It's a great feeling when a scene is sailing along. The ideas flow, everyone is in sync, and time flies by. It is NOT a great feeling when you're lost in the scene. Nothing feels important, the scene is headed in multiple directions (or maybe none), and you have no idea what to do next.
Here's what you do when the scene isn't working: pull out one of the two most powerful lines of dialogue that exist in all of improv. It's the big red panic button that any performer can use. Like a fire extinguisher, you shouldn't start off hoping to use it but it's good to know it exists in case of emergency.
The lines are:
- "What is this really about?"
- "I have to confess something."
Both lines have the same general effect with subtle differences. They both snap the scene into focus and bring it back to the relationship and connection between the players. Also, they both have the advantage that you can drop them into just about any conversation between any two characters. It's a fresh start to the conversation that can still draw on inspiration from everything before it.
"What is this really about?"
Let's imagine a scene that isn't going well. Maybe it's unfocused or unclear in some way. Asking "What is this really about?" is an invitation to hit pause on the previous conversation and move onto something personal and vulnerable.
So if we have a scene that is meandering about, asking "What is this really about?" allows the other player to retroactively colour in the previous actions of the scene. It gives both players a chance to explore what was previously unsaid, even if that subtext never actually existed. It's a powerful magic trick.
"I have something to tell you."
This is very similar to the previous line with one major difference: here you are the one coming up with the reason for adding new context to the scene instead of inviting the other person to do it. Rather than putting someone else on the spot, we can just do it ourselves. It's a really judgment call on which one to use. If you feel like you've got an idea for the scene, use this one. If you don't have an idea or you just want to be surprised, you can use the other line.
So the next time you find yourself in a scene that isn't working as you'd hoped, try one them out. See if it helps!