How to Play Relationship in Improv
Updated: Aug 7
Many an improv coach has given improvisers the note, "Who are you to each other?" to get players to define the relationship between the characters. But is that really playing the relationship? We asked two improv luminaries about the importance of relationship in improv and how to play it!
Relationship can be an illusive thing for some improvisers to play up in a scene. This is because people often only think about the label (father/son, best friends, coworkers, etc.), but the relationship between characters is so much more than those common go-tos.
Don't be mistaken, knowing who characters are to each other can help audiences understand and follow a scene better because simply naming the relationship clears up some confusion. The bigger thing is how the characters affect one another, but how do you do that?
How do you define what Relationship is in improv?
Jeris Donovan (Actor, Comedian, Improv Instructor):
Any established dynamic between the two players.
Paul Vaillancourt (Actor, Writer, Improv Instructor):
Generally, relationship is defined as who they are to each other; mother/daughter, father/son, doctor/patient, that sort of thing. I think that's a good starting point, but I don't think that's the most important thing.
As we progress in experience, we must, as adults, realize we have "relationships" with so many people in our lives. We have to not see it so myopically as husband/partner, boss/coworker, etc. But driver and the drive thru employee you visit every day.
For me, the most important thing to define relationship in improv is how those two people relate to each other. It is really the action of how they relate to each other. For example, mother/daughter is a very broad idea because there could be all kinds of mother/daughter relationships. It could be the controlling mother and the passive daughter, but it could also be the passive mother and the controlling daughter. And those are two different relationships, both called mother/daughter, but they're defined by how those two characters are relating to each other.
Why is Relationship important?
I think relationship is important because we as people relate to other people relating to each other, right? We get it. We see something of ourselves in those things. We relate to what's happening on stage.
Because the human connection is what makes this world tolerable. We celebrate that in improv.
It rings that bell inside of us. I think what makes scenes meaningful and impactful is the relationship and how it affects those people. More so than the plot or the funny thing about it. We don't have the same emotional connection to a documentary about the Titanic as we do to the movie, Titanic, because we see something in Jack and Rose that we relate to. We've had love in our lives, but we're not a great sailing ship that's gone down because it's been hit by an iceberg.
How do you play relationship in scenes?
Invest in the connection, what you like/dislike/need from that person, what draws you to them? Invest in behavior and avoid discussing the dynamic. Let it breathe.
I think (you play relationship with) big playable gifts that we give to each other at the beginning of a scene. As I said before, relationship is how those two people relate to each other and what governs that.
In the dynamic of "controlling mother and passive daughter planning the daughter's wedding," they have, what I call, the "triangle of the scene." What is the mother's big characteristic and what is she doing; what is the daughter's big characteristic and what is she doing; and what is the action or task of the scene?
The controlling mother is gonna fuss over every detail, and the daughter's just gonna let it happen. The daughter says to the mom, "Mom, you're so controlling. I just want to have the wedding that I want to have," and the mother's like, "Listen. Donna, you always do what I say. You know that eventually you're gonna give in. So let's just skip to that part now." And then keep heightening on that. What else can the mother control? Can the mother control how the daughter says her vows? Can the mother control how the daughter's gonna kiss and demonstrate the kiss with the groom before the ceremony?
When I use the triangle, I always have three things to do:
1) Help that other person play their game by giving them different options and opportunities to play their idea.
2) Play my own game and can give myself opportunities or input to play my game.
3) Show through the activity how I do that.
Jeris and Paul's insights make so much sense out of playing relationship! These tips are so much more playable than "brothers." When we try to play to the label we're playing to the idea of what being siblings is instead of letting the push and pull between two people be the focal point.
Next time you get the note to define who they are think about how the other character makes yours feel and how that feeling makes your character behave.
Want to learn more about the triangle of the scene? Get Paul's book, "The Triangle of the Scene."