SETTING THE SCENE
In this week's improv class, our teacher, Joe, had us get up in pairs to deliver the first three lines of dialogue in an improvised scene. "Partner A says the first line, Partner B responds, and then Partner A plays off of that. Within those three lines, I want you to establish the relationship between the characters, the situation, and the conflict."
It sounded daunting, but within a few tries we all found ourselves able to focus on the rudiments of character, setting and conflict. And because of the lightning-round nature of the exercise, with each pair going up multiple times, the obvious situations were exhausted quickly and the openers became increasingly weird and fascinating.
There were instructive snags, though. One student opened by presenting a small imaginary object to her partner and saying, "Doctor, my little Teacup isn't herself. She's not eating right, and she never wants to play anymore."
Her partner was nonplused, trying to imagine how to respond to a person who thought her china could eat or play. Joe pointed out that Partner A could have used a more common dog name to aid Partner B's recognition of her intention, or Partner B could have decided to be an intake worker at a psych ER, or maybe that the teacup really was alive. But, he added to Partner B, "she gave you a gift. She called you "doctor," and she looked at the dog with love and concern. Try to pay attention to these gifts, all of you. Accept them and use them."
On one of my turns as Partner B, my partner greeted me with, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned"--a definite identity gift--and a list of ridiculous "sins." I responded with some equally bizarre penances and blessed and dismissed her, and she thanked me. Joe said, "Okay, the characters and setting are clear, but those weren't the first three lines of a scene--that was the whole scene. Where was the conflict? What would make us want to keep watching?"
"But there are set things a priest has to say in the confessional," I objected.
"So wouldn't it be more interesting to deviate from the expected script?"
Oh. Right. I could have demanded a share of the bubblegum my partner had stolen, or recognized her as my long-lost lover. I could have been a church janitor sneaking a smoke in the confessional. I had foreclosed the scene through conformity to internalized expectations, rather than remaining open and playful.
Over the past few days, I have been scrutinizing the openings of some of my stories. Many don't pass the "three-line test"--some because I'm trying to do something more complex, but others because I phumpher around rather than committing fully and immediately to a clean narrative line. Lots to think about.
I have also been trying to remain alert at all times to the many gifts that fall into my lap, including this wonderful class; to recognize, accept, and use them with gratitude.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.