Be on the same side of the counter

Here’s an easy trick to avoid transaction scenes: play Customer-Customer or Shopkeeper-Shopkeeper.

Any premise can become great improv, but the dreaded transaction scene is a trap for beginner improvisers. One person plays the Customer in a shop (or a bank, garage, fast-food counter, etc.) and the other plays the Shopkeeper. For example: suggestion “clothes store”.

A: Can I help you?
B: I’m looking for red jeans.
A: We sold out of red jeans. (trying to create conflict)
B: Do you have purple jeans?
A: We don’t sell purple jeans.
B: Blue?
A: Yes, here it is. (B gets conscious about not Yes-Anding enough). That costs 1000 kroner.
B hands over his card.
(They suddenly worry that their scene is about to end.)
A: Sorry, it’s not working.
B: I don’t have enough cash.

The big trap is that transaction scenes are impersonal; the scene only exists then and there. Once the transaction is finished, the scene evaporates. So they try to stall the outcome. Pro Tip: for the improvisers the success/fail of the transaction seems like a big deal, but for the audience it’s boring. Now there are ways to fix this: be a regular customer, make the red jeans important, etc, but we won’t get into it now. I show how to avoid it altogether.

It’s not easy. Transaction scenes are the most natural initiation in a shop, like a reflex. Customer-Shopkeeper is the first relationship in most people’s minds. Bonus: you establish a space object for free (a counter) and a false appearance of an action (the transaction).


Here’s a super easy way out: next time, be on the same side of the counter. That is, be Customer-Customer (or Shopkeeper-Shopkeeper). There’s a thinking that each player has to fill a different role (if the Customer is taken, you have to be the Shopkeeper), but that’s absolutely not true. Matching roles is extremely rewarding. You start off on the right foot, because the two characters are closer to each other. Suddenly you know each other. You have a history together, you can embellish each other with information.

Your scene will be about two workers and their relationship (bros watching each other’s back, jealousy over a promotion, sharing reality bites moment, Star Wars geeks as in Clerks). Meanwhile you have plenty side actions, aka the What (waiting for customers, folding shirts, dressing a mannequin, preparing a slushie, two McD workers preparing McDoubles). Or you can be two customers (dad trusting son to buy his first car, fiancees deciding wedding rings, ’90s kids looking up mystical references in a library). You can be customers unusual to the location (Obama and his secret service at Ray’s Hell Burger, honeymooners at a pawn shop), which will give you major inspirations. You can slowly discover the nature of their relationship as you are shopping.

The difference is your scene is more open-ended and it’s all about the players. The scene is not predicated by the success/fail of the transaction. The scene can finish early or it can continue naturally way past the cashier.

I wonder if store counters, or physical barriers such as doors, are a defensive tendency for players to avoid close characters. Strangers start off on a clean slate and everything is front of you. Playing characters close to each other is moving back and discovering what is already there (as Keegan-Michael Key eloquently explains). Instead of peering each other over a barrier, be on the same team. It’s you two vs. the world over the counter.

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