer may try to use a cheap trick to get around this, for instance making the other character demented or insane, but something substantial is always destroyed this way – the faith of the audience and possibly the other performer’s trust too.

The remaining pillars are more easily changed. The first is status. Who holds the power in the relationship? Power can be defined in as many different ways as there are different characters, it all depends on they think of as important. Power may come from respect, which may be personal, professional or societal – does one character admire the other? For their job? Their intellect? Their good looks? Or does one look down on the other for their poverty? Their body odour? Their history? Power can also come from objects, their innate value or their threat. Changing the balance of status is easily justified through the course of a scene; maybe the cop loses the gun or the CEO falls clutching at his heart. Status reversals are very satisfying ways to end scenes.

The final pillar is the most fluid, it is attitude. Attitude is the moment to moment emotional relationship of one character toward another. It has two basic categories: positive or negative. Examples of positive attitudes: love, admiration, trust, interest, lust. Examples of negative attitudes: anger, annoyance, disgust, fear, contempt. I haven’t come across anyone preaching the usefulness of attitude, I think because it is so instinctive in most good performers. I first noticed how important it is for a scene to have contrasting attitudes when watching a scene between two seasoned performers, one of whom was high status and using that to almost block the other performer’s proposals. The scene worked because the low status character had an incredibly positive attitude toward the higher; essentially they played the bumbling servant and the cynical master (like Blackadder and Baldrick). Teaching the idea of attitude became essential as a part of teaching status because when students were asked to adopt a high status role they would overwhelmingly go for negative attitudes towards their partners. Perhaps that is a reflection of their defining experiences authority figures.

The two shifting pillars, Status and Attitude, are dependent on the fixed ones, Nature and Shared History. Any combination of the four is possible but revelations in the fixed two inform and shift status and attitude. Great improvisers create relationships with interesting choices in each of the four aspects, creating a clear nature, building a rich shared history and complementing and juxtaposing status and attitude.

Can you have a compelling scene between two characters without these pillars? They could be strangers, have no shared history, be of undefined and unchanging status, and be indifferent to each other. That sounds more like two people in an elevator than two people onstage.

Just Say Yes. Or don’t. Part 3

Part 3: Story

The second thing that compels an audience’s attention is Story. Story is how a character gets from point A to point B, it’s how a situation changes. So for it to be a story something has to change from the beginning to the end, whether it’s a shift in power, status, money, love, happiness, value or self-esteem. A story in which nothing happens is not a story; it’s a situation, a portrait or a houseplant. Sure, they may have their merits, they may even entertain, but they cannot satisfy an audience the way a well told story can. The audience’s expectations vary according to the genre and length of the scene, a minute scene can end with one neat tilt or punchline while a long form game requires a major reversal of fortune for a character. A lot of people have opinions about what an audience really wants, but there is one thing we can agree that they don’t want. They don’t want to be bored. And even surprises can become boring if they don’t having meaning. Which leads me to the improviser’s dilemma, how can we work together to create a story and make something surprising and satisfying?

Most of the performers I’ve played with love stories from many different media. They watch plays, movies and TV shows and read books and comics. They know the component parts of a story, from the basic structures to the various tropes of different genres. In this sense every proposal they make is drawing on this wealth of experience while being reinvented by their unique voice and the electric sparks between their fellow players. It is this sensitivity to the currents of narrative that cannot really be taught, only nurtured. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I don’t know how to explain it. That magic moment on stage when all the performers suddenly know what’s going to happen? I don’t know how we leap from shared pop-culture experiences and ‘say Yes’ principles to that. But here are my thoughts on some of thing that do go into that leap.

