The OTHER Conflicts

I signed up for this workshop at The Improv Retreat because I have noticed, in both my current troupes, that pieces are more fun if we spend at least half — hopefully more! — of the show NOT arguing. We’re more likely to have successful not-arguing pieces in practice than we are in shows, though, and I wanted help breaking out of that. At the same time, nobody wants to watch a show about pleasant people being pleasant.

Jill Bernard performs and teaches in Minneapolis, so I had never gotten to see her before, but I knew of her through these two excellent videos she made a few years ago.

So I was SUPER excited when I found out she was teaching the Conflict workshop.

Here are some stray notes I took. (Once again, any mistakes are because I wrote something down wrong, not because Jill wasn’t so joyful and encouraging that I didn’t consider stowing away home in her suitcase.)

  • Man vs. Man — Most people’s default conflict. It isn’t wrong, but argument comfortable to get into and hard to pull out of, and shows are boring if all the scenes are like this. Man vs. Man conflicts resolve when someone admits they’re wrong, when they agree to table the issue, or someone just decides, “I can’t stay mad at you!”
  • Man vs. Himself — Let your character talk herself into something or out of something. Let her completely change her position. If you take the audience along with her as she changes her mind, it won’t seem like you’re dropping out of character. Real people grow and change, so your characters can, too.
  • Man vs. Technology — This can be as simple as a jammed copier or as complex as a malfunctioning space shuttle. The important thing is that the technology is the adversary, not your scene partner.
  • Man vs. Nature — This can be as dangerous as an earthquake or as innocuous as weeds in the yard, as long as Nature is causing the problems. (This and Technology reminded me of People Take Warning, a compilation of Depression era disaster songs my brother used to play all the time, because ours was a cheerful house.)
  • Man vs. Society — More complex to pull off in an improvised scene, but worth a shot. Some people might have to stand in for Society, but Society is still the antagonist, not the person representing it.
  • Man vs. Supernatural — An entirely different genre we didn’t have time to get into, but now I am intrigued.
  • In those Man Vs. Something-Besides-Man scenes, it’s helpful to remember what other kinds of relationships characters can have to the protagonist. These can include (with examples from Lord of the Rings characters’ relationships):
    • Magical/mystical — Usually a walk-on who has a prophecy or inscrutable saying the hero needs to hear. Gandalf and Galadriel to Frodo.
    • Shared — Both are protagonists, like Lewis and Clark. Merry and Pippin to one another, once they’re on their own journey.
    • Sidekick — Believes in the hero and often serves as moral compass. (A villain’s sidekick is a minion.) Like Samwise to Frodo.
    • Cheerleader — A sidekick who stays home instead of going on the journey. Arwen (in the movies) to both Aragorn and Frodo.
    • Helpless — Doesn’t want to be in the way but can’t help it. Pippin to Gandalf and basically everyone.
    • Doubter — Voices fears or skepticism about the hero, but doesn’t oppose him. Hearing these doubts springboards the hero into action. Like Boromir to both Frodo and Aragorn (except Boromir does oppose Frodo for a little while) The more I think about it, though, the more I think the conflicts with Boromir weren’t JUST because he doubted, but because he couldn’t stand the thought of not being the hero himself.

All of that sounds kind of academic, but it wasn’t. The workshop was pretty active. (I left this workshop with bruises from being more enthusiastic than I am physically aware.) We practiced doing scenes with other kinds of conflict. For example, our suggestion might be blizzard, we had to pick different relationships to play besides vying for the protagonist spot. If it looked like the characters were starting to fight or like one character was minimizing the problem, Jill graciously side coached us back on track.

Since the workshop, I’ve been thinking about how to layer these archetypes onto common relationships to make them more interesting. Back in this post, I quoted T.J. Jagadowski:

Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.

So someone may have named me as the main character’s mom in the scene, and my gut response is to feel a little boxed in. But I get a choice about what kind of mom to be. I could be the Doubter mom or the Cheerleader mom or any other kind of mom I want.

Here’s one more Jill Bernard video:

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