I’ve been wrestling with the UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual for a few weeks now. I love the detail of the examples and the way the authors break down the thought process of an improviser during a scene. I appreciate the seriousness of the book, which should help to continue improv’s slow ascent into the mainstream. I’m incorporating it into the syllabus for my improv class and recommending it to all of my college improvisers. But there’s one thing I’m really struggling with – the game of the scene.
I get the concept and I’ve played “game” in numerous scenes. I think of game more as a pattern in a scene, or as Susan Messing says, “the games of the scene are anything you do more than once that become characteristics or facts.” This concept of game, the Chicago approach, allows for game to exist in a scene, but is not inherent to a scene’s success. The UCB approach says that the game is the pattern that defines the scene. The game is the scene. For more on the different ideas about game, check out Erik Voss’s Splitsider article.
The book obviously preaches the latter approach. And I’m concerned. I’m concerned with the idea that every single scene you play should be exclusively devoted to finding and playing the game of the scene. Throughout the book I kept finding myself asking, “What about the relationship between the two people in the scene?” With so much focus on game, it seems as though the heart and soul of the scene is missing – who are these two people to each other and why are we seeing this moment in their lives? What happened to listening to your partner and reacting to what she said?
I’m not saying that the game of the scene isn’t an effective way to play a scene. I think we can all agree that the wild success of UCB and its many alums validates the game approach. Hell, “Who’s On First?” is all game and it is just about perfect. And I know that it sounds contradictory to be uneasy about a comedic formula that produces fairly consistent comedic results when the goal of most improv is to be funny…and when a lot of improv out in the world is anything but funny. But the game feels a little gimmicky and formulaic. Is it usually funny? Yes. Is it more consistently funny than other styles? Perhaps. Yet every UCB workshop or show that I attend I feel the same bit of uneasiness in my belly.
Perhaps it is part of my overall adjustment to the east coast after a lifetime of comfortable passive aggressiveness in the Midwest. It simply makes me nervous that we seem to be moving as a community toward a more game based approach. I’ve always felt that the most important thing in a scene (in any medium) is the relationship between the characters. Sometimes the game enhances the relationship, but more often than not, at least in my experience, it seems to take the place of the relationship. The game might raise the “hit rate” of scenes, but I think it also lowers the ceiling. It seemingly limits the players ability to explore ideas and themes. Of course there are instances of scenes where the players play the game and it illuminates the deepest elements of the human soul. But by privileging game over relationship, we seem to be moving away from the heart of improvisation. We seem to be missing that really great relationship driven two-person scene. When we go to films and plays, or read novels we aren’t doing it to see two people play the game; we want to see two people exploring who they are to each other. We want to see their relationship, not their game. I know improv is different than those mediums, but should the end artistic goal be different?
I think the game of the scene is an important concept and a tool that should be in every improviser’s toolbox. The more ways you as an improviser have to approach and attack a scene the better. If playing the game is the best thing for the scene then you should be capable and willing to play. But I think we are taking away some of the artistry and fun from the form if we solely seek out game.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Albright College. He is the author of Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy - The Harold, The Comedy Improv Handbook, and "My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons."