Patient Juggling

Lots of my favorite scenes have two or more things going on, threads being pursued. Might be some minor, some major; or all major. (All minor probably wouldn’t work. Something’s got to matter.) The scene’s moments and focus move back and forth between them, with the time spent focusing on each thread serving as breathing/simmering room for the others, and allowing for rhythm play within the scene.

Jess Allen & Ellie Kemper’s masterful serving tea / reading your grandmother’s will scene, in a Faculty show at the Pit in the fall of ‘010, was a beautiful example of this. We’d get a little bit about the will itself, then the conversation would lead into a surprise jaunt into a “Jess’s character judging the shit out of Ellie’s” thread for a while, which would play out beautifully, and then when it needed a pause, it would swing back to the will, which was all the better for having been given room to breathe.

The Taoist proverb “When was the last time you drank a glass of water while drinking a glass of water?” can serve improvisers as an admonition to “Be here, now”, and but also as a reminder that in the real world, we’re rarely 100% focused on any single movement for more than a few moments at a time. We’re usually debating with our spouse about where we’ll spend christmas while also cooking dinner and watching out the window for the UPS guy and deciding how long to put up with the thuds from upstairs before banging on the ceiling with a broom.

If your scene(s) feels weird and phoney, the problem might not be what you and your partner are focusing on, what game you’ve decided to play, what direction you’ve decided to drive. It just be that you’re focusing on it too doggedly, too exclusively. Monomania is a mania. It’s not normal. Digression, competing interests, harmonies are our friends. As long you’re not just leapfrogging to something new every two seconds and never returning to any of them. As long as all threads are retained, nothing dropped, you’re good to go, and often better off having at least two.

Scenework can feel more grounded, and its events more satisfying, the more the scenes feel like they’re happening in lives we recognize as being like our own. Letting our characters stir multiple pots during their scenes can make that happen.


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