So – back to Yes and No. As we make and accept offers we create settings, relationships, wants and needs, opposition, status and stakes – all the aspects that build a story. When a performer first stands up and makes an offer anything can happen but as more offers are made the possibilities become fewer. This is what Keith Johnstone refers to as ‘the circle of possibility’, as the story progresses the circle becomes smaller. So we have, in a sense, a field to select actions from; which actions we select are based on a performer’s thinking, not a character’s. An improviser must balance being ‘in the moment’ with seeing several moves ahead and setting up a sort of ‘collapsing field’ of possibility whose outcome is a compelling story. A performer who is too much in their character will not advance the story; will instead dwell on conversations and minute actions. A performer who is floating just out of character is able to build tilts and jokes out of the circle of possibility, but they are thinking of their egos, not of advancing the story. It’s this middle ground of performer that is often the most frustrating to work with, though clearly talented and often funny, their scenes are dogged by pointless originality and never quite find the ending.

The most experienced players though have mastered thinking long term while keeping the moment alive. This was my revelation watching some great scenes being built – they trust that humour and character will happen, but they work on the story. Not on character, not on setting up gags, they are thinking about what will change the status/situation/location/dynamic and how to move toward that. They are thinking about where the other performers are trying to take the scene and they throw their lot in to getting it there. All the terminology I’ve discussed and the strategies I’ve glanced over in part 1 and 2 are tools to communicate on stage through choices and actions. All are there to create story.


I think story is one of the most complicated issues of all in improvisation. I’ll be wrestling with it at a topic a lot I think. Also, I should put more pictures in these posts. Maybe satirical cartoons.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.

Just say Yes. Or don’t. Part 2

Part 2: Character

OK, so last week I looked at the language of improvising, trying to define the terms needed to discuss the nuances of Accepting and Blocking. This section is on Character and how our character choices interact with how we receive offers.

So, what is Character? It’s not an actor performing with a different posture or accent or any of the tics or bits of business we may put on. Neither is it the history of the character, the background and such facts. These are Characterisation. Character, to paraphrase Robert McKee, is the inner nature of the being underneath the observable facts of Characterisation. Character then is layered and is revealed through the wants, actions and attitudes on stage. The most important thing to take from this is that one word, “Layered” because it reconciles an actor’s habitual position on character (that it is fixed) with the need to be adaptable in the moment. Is your character a coward? Fine, but maybe there’s a layer underneath that is incredibly protective of others, so that he can overcome his fear and act bravely. Is your character arrogant? Sure, but everyone has an insecurity buried somewhere. I am of the opinion that “my character wouldn’t have agreed” is almost never a valid defense.

Let’s return to how Character is revealed: through wants, actions and attitudes. Everything done on stage is either an offer or a reaction to an offer; the favored reaction being “Yes and…” or Expanding. Any want, action or attitude can have more than one possible characteristic at its root and that even this root can have layers behind it. Example: I want money (Greedy) to pay for my mother’s operation (Righteous) so I can prove I’m the better son (Competitive) so I take the action of robbing a bank (Immoral) by tunnelling in (Sneaky) and I do with an attitude of bravado (Confident) until the alarm goes off and I burst into tears (Cowardly). As offers are made on stage more of the Character is revealed by a performer who is willing accept offers that seem to contradict their initial proposal than those who stubbornly stick to their agenda.

How Character relates to Status is a primary concern of mine. First off, Status is the perceived importance of a character on stage relative to the other characters. So it too is a shifting quality, changing as the action reveals layers of Character. Challenge games of High Status and Low Status, in which 2 players compete to one up (or one down) each other not only teaches good lessons on the nature of Status, but also teaches mastery of Tilting. The most successful player isn’t the one making the offers that push him toward the goal, but the one accepting the offers with a twist to his own advantage. As good a lesson as these challenges are, they do not teach layered character, for that we must turn to Status Switch, a challenge in which players begin one high and one low and must, by the end of the scene, reverse this; a conclusion that is a great ending in any story.

The switch depends on the improvisers building the necessary conditions and actions to change the dynamic between them. They could be in any number of relationships (such as: adversarial, familial, romantic, or cooperative) and could shift in any number of ways but under the scene one performer is accepting power and another is passing it on. Their revelations of character are toward a shared goal of the challenge.

