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Raising the Stakes
by Jesse Parent

When you are on stage, you are showing the audience a glimpse of a person's life. The question becomes, why are they seeing that person on that day? What is so important that the audience needs to be there to see it. You can "yes, andů" and support and everything else that you're told to do to keep a scene going, but it can still be boring.

Shake things up! Break the routine! Raise the stakes! And do it quick, because that guy in the third row just started snoring! Now the question is how.

Brian Fountain of the Upright Citizens Brigade team Petrol brings some light to this question. "Apply more pressure to the situation as opposed to alleviating it," he says. The audience wants to see you squirm, so give them a reason and don't let yourself out of it that easily. If you solve that problem too soon, you've taken all the time you invested in creating this problem and throwing it away by fixing it, Fountain notes. Allow yourself the pleasure of dealing with the situation, but don't cop out and solve it. As Michael Delaney, a teacher at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, says, "Don't solve the problem, live in it."

"Don't solve the problem, live in it." - Michael Delaney

Sounds strange in a form that traditionally cautions against conflict, but this is not the type of conflict that can stagnate a scene with block after block. These are tools that allow strong choices to be made over what can start out as nothing important. An escalation and emotional commitment that no one (not even you, perhaps) was expecting. And in a short amount of time.

Julie Todor, a member of three different New York City long form improv teams, has this to say about raising the stakes: "Raising the stakes usually implies a crisis of some sort, but not always. What it does is give you an emotional 'in' to the game, allowing heightening to occur." So raising the stakes doesn't have to be just some problem you have introduced to solve, but something that allows the characters on stage to form an opinion or emotion around. This can help take the scene to the next level.

Let's look at a scene:

Actor 1: I hate the dentist.
Actor 2: Yes, he always finds cavities in my teeth.
Actor 1: Yes, and the music is just terrible. It's always Bryan Adams or something.
Actor 2: Oh I know, and the lights hurt my eyes.

Lots of agreement and furthering, but very few emotional stakes. Let's try again:

Actor 1: I hate the dentist.
Actor 2: That's why you hired me (cocks sniper rifle).

If you attach a large consequence to something the character wants done, you can increase the interest in the scene.

We have just raised the stakes significantly. There is life or death on the line. This has gone from musings to action and life or death consequence and decisions. Dan Goldstein, creator of the improv show SITCOM, says that you can improve scenes by "putting more at risk." If you attach a large consequence to something the character wants done, you can increase the interest in the scene.

And remember to not take that consequence lightly. If someone pulls a gun, that's a big deal. Don't just forget about that gun and go off in some other direction. Don't solve that gun by declaring it to be empty or the person holding it to be a notoriously bad shot, use that gun to make an emotional investment in the scene and try raising the stakes even farther. Be pregnant with a child, be a recent donor recipient, raise the consequences of being shot so that you give the shooter something to work with. As Tudor says, "get right in there as your character and make specific choices, interesting choices that can be explored and heightened."

Raising the stakes of a scene can give you a strong vantage point to launch into your scene. It can let the audience know why it's important that they see this character this day. Grab their attention, hold on to it, and don't let go by solving it. And to get there, as Fountain put it, it can be "as simple as going past the point of no return."

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