by Chris Petersen
A student asked me recently: “What is meant by having grounded scenes?” I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever said in a class “make this scene more grounded.” What I have said - over and over - is to make a relationship between the characters who are present, and this creates grounding. This gives us a point of human connection that engages us with the human beings onstage, making us more likely to care about, pay attention to, and enjoy whatever activities they do. I do not care about two people on a stage pretending to be lizard robots in 14th-century France. I do care if they are played as two human beings with the range of emotions and motivations that I know human beings to have.
For a more concrete example, I’m not going to refer to an improv scene. I’m going to refer to The Simpsons:
This video tracing one man’s view of the trajectory of The Simpsons (that trajectory is downward, by the way) touches on this idea nicely. As far-out and ridiculous as the scenarios on the show got, there was a solid framework of human relationships. Homer had very clear motivations for his behavior: he’s a glutton, but a glutton who loves his family. This backbone helped make any flight of fancy (monorail, talking coyote, Japanese dish-soap, what have you) compelling, engaging, and, yes, funny. Moving away from that backbone has made any weird occurrences just, well, weird.
Grounding is being able to see the ground no matter how far you’re flying from it. How else would you know how high up you are?