The Game of the Scene is the Relationship, Dummy

In 2013, when I was first learning improv in St. Louis, one thing my friends and I obsessed over at the theater bar was a classic iO/UCB debate—was an improv defined by the relationship or by the game of the scene?

Framing the Debate

On one side of the dispute is the New York’s UCB, that believes the game of the scene is the scene. It’s the nugget you have to find to perform a funny, successful piece of improv. On the other side is iO, where game of the scene is important, but only insomuch as it’s one of many tools in the improvisers toolbelt.

The latter was the philosophy I learned in my classes (taught by Chicago-trained folks). If improvisers did not define a relationship—establishing why these two characters were together and how they felt about one another—the scene would fall apart.

I was sympathetic to that point of view. I had performed and watched enough improv to know that if two improvisers stood around talking about something without ever defining who they were or why it mattered, the scene didn’t work. It fell flat because it started to feel exactly like what it was—two people standing around, making stuff up.

But “relationship” seemed almost too obvious.

“Stop talking about relationship. It’s a moot point. Of course if there are two characters in a scene there’s a relationship. It’s like saying “Humans breathe air”. Characters have relationships. But that’s not the funny part. The fact that you’re my dad isn’t funny. It’s the unusual aspects of this particular version of that traditional pairing that we focus on…”

I got hung up for a while trying to figure out which point of view was right and which was wrong. But after years of practice, I realized that they weren’t opposite sides of debate at all; they were two ideas that existed along a spectrum. I discovered that every scene should have both a relationship and a game of scene. And sometimes, those could be the same thing.

Defining the Macro Game of the Scene

Every scene has a relationship. But as Gethard says, what makes improv great is the particular, honest way the improvisers interpret that relationship—funny or not. And while relationships in real life are messy and chaotic, relationships in improv are much more straightforward. They have a pattern and rules, defined by…the game of the scene.

“For me game of the scene is a metaphor: Games have rules, and so can scenes. It’s up to the players to figure out those rules as the scene develops. The rules can be ways in which the characters behave or react, patterns to the way they think, or rules governing the situation or even the world in which the scene exists.”

Let’s say we play a slow, “relationship scene” and we discover that you’re my dad and you’re super strict. But I am your son who’s super rebellious. Even if this scene is about the relationship, a game of the scene still exists—I am rebellious and you are strict. No matter what happens, we know how to respond. We’ve built a little machine into which we can input any situation and output how our characters would react. The game of the scene is our relationship. I call this kind of overarching game a “Macro-Game.”

And when you discover the Macro-Game, you can do a scene for five, ten, or twenty-five minutes. It doesn’t matter. Because we’ve established a simple, repeatable pattern that dictates our character’s behavior. You will always be strict; I will always be rebellious. It’s about our relationship, but that relationship is defined by a game of the scene. And if we change that pattern, if suddenly I stop being rebellious and agree to what you’re saying as the strict parent, the scene falls apart. Without that pattern, the scene does not exist.

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