by Chris Petersen
At some point in your intro improv classes, you’ll have an instructor tell you to ‘avoid teaching scenes’. It’s an odd piece of advice out of context. Does this mean you should never have an improv scene take place in a classroom? Should you never have one character imparting wisdom to another?
The quintessential terrible teaching scene that you’ll often see beginning improvisers do has one performer telling the other how to do something: make a pizza, do yoga, build a killer robot, whatever. And that’s it: one person (of unknown identity) gives another (also unknown) instructions which they then follow. And there’s the problem: we end up watching two unknown people with no personal connection to one another. You’re essentially watching a recipe for bread reenacted onstage.
So what’s the easy fix to turn this into a compelling scene? Like most (read: all) improv scenes, we need to have some sort of relationship between the two people up there. And remember that ‘relationship’ in this instance is more than just a definition of their roles (ie: “Teacher and student”); we need a bond between these individuals beyond occupational obligations. Maybe this student has been studying under this great bread master for years and is ready to break out on their own. Maybe the teacher is a parent, trying to pass on the family recipe whether their kid wants it or not. Fundamentally it comes down to: what do these people want from one another? Why are they here with each other? Why would I watch these two when I could watch anything else in the world?
If you find yourself in the midst of an impersonal teaching scene, make a relationship. Call someone else in the scene by name and give them a life beyond just teaching. Otherwise I will throw something at you from the audience.