One thing I’ve seen improv scenes saved by quickly establishing a relationship that started well before the scene did.
From the inside, on stage, I’ve done this by looking my partner in the eye and giving them a name. That’s it. That says right away, “We know each other. We have known each other. We’ve probably been through this before and this is the day that something changes.” Then they have to react on how they’ve felt by witnessing this behavior repeatedly. It also sets the scene up to be that moment of change and realization.
I saw another floundering scene at an open jam pick up quickly when one player asked, “Remember when we were in band together?” That scene went from possible strangers on a first date to two old friends having a first date. It was nearly saved before someone jumped out of the wings to break that momentum. Suddenly she wasn’t putting up with his silliness out of a botched random match-up. Suddenly she was reaching deeper into his silliness through the lens of a rich and shared past. It was remarkable.
Establishing any kind of past instantly adds gravity for everyone involved. It can be as simple as, “I know how you feel, Calvin,” or with as many details as you can get out in one breath. Then, when there’s gravity, the moment in the present matters immensely. That’s when a large, dramatic change can happen. Personal revelations. Resolutions. New beginnings or final endings. Instead of a vignette of goofballs, the audience gets to feel the human experience. It’s almost always wonderful that way.
This has become both a tool for me and a joy to see from the audience.