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“Conflict is the essence of drama.” – Aristotle
“Conflict is not the essence of drama. Agreement is the essence of drama.” – Del Close
“My head hurts.” – improv student

Conflict.

Some improvisers love it. Others run from it.

In most performers’ minds, the word “conflict” suggests that characters should disagree or fight.

Most discussions about conflict tend to generate their own conflict: Is it necessary? How does it get started? How do you avoid it? Should it be based on what the story needs or what the characters want?

In order to get a better understanding of conflict, let’s begin with the “Today is The Day” scenario that’s often taught.

Often teachers will frame scene work with the view that “Today is the day things change for your character…a scene should be about a life-altering experience.” Scenes that follow will be inherently interesting because we see the character in a new light.

After all, how exciting can it be to watch a character do the same thing they always do?

We want to see a character finally stand up to his boss, declare his love, get a divorce, get a job, get fired…anything to break the routine.

And I don’t necessarily disagree with this so much as I disagree with how it is handled.

For one thing, anytime you use the word “should” in an improv context, you (inadvertently) set up expectations. (A scene should be about…)

In the rush to get to a life-altering experience, performers get so caught up in the theory that something needs to happen, that they miss out on what already is happening.

Before we focus on “Why is this day different than all the others?” what if we asked “Why is this day the same?”

Life-altering often seem less life-altering when we haven’t even established the life that is getting altered.

When we place more importance on what needs to happen than on appreciating what is happening, we lose touch with an awareness of ourselves in our experience.

And when we lose touch with how we feel about what’s going on, we start to guess. Or calculate what “should” happen. Rather than be ourselves and play from a truthful place, we make choices based on our opinion of what’s best for the scene.

In order for a scene to be interesting, it really helps for the improviser to be interested in what they are doing or what is going on. If they aren’t, then why would the audience be? When an improviser believes in the moment, they open themselves up to transformation, revelation, movement, resolution, agreement, and breaking of a routine.

These events are sometimes referred to as “tilts.”

A tilt can change someone’s status or even change the balance in a scene without conflict.

As long as you are invested in the moment, there isn’t any need to introduce or create conflict. The pressure you place on yourself to find the conflict will remove you from your scene.

As a result, you are no longer inside the scene, but outside of it.

If you construct conflict in order to create a scene, then you are constructing rather than behaving.

Just be.

If that’s not enough, be more.

When in doubt, raise the level of need for your character. If you get lost in the scene, it’s because you’re not in character. Dig deeper into how you feel about what you are doing, or how you feel about what is going on and allow it to inform you.

You don’t need to CREATE conflict; your character needs to need.

Other characters have their own needs, therefore conflict will ensue whether you want it or not.

“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” – Max Lucade

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  1. April 10, 2012

    Theater is about people pursuing what they want or need. Here’s an interesting activity: Two improvisers one hat. Scene one, person A gives hat to person B. No need to act or anything, just give the hat away. Scene two, person A attempts to get hat from person B but person B doesn’t let them take it. Again, no need to act. Which is more interesting to watch? The second one because the person wants the hat but is having trouble getting it. Characters trying to solve problems make for interesting stories. Is that conflict? Maybe… but I never look at it that way. I always just think character A wants *blank*, lets do what we can to keep it just out of reach…

    • April 10, 2012

      Agreed. There’s a difference between arguing onstage, which we’ve all seen a thousand times and which tends to be the *improviser* arguing, not the character. Even friends and couples have different wants; it’s human nature.

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