Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Would Like to Buy: Transaction Scenes

When we first learn improv we are given a set of rules to follow. One of these is to avoid transaction scenes. As we progress, of course, we realise that many of these "rules" are more like "guidelines." The question I wanted to explore is: "Are transaction scenes inherently bad?"

The answer from the observation of scenes is that they are. Because very often they are dull and the same thing always happens. Here's some typical examples...

A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Here's one. That'll be 2 euros please.
A That's too much.
B Then you can't have it.
A I don't want it now.
A leaves

As people learn to accept more, it doesn't really help.

A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Here's one. That'll be 2 euros please.
A There you go. Thank you.
A leaves

Upright Parrot Brigade
However I've seen great scenes set around a transaction, so it isn't a hard and fast rule. The problem is because a transaction is an easy pattern that we fall into every day of our lives. A pattern where 95% of the time the people involved do not know each other and there is no emotion invested in it. A scene should always be about the people in it and their relationship, not about what they are doing. What they're doing is the vessel through which they can express their character, relationship and feelings.

There's a great exercise to help stop transaction scenes being purely transactional. Actor A makes a "bland" or "transactional" offer and B has to respond to by making it personal (i.e. have an established relationship with the other player and/or emotional). Examples...

Recognition of other character (relationship and hopefully emotion):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Is that you Simon?

Regular customer (relationship and hopefully emotion):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Well, of course, Mrs Habersham. I've got the usual all ready.

Emotional (not about other character, although the other character will probably become involved):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Thank you for coming to help. But there's no way we can save the shop. I'll give you this loaf for free – it's the last one I'll ever make.

Relationship and emotion:
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B (suggestive) Of course. Let me get you a nice firm one.

Relationship and emotion:
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Don't pretend you don't know me, Daphne.

So a transaction is not inherently bad, but it's a trap for inexperienced improvisers who don't want to make the scene about character, relationships and emotions.

And although the characters knowing each other certainly helps, this is not necessary as long as there is some sort of connection or attitude to each other. Two people who have just met who have a strong connection or clear attitude to each other can make for an interesting scene. This can be positive attitudes: They are attracted to each other or instantly really enjoy each other's company; even negative: they antagonise each other from the word go; or a mixture: A is suspicious of B who is trying hard to please A.) If Daphne has to go into the shop of her bitter ex-husband because it's the only place to get the medicine for her mother – that's one interesting transaction. But two bland people in a nondescript shop trying to buy something neither of them cares about – that is highly unlikely to make a great scene.


PS Whilst the Dead Parrot sketch is based around the premise of one of the characters lying ("it's not dead, it's pining for the fjords") which is really very, very hard to do in improv, the scene works because of the attitudes of the characters to each other and the situation are clearly defined and heighten each other. (John Cleese's annoyed insistence causes Michael Palin to lie which causes John Cleese to get more annoyed.) It's also an argument scene which transgresses another rule, but more on that can of worms another day.

1 comment:

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