In a class game of Poet in the Field, I played the interviewer as condescending and mean to the poet I was interviewing, very much High Status. After the first part and about to go into the poem the game was frozen and Megan pointed out how hard I was making it for my partner by undermining everything she had to say. I had been Resisting and Negating her work. The scene continued rather than restart and the ‘poem’ was performed. This allowed my character to go to a different layer, being moved by the beauty of the words. My partner in this scene, Illana, then seized the opportunity create a very satisfying status reversal. That lesson has stuck with me.

This brings me to the final point on Character: Attitude. This is how a character receives offers; it goes across a spectrum of positive to negative. The most positive reception to an offer creates a high energy scene with a lot of forward momentum to advance the story. The most negative attitude slows the energy and increases the risk of the scene becoming stagnant. The important way to avoid this is to treat Attitude the same way Status is treated, shifting and complimentary. Two performers playing negative Attitudes in the scene are in danger of falling into an argument, their Resisting of each other’s offers slowing the scene to snail speed. A negative played against a positive though can avoid this easily; the positive and negative complement each other. Combine this with the variations of Status and you have an infinite number of combinations to create layered Characters with shifting Status and Attitude.

So that’s the end of Part 2. Next week I’ll finish up this article with Part 3, a look at how all these factors must be balanced to create compelling stories.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.

Just say Yes. Or don’t. Part 1

Part 1: Beyond Yes and No

Two things compel an audience’s attention, Character and Story. I think of Story as being characters getting from point A to point B. Writers can exercise their godlike overview to balance the exploration of Character and the advancement of Story, but an improviser must perform the balancing act live. The central tenet of TheatreSports is “Say Yes” because it helps preserve that balance. Actors love Character, love slipping into that mask because being in Character is being in the moment. I remember Geoff Hyland saying that the aim of the actor is to preserve life on stage; the shaping is the director’s purpose. In performance improvisation (as opposed to rehearsal or therapeutic improv) the shaping is equally the actor’s, leaving no space for being in the moment as an abdication of responsibility. What do I mean by this? Bluntly, too often I’ve heard actors defend a choice or, worse, a block onstage by talking about what felt right for a character. The following are my thoughts on several issues that have been raised and briefly explored during the weekly TheatreSports classes.

First of all it must be clear that Improvised performance is not a chess game, what is less clear is that it does share similarities. The correct moves and responses are infinite but not wholly unpredictable. Like mathematical chaos it is non-repeating but self-similar. With 2 clear goals in mind the performer can reliably produce work that will engage the audience. These goals are interesting Characters and a satisfying Story. The Story is a collaborative creation, while Character is the individuals’ responsibility. Saying Yes is how we accept the past conditions of the characters and story (the relationships, where they came from, the characters’ histories, etc), the present conditions (what they want, where they are, what that sound is, etc) and the future (what we will do next, what will happen if we cut this wire, etc). The foundation of Improv is acceptance – it is the first skill that needs to be learnt to play successfully. And it is a skill. Our habit as actors (especially formally trained actors) is to put our characters first and create conflict with other characters. An aggressive philosophy of Yes breaks this habit and from there the performer can grasp the different nuances of accepting offers and collaboratively creating Story.

But Yes isn’t the totality of acceptance and No is not always a block. That binary is a learning tool and like any lesson, once mastered it reveals its limitations. Experienced Improvisers have mastered acceptance and know how to judge offers coming at them and shape their responses to create a satisfying story. It now becomes harder for me to categorise acceptance because Yes and No are too limiting, we need to have the words to express the qualities and conditions a performer colours his acceptance with. The lexicon must expand to Yes, No, Accepting, Blocking, Justifying, Ignoring, Tilting, Gagging, Delaying, Rushing, Resisting, Negating – all of which affect Character and Story in different ways. Let’s first have a look at this lexicon.

