With any book, play, program, or film, you encounter drama with a duel role: An ally and a saboteur. The ally shuns conflict while the saboteur thrives on it. The ally wants to yell at the screen and tell the girl not to go into the basement. The saboteur knows the killer is hiding down there with a chainsaw and will be disappointed if the girl leaves him waiting. Bothe the ally and saboteur are simultaneously viewing the story, fueling the tension and investment in what happens next.
Even if you have zero control over the script, part of you is telling the story in tandem with the narrative you observe, predicting, reflecting, and filtering it through your interests as a viewer. Sometimes, that means the character makes an irrational choice that makes sense to her in the moment, even as the ally in you cringes. If the story is well told, the dueling impulses find a satisfying resolution in both conflict and overcoming, ideally resolved in a way that is both unexpected and inevitable.
As an improviser, you actually have at least three roles: ally, saboteur, and character. This time, you do share control and responsibility of the narrative, even as part of you is observing what happens as it happens. Part of you has sympathy for the character you’ve embodied, and you’ll do anything to stay protected. But the saboteur in you, the observer, knows that you need to get into trouble. You have to channel these dueling impulses in every choice you make. You have to make choices you don’t agree with. Otherwise, we get scenes like this:
Player 1: Look out, a dragon!
Player 2: Oh, don’t worry, I just killed it because I’m a Dragonborn.
Player 1: What about that Tsunami?
Player 2: I just stopped it with my mind.
Player 1: I’m actually an evil wizard and I’m here to destroy you!
Player 2: Shut up, you’re a tree.
In improv, we call this “cancelling.” It’s a form of saying no, even when it may feel like you’re saying “Yes” to the wish of the other character’s desire to avoid danger. “Yes, and” must ultimately be an affirmation of the story’s core conflict, even if it takes an incidental “no” along the way. A fellow improviser once gave this example:
Princess: Please, Mr. Ogre, let me go!
If you are the ogre in that scenario, are you blocking? If you’re reading the expectations of the princess correctly, you’re actually accepting the offer. The princess as an ally sincerely wants to escape, but the princess as a good improviser (and saboteur) knows it can’t be too easy.
The next time you’re stalled on stage and a story isn’t going anywhere, ask yourself: Am I acting as the ally or the storyteller? Am I willing to let myself get into trouble? Am I trying to be honest, or settling with being safe? Making these distinctions also helps us offstage, when sometimes the reverse principle holds: Am I making the right decisions in my life, or am I chasing drama because the saboteur in me is addicted to conflict?
But as an improviser, you have the context to give up being safe. Make the hasty confession. Go into the basement. Let yourself lose footing for once before you know where you’re going to land.