Transactional vs. Transformational Scenes

The term "transactional" often comes up in terms of improv, as a thing that we should try to avoid, but what does it really mean? Let's try thinking about it in terms of what a transactional scene is not -- which I'll call "transformational." I've put together a little chart to show you what I'm talking about.

Improv Transactional v Transformational Chart.png

Conversation v. Interaction: The Action Axis

Let's start with the Conversation node at the bottom, since we all know what this means. In a conversation, the 'action' occurs mostly between two people's mouths, by speaking. Really, most of what is "going on" is in between the words, in their psyche. Let's call this 'internal' action, as compared to 'external' action, which would be embodied by a fist fight between two burly men: it's very physical, the action is externalized, and they're making no secret about how they feel inside.

While a conversation is mostly speaking, the effects range widely. You can have a life changing conversation about the origin of the universe, or about how you were adopted, or about how you have a brain tumor and you have a week to see the ones you love. You can also have a conversation in which your roommate asks you to feed the fish, or pay the bills, or what time it is.

I'll term this difference as 'change': it can either happen "out there" (you feed the fish or pay the bills), or it can happen inside you (you hate your parents, you come to god, you feel remorse, etc.). The more internal change, the more 'transformational' the conversation or interaction.

Transaction v. Transformation: The Change Axis

The transformational examples I've given are all unexpected events, and it is a combination of surprise and significance that makes it transformational. On the other side of the coin a transaction depends upon an expected outcome. You don't go Kroger and pay whatever the clerk feels bananas should cost; there's a market value, an expectation.

Similarly, there are conversations that we have with people in which the outcome is to be expected. Some of these are explained in terms of what the conversation analysts Emmanuel Schegloff or Harvey Sacks would call 'adjacency pairs.' An adjacency pair in conversation consists of an initial conversational turn which is responded to in an ordered, expected, or routinized way. (Hey sounds kind of like an offer, eh?).

An example of an adjacency pair would be "Hello!" Once initiated, most people would expect "Hello!" in return. Similarly, if someone asks you "Do you have the time?" you will usually give them the thing requested, rather than go on a tangent about how Target never has what their coupons advertised -- unless you're my mother (only kidding!) or you're conducting a breaching experiment.

If we were to witness a scene that consisted entirely of orderly adjacency pairs, we'd be bored out of our minds. I believe that we are all natural improvisers, and that we build our improv literacy from conversational literacy -- but it's only a start, not the end point. If a scene is transactional we want to see unusual transactions, and we want the thing transacted to be valued in a different way than we'd expect.

It's not the surprising what but the surprising how of the scene that provides the most joy to audience and player alike. If your roommate asks you to feed the fish, make the fish more important than just a fish. Let it move you -- let it be your dead, reincarnated grandfather whose helplessness is the reason you never left this dead-end town 29 years ago.... Now we're re-situating the scene pieces into a transformational potential.

Getting Unstuck from Consequences and Playing the Game

Let's return to the initiation of asking someone the time. Let's pretend that in return you receive "Time to get a watch!" This reframes the entire conversation. Coming from a stranger, this might be taken as a dick move. Coming from a friend, the conversation is situated in a non-serious frame, which you can continue by taking 'seriously' his non-serious comment (i.e. Yes-anding him) and start complaining how expensive watches are and does he know how little a stall boy makes an hour?

Once we receive the non-serious response we are "unstuck" from the normal conversational consequences. There are still consequences -- which is what improv is based on. They just aren't "serious" by most of the world's standards. This is the fun of the enterprise: we don't have to follow those rules; we can horse around.

How Do You Mean? v. What Do You Mean?

Another way to think about how to get into a transformational scene and likely into the game of a scene is to consider what is not expected in a consequence. Again, we want to constrain ourselves mostly to the how, because there are an infinite number of "whats," but there are only so many different ways a person can receive information (e.g. they love it or hate it). If we think about what is not expected in terms of what happens next in a scene we run the risk of being what Keith Johnston terms 'clever.'

If you are at the water cooler and your co-worker arrives and says "What's up?" the 'clever' response would be "I'm opening a can of grubs with a fish hook made from a bamboo shoot I just hacked out of the ground a minute ago so I can go fishing in the water cooler." Instead, when faced with an offer, you want to ask the question "How do you mean?"

Feel out their intonation for an offer. Maybe they seemed a little cocksure and arrogant the way they said it. Maybe you respond "Oh you know exactly what's up!" And then you heighten the scene and go on about how they got the promotion that you both knew you deserved, not them. Then we have a scene in which the stakes are drawn away from the transactional, explainy, "here's why the universe is weird" scene, and they are drawn toward the personal, internal change, opening up the possibility of a transformation.

Kelly Petronisimprov