  • Yes – The basic touchstone of acceptance. It’s almost impossible to Block when you begin your sentence with Yes. It becomes a tricky subject when followed by modifiers like But and Just as we will see shortly.
  • No – the original block, whether it’s trying to establish past or present conditions or propose a future course of action. It’s beguiling because as a response it has the potential for 2 things that actors love: Reversal of Expectations and Conflict.
  • Accepting – when the Improvisers agree on the Past and Present conditions and proposals for the future. The opposite of Accepting is Blocking.
  • Blocking – undermining the shared reality of the scene (Performer 1: “What’s that sound?” Performer 2: “I don’t hear anything”) or ‘blocking’ the forward momentum of the scene such as by refusing to perform a proposed action (like refusing to hand over the cash).
  • Expanding – ‘Yes and…’ accepting the offer and building on it. It doesn’t have to be literally worded but the concept is the foundation of great collaboration (“Is that the letter from Dad?” “Yes, he writes about how sorry is about the holiday”).
  • Justifying – the very subtle art of keeping reality together. Mostly accepting offers is enough, but sometimes a contradiction emerges on stage. These are usually accidental like misnavigating the mimed environment or getting a character’s name wrong, but sometimes they’re created by performers insisting on their own agenda in a scene. Justifying is reconciling the contradictions, when done obviously it draws attention to the mistake, when done subtly it creates a satisfying and rich world on stage.
  • Ignoring – when an actor doesn’t respond to the offers of another actor, this can range from the gentleman’s block of changing the subject (Performer 1:“How was your holiday in Majorca?” Performer 2: “Do you hear that scratching sound?”) to outright ignoring the other performer. But by far the most common form of Ignoring is ignoring the set-up of space such as the door and table the first performer has lovingly established.
  • Tilting – is the accepting of an offer, but in the process modifies it in an unexpected way, hence ‘tilting’ our expectations (“Is the weather bad outside?” “Terrible. Sunny, not a cloud in the sky – horrible for Vampires like us”). It can be a very funny and very satisfying moment, often enough to be the punch line ending a scene, but it can also be frustrating if played too often, or it can create Pointless Originality, and then there is Tilting’s evil twin, Gagging.
  • Gagging – is making a joke (often a terrible pun) at the expense of the scene. It can be the deliberate misunderstanding of an offer (“Do you know John too?” “John 2? Yes, and John 3, 4 and 5… But I’ve never met John 1”) or playing the parody of a genre, rather than the genre itself (A cliché in Soap Opera scenes: “Dan! My long lost brother’s fiancé’s uncle’s bestfriend’s former roommate’s evil twin!”).
  • Delaying – holding back the action while accepting an offer. This is a Yes, But or Just – as in “Yes, but just let me shut off the alarm.” Delaying is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you need to complete an action to Justify the reality of the scene when another actor gets ahead of himself. To know when Delaying or Rushing are right depends on the performer’s sense of the pace of the scene.
  • Rushing – accepting the offer, dealing with it and moving on to a new proposal (Performer 1: “I’ll give you the money, but first you must find and return my mother’s pearl necklace” Performer 2: “OK, great. Luckily I found it on my way in. Here you are”) again, it depends on the pace the scene needs. That exchange would be terrible if played in the opening minute, but necessary if an ending was needed.
  • Resisting – accepting but not committing to the acceptance. There are 2 sides to this: the resistance of the actor and the resistance of the character. The first is unacceptable, pointblank unacceptable. The performance is a group creation and 1 actor being ‘above it,’ ‘out of it’ or generally telegraphing to the audience a negative judgment of the ideas of the others is a saboteur. The resistance of character is a different animal, a character can be scared to go into the cave, unsure that robbing the bank is a good idea or furious that they’ve fallen into a trap – but they go into the cave, rob the bank and fall into the trap none the less.
  • Negating – making proposals that counter the offers of the other performers to keep the negater in control of the progression of the scene (Performer 1: “I anticipated your betrayal and removed the bullets from your gun!” Performer 2: “I anticipated your anticipation and put them back”).

Ok, that brings me to the end of part 1. In part 2 I’ll explore how these concepts relate to Character in a more detailed way and conclude in part 3 with Story.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.