Published by ShawnKinley on



man standing while wearing black jacket

I have to be honest and tell you that I’ve had a difficult time writing this post.

It’s not that there’s anything  controversial or in any way emotional about it. It’s just that there are a lot of moving parts to consider. The more I write, the more there is to say. So, at the risk of overly simplifying, let’s chat about the need for RESISTANCE to help your partner play the evil characters.

This weekend I saw a performer in one scene look like a charmless buffoon, obsessed with drugs and sex. This happened all because his partner smiled and accepted the offers. 

What made it worse was that the director of the show didn’t push back against what was meant to be playful clowning when the other performer on stage failed to show resistance to the first improviser’s wild (and wonderful) offers. 

Standing alone with the edgy content in the scene, the improviser tried to make it absurdly worse so someone would have to fight against him but no one did. The final result was that this improviser had to arbitrarily see the error of his ways, and basically defeat himself. It was a scene that left the performers (and probably audience) uncomfortable.

This situation reminded me of countless scenes when I’ve been on stage with an improviser who thinks a little too highly of me and wouldn’t think of opposing me, ESPECIALLY on stage in front of an audience. That’s a lot of pressure.

Over the years this becomes worse as newer improvisers adopt an insecurity to people they should feel some sense of balance with.

Without resistance, playing strong villains becomes awkward. There needs to be a competent  authority figure who can act as the voice of reason.

This story is common for experienced improvisers who have taken big risks on stage (especially when playing villains) and aren’t given the resistance so that everyone knows the “evil person” is an evil character as opposed to just an improviser making inappropriate statements and behaviours.

Resistance is everywhere. And that’s a good thing.

In improvisation we learn to accept every offer our partner gives. That can be frustrating when “push-back” is needed. Sometimes you need to say NO!

And it’s not just about resistance in the stories we tell. Resistance against playful improvisers is a gift so that they can play harder and develop what Keith Johnstone would call “heat” between performers.


Some improvised formats reveal the improvisers relationships with each other outside of the scenes. An example of this would be Keith Johnstone’s  Theatresports where a group of judges score the players on the value of their work and reprimand them for misbehaviour, sometimes throwing them off the stage  with the impersonal honk of a horn if their work is not good.

This sounds harsh but the parental relationship between players and judges is one of the greatest joys for the audience to witness. It is also one of the most misunderstood elements of Theatresports.

Having an authority pushing against the improvisers allows them to play more enthusiastically. They know that if they go too far, they will be reigned back. So, there is a freedom to explore, play, and express ideas.

The audience excitedly supports the playful improvisers because they like to see the authority struggle against the relatable clowns. 

The “HEAT” between the judges and the performers comes about as the players continual push the line of what the judges will tolerate or punish.  

The audience is in fits of laughter as they see the performers promise to behave and moments later cross the line and poke at the rules laid out by the authorities.  

HEAT, is a tension between people that could erupt into fights (not real fights…), disagreements (not real disagreements…), punishment and exceptional entertainment for those on the outside.


Newer improvisers often feel some amount of intimidation with more experienced performers. There might be an assumption that all of the experienced improviser’s ideas are good or that every offer created should be accepted regardless of it’s impact on the story and  relationships. 

In the same show that I was talking about earlier, a guest from out of town joined the cast. This was someone I had known for years. At one point in the show between scenes, she had made a slight ‘joke’ about my age in front of the audience. I was playfully offended. 

The audience was clear that we were not serious. I followed up with what might normally be considered a sexist comment about her using her physical attributes to get the audience’s interest. The rivalry was on!

If neither of us responded or failed to push back, the other person would have come across as mean spirited, rude, or offensive. 

There has to be safety between performers of course. It’s easy between friends to play and resist comments that are exaggerated and over blown. We should always consider, Is it the moment to call my partner out? Is it the moment to fight back? Is it just a moment to laugh to show you aren’t hurt?

The only mistake we can make is to ignore how the audience sees the situation. If for a second the audience thinks you are serious or that someone is hurt in the interaction then the rest of the show any your reputation suffers. We have to see the show through their eyes (and hear through their ears).

Most of Keith Johnstone styles embrace “MISBEHAVIOUR” and “pushing against authority” to develop an obvious sense of play. Without this resistance,  improvisation exist with a perpetual acceptance that leaves no room for pushing boundaries (because there are no boundaries). The “cult of Yes” emerges where play fails to authentically include push-back / resistance / a firm “NO!”

This concept is not unique to Keith’s work.

Dramatic theatre and comedy embraces the resistance against authority. It’s the playground of the “clown”. It’s the battlefield of the hero. It’s the ongoing reality for any protagonist. 

When you want an emotional reaction from the audience you need resistance. Costello and  Hardy are just a couple of simpletons without their more serious counterparts, Abbot and Laurel, to torment. One character draws a line… the other steps across the line and fireworks erupt.

When the King says, not to offend the queen or he will have the clown’s head, everyone waits to see how far the clown will push the limits. If there isn’t an authority, to make others accountable, then the framework of values have no meaning. 

Back on stage, the great improviser I mentioned earlier was made to look weak and pointless because he was given free reign to do anything. There was no resistance to his misbehaviour. 


If you play evil on stage, you don’t want the hero to smile and encourage your monstrous actions. You want the hero to be angered like any normal audience member.  You want superheroes to fly through the window to battle the villain. You want the Boss to yell “STOP PLAYING WITH THOSE MATCHES NEAR THE FIREWORKS FACTORY!”

Resistance builds tension. There’s a limit to what is allowed but “IF YOU GO TOO FAR, YOU WILL PAY A HORRIBLE PRICE!” 

And then… we want to see how close you can get to the line you aren’t supposed to cross. And then we want you to cross that line and see what will happen.

Imagine Romeo and Juliet played where the families get along and are happy that the kids are “hitting it off”.  Imagine the Evil Witch and Wizard of Oz working together to help Dorothy get home because it’s just a nice thing to do. 

Making it easy on the characters doesn’t make the work worth watching.

The families have to stand against each other for Romeo and Juliet to fight for Love. 

Dorothy has to fight the witch and push back against the Wizard, or the journey won’t be entertaining.

Rule focused improvisers often argue that pushing up against another character’s stated goals as blocking, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Consider the Vampire who has just flown through the window and comes for blood. If you say, “”You’ve come such a long distance.  Here, bite my neck.” It might be funny. It might even open the door to a different kind of vampire scene. But… accepting the truth of this scene means screaming a firm “NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!!”

Giving in too easily steals the idea of the Vampire story from your partner and the audience. You have to resist  and fight the demon. The resistance accepts the intent of your partner’s offer. They don’t want your blood. They want your resistance. And then, yes,  we probably want you to lose the fight. 

In your firm support for the narrative, we want you to beg and plead, “PLEASE PLEASE, Don’t bite me! Don’t turn me into a vampire! I have a child! Who will take care of my son?!”  Then the vampire has great tense choices. “You have a son???”

Improvisers are in a vulnerable place when they play the bad person in a scene. They don’t want the audience to actually believe they are monsters, pedophiles, racists, lawyers (sorry lawyers… just kidding). 

Listen to what they offer. React! Resist if necessary. Put your fears aside and say NO! to that improviser you look up to. You aren’t saying No  to them. You are giving them a chance to be worse so that they can fall further when you defeat them.

That wasn’t so hard now, was it???


Easy Tips and simple Tricks can be dangerous for improvisers… They are no replacement for good technique and risk taking.  Use these little tricks ONLY WHEN THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY, MIND-BENDINGLY NECESSARY.


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