Jimmy Carrane is the co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser. He’s the host of Studio 312 on Chicago Public Radio, has taught at The Second City, iO Chicago, and Annoyance, and is the brains and voice behind the podcast Improv Nerd.
This a great post from Jimmy Carrane’s blog, reproduced with permission.
Anger is one of the most intimate emotions and the one many improvisers are most terrified to play on stage. Instead of thinking of anger as a gift to their partner, they think they are doing something wrong. And when even a hint of it starts to bubble up in scene, they stop it immediately, backing away from it like a hot stove. They shove it down, deny it, suppressing the emotion and the scene. Afterwards, they will say things like “I wanted to get angry, but you’re not supposed to get angry. Anger is conflict and you told us we were supposed to avoid conflict.”
It’s safe to say many improvisers are confused about playing angry. Let’s be clear: Anger is not conflict, anger is an emotion. And emotions are energy that can fuel a scene.
“Ok,” you’re thinking. “Now what do we do about it?”
Easy. First, when anger comes up in a scene, look at is as a gift that you are giving to your partner, they same way you would when supporting a game or building off of the the last thing that was said. You are giving them an emotional gift — something they can react off of, which creates energy and tension — all necessary ingredients for comedy.
Second, when anger comes up, heighten the emotion and commit to it 100 percent, knowing that if you commit your ass off it will transform into another emotion.
Think of the last time you had argument or fight with someone you were close to. You started out yelling at the person, knowing physically you can only do that for so long. Then it transformed into exhaustion or you started crying or laughing hysterically. Either way the anger was transformed. If you deny or suppress anger and only commit to it lightly, you will never give it a chance to transform, and that energy will be trapped inside of you, causing you to feel stuck.
Finally, and most important, is “Agree Through The Anger.” When most improvisers hear someone screaming at them in a scene, they naturally want to defend themselves, just like we do in life. This causes the players to get defensive, which leads to an argument and typically degenerates into a whole “Yes I did… No you didn’t… You’re such a jerk” kind of scene that goes nowhere.
Instead, agree your way through the anger. Take a look at the scene below.
Man: (Very angry and accusatory) I can’t believe you flushed the pot down the toilet.
Woman: (Very angry and accusatory back) I am tired of you being high around the baby.
Man: (Self righteous) It was Chuck’s weed.
Woman: (Enraged) Your freaking dealer was over here? In our house?!
Man: (Enraged back) Yeah, his neighbor has been snooping around, and he was afraid he’d call the cops, so was like ‘Could you store this for me?’ That’s what friends do!
Woman: (Incredulous) In C-a-r-oline’s diaper!
Man: Yes, I am taking care of you and this family. I am not willing to risk everything I work hard for to be taken away from us.
Woman: You have not worked in two years, Stu. You are on unemployment!
Man: And if you get a felony do you think you are still eligible? They will take that right away from you before you even go to court.
As the argument gets more and more heated, keep agreeing and adding specifics that heighten the stakes of the scene. If you do this, you will start looking forward to adding anger to your scene work and won’t be so afraid of it!
Tip for Your Life: I have seen this work in my real life as well. My girlfriend used to say, “Are you making fun of me?” I always agree to this question and say, “Yes, I am always making fun of you.” It diffuses the situation and it’s fun to watch people’s responses. The words “thank you” are also always a good substitute for “yes” in life. People have said “You are so mean,” or “You are so selfish.” Instead of defending it, I say “thank you” and then watch their jaws drop.