Dramatic Tension: Improvising and Playing in Relationships

NOTE: I started this post in February and had a baby in early April, hence the ridiculously late publication.

On Valentine’s Day, my husband and I led a playshop at a local Marriage Conference. This conference has been held annually in our community for the last ten years and centers on celebrating and caring for marriage. We were thrilled to have the chance to partner up and lead a class together. After all, I usually teach solo or with another teaching artist and it was exciting to work with my favorite partner of all, doing something that I love.

For our workshop, we decided to play around with using improvisation techniques to navigate dramatic tension in relationships. While they’re not exactly the same, creating an improvised scene and communicating effectively in our relationships actually have some fun parallels. Drama doesn’t happen without conflict and relationships can have plenty of both. Improvisation only works when players adhere to a few rules to make sure that the scene doesn’t fall apart. The same could be said of communication in our relationships. If we all played by the same set of rules for communicating in everyday life, maybe we would be better able to work through conflict, without “making a scene.” In other words, we might be better able to save the drama for the stage.

So what are these “rules” of improvisation? There are countless theories about what makes improvisation work best, but for our workshop we focused on four simple tenets:

1. Yes, and…

“Yes, and…” is the single most important rule of successfully creating an improvised scene. The concept is very simple; accept what you have been offered and then build on it. As egocentric human beings, we often tend to lean towards more of a “no, but…” or “yes, but…” mentality, but this tactic doesn’t always work so well when trying to constructively communicate with someone. “But” automatically signals that you aren’t really listening to what the other person just said. You have your own ideas and your own plan to implement, regardless of what your partner has to offer. “Yes, and…” means that you respond positively to your partner’s ideas AND you get to layer in your own ideas as well. It’s teamwork at its best. No one takes the lead. Everyone takes turns. And eventually a truly shared scene or conversation develops.

2. Use your body creatively

Several improv games revolve around body language. Charades leaves players speechless as they try to use their bodies to get partners or audience members to guess who or what they are. In other games, players might get frozen in a funny position and somehow have to justify that pose within the context of the scene. We played a number of these types of games, not only because they are hilarious, but because they draw attention to the body and what it says.

I have noticed what a key role body language plays in my own marriage. If my husband and I are having an argument, I have trouble letting go of my anger if he is in a physical position that seems to say, “I’m not really invested in this conversation.” For example, when he’s frustrated, he sometimes lays down on the couch. To me, this says, “Whatever.” and it drives me crazy. It was healthy for me to identify that his body language is sometimes a barrier to reconciliation for me. I need to work on being less sensitive about it, but he also knows that sitting up and looking me in the eye helps me to feel like we’re on the same team. Sometimes he is surprised by what his body language “says” to me. It helps to be aware that something that might be obvious to me, isn’t so obvious to those around me. Similarly, playing charades can be a lot of fun in the right context, but in our relationships it’s often better to explain our postures rather than expect our partners to guess what they mean.

3. Build context

Speaking of context, it doesn’t work to begin an improved scene having no idea who the characters are, where they are and what’s going on. Players need to establish context. This is especially important in games where one player begins the scene and his or her partner has to follow along with whatever beginning material is given (yes, and…). If the player beginning the scene starts by asking an open-ended question, such as “Who are you?”, the poor partner has nothing to build on. The starting player has to provide a foundation for his or her partner to use. For example, the starting player might announce, “Honey, it’s too cold to buy ice cream.” Ah. Now we know that this is likely a parent/child relationship, that it’s cold out, and that the child wants ice cream. The first player has provided some basic building blocks for the partner to play with.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. I can’t tell you how often I have blindsided my husband or a friend by diving into a conversation without laying any groundwork work. If I’m feeling upset about something, I need to take the time to really outline what happened or what is happening before I let the emotions run wild. By providing context, I give my partner an opportunity to build on what I have to say. Context is an invitation. Without it, I am robbing my partner of the chance to effectively “yes, and…” and then it’s really my fault if in their floundering, we wind up hurting each other more.

4. Make your partner shine.

And that brings us to the fourth tenet; make your partner shine. Sometimes it is so tempting to oust teamwork and just take over. I remember being the goody two-shoes in school who would take over a group project because I was convinced I could do things better on my own. But this rarely works, never in improvised scenes and never in relationships. In a multiplayer scene, it’s awkward when a single player constantly outshines the rest. Improvisation is most impressive when the performers play off one another and if a single player is clearly making up all of the rules, then the scene ceases to be truly improvised. Collaboration is the best part.

Sometimes we might start out as part of a team, but then we see an opening–a delicious opportunity to get a good laugh from the crowd or to completely yank the rug out from under our partner’s side of the discussion. Too often, these openings result in derailing the scene. A colleague of mine referred to these tantalizing openings as “shiny pennies.” As players in any team setting, our job is to avoid these pennies. They might look pretty, and it might seem harmless to bend over for a moment to pick up the penny, but too often we wind up disrupting the flow of traffic with our sudden foray outside of the context of the moment. In relationships, these shiny pennies often take the form of insults. My husband and I might be in the middle of a tough conversation and then something he says gives me an opening to mention how he never turns the faucet off tightly enough. Is the faucet relevant in the discussion? No. Is mentioning it a satisfying dig at my husband? Yes. Will it keep the conversation flowing? No. Is it worth it? Absolutely not. It’s just a penny.

The easiest way to avoid these shiny pennies is to shift focus from ourselves to our partners. If everyone collaborating on a scene or conversation focuses on making their partners shine, the results are astounding. Everyone looks good. Everyone listens. Everyone is heard.

Practice Makes…Better

Of course following these tenets is easier said than done. Improvisation is about having the right tools to act and react off the cuff. These tools need sharpening and a practiced hand to wield them. But practice isn’t always fun and if you’re anything like me, I have a tough time doing things that I don’t enjoy. That’s why I was so excited to discover that something as silly as playing improvisation games gives me a chance to put these rules into practice in a playful way. And by doing that maybe, just maybe, it will get a little easier to implement these ideas when the situation isn’t so fun.


My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven't changed.

My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven’t changed.


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