The final question we have to ask to establish the basis for our improv scenes is “How Do We Feel?” How are our characters reacting to the thing that’s happening? Often the contrast between the way a person might be expected to react to a situation and the way our characters react becomes the game of the scene.
As improvisers we are not being asked to expertly convey an emotion as an actor might. All we are tasked with is communicating quickly and clearly how our characters feel. It can be heavy handed and even clunky and still be effective. Ideally, we are making that decision about the very first weird or usual thing in the scene, usually a simple expression of whether our character is for or against that thing is sufficient. Once that decision is made and communicated, we can dig into the why of our character’s response. Why are they for or against this unusual thing? This allows us to explore our character’s lives and what led them to this moment in time. But before all of that exploration can happen, we have to make a quick emotional choice and express it to our scene partners and the audience.
Many of us have seen an emotion wheel. If you haven’t, I encourage you to look one up. It shows base emotions in the center of the wheel—they vary a bit, but it’s usually some version of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. From the center, the wheel grows into more subtle and possibly complex emotions like anxiety, apathy, jealousy, or amusement. We can use this wheel to remind ourselves of the wide variety of emotions people might feel in an improv scene. Everything does not have to be pure joy or pure fear. We also have the freedom to express our character’s emotions in less concrete ways. For example, “I feel like I’m floating” could be a reasonable response to an offer in our scene, as could “You seem like you ate too many tacos”. Our emotions don’t have to exist on an emotion wheel to properly express how we feel about the situation our characters are in.
When searching for where a scene should progress, it is often helpful to dig into the relationship between the characters and how the characters feel in the scene, instead of inventing a new thing from outside of the scene to react to. As we’re learning improv, our instinct is often to make another physical offer to drive the scene forward—if we handed our scene partner an apple in the first beat, we might hand them a watermelon in the second. While that may be the funniest choice the world has ever seen, we also have the ability to dig into the emotional reaction we both had to drive the scene forward. The most compelling thing in any scene is the relationship between the two characters at this particular moment in time.
Emotions in improv are the fuel that drive the game. As with the other foundational elements of our Formula of Improv, we want to establish our character’s emotion as quickly as we can at the top of the scene. Once we have that, we can revel in the glory of the wonderful little world we’ve created together.