Simple Solutions to the Scenes We’re Told to Avoid

Originally Posted on // Author: Bobby McCosky

Stranger scenes, transaction scenes and teaching scenes. They all have similar pitfalls but with some good recognition of where they can go wrong, we can learn how to make them work.

#1. Stranger Scenes
What are they? Stranger scenes are any scene where two or more improvisers put themselves in a place where they don’t know each other.

Why do they fail? It all comes down to a lack of stakes or a lack of relationship. We often start by navigating the scene like we treat strangers in real life – which is a good instinct, but in this instance it fails us. We ask a bunch of questions, we find bland topics to talk about (like the weather), and we never get to anything real.

How can we fix this? The simplest solution is to avoid them all together. Resist starting with “Nice to meet you.” or “Is this your first time here?”  Our instincts to be decent humans can get in the way of being decent improvisers. If someone addresses you as a stranger, it’s not cheating to go, “Oh, I think we went to high school together?” or “You don’t know me, but I know you. I see your commercials on TV all the time!” Anything to give you a connection and history. You also have to have stakes with your scene partner. If they are an unusual character at the bus stop, choose to have a connection with them. Even though you are strangers, lines like, “You remind me of myself a little.” or “I know I don’t know you, but I’m worried about you.” can get scenes quickly off the ground.

#2. Transaction Scenes
What are they? Transaction scenes are a sales interaction between two people. Checking out at a grocery store, buying something at a pawn shop, etc.

Why do they fail? With transaction scenes, we often default to arguments – prices are too high, quality is poor, service is lacking.

How can we fix this? I have an acronym that will help: AHEM (i.e., always have enough money). That lamp you want to buy? Buy it! They only take check? No problem! They prefer Bitcoin? Wire them the money! If you default to arugment, you’re killing the game. It’s almost impossible to find much fuel for a scene from something so normal, and honestly, something so boring as arguing over price or quality. The audience may laugh for a second when you raise your voice, but seeing two people who don’t know or care about each other arguing over an imaginary made up item is going to run out of steam very quickly. Instead, have some fun. If you’re in a grocery store check-out line, find something unusual to react to. The bag boy was shocked no one bought condoms. The person checking out appeared to be buying instruments of destruction. The cashier pocketed the coupons they were given. The bag boy was turned on when someone used paper instead of plastic. The possibilities are endless! As long as we find something that makes this trip to the grocery store memorable, we have some legs to run on.

#3. Teaching Secnes
What are they? Teaching scenes are any scene where one improviser is teaching another person something. A yoga instructor, a dance instructor, professor, etc.

Why do they fail? Like transaction scenes, they often crash due to a trend in arguments. To try and gain traction, teachers often default to high status and judgement of their scene partner’s character. Contrary, the person who is being taught often goes along with everything blindly and doesn’t add details.

How can we fix this? Remember that the scene is not actually about teaching. Keep your ears open for triggers that could break the unexpected. It can often be subtle. A yoga instructor who isn’t very flexible or a guitar teacher who expects WAY too much out of a first time student. If you see it in a scene, say it! This will usually lead us to where we need to be. Maybe you’re a student in a teaching scene who needs to use the restroom, but the teacher demands an insane amount of talent in your urinal skills. Just keep the scene moving forward, but find a playful lens.

At the end of the day, just remember that specificity is always our friend!