Blocking is saying ‘No’ and accepting is saying ‘Yes’, right? Well, hold on now, partner. I’m going to go ahead and have to… disagree… with you on that one. Blocking is the negation of an established reality in a scene. So what does that mean?
The reality of a scene changes as quickly as 24 frames a second. If we accept, which we should, that making an offer is doing anything at all on stage, and we accept that offers define the reality of an improv scene, which they do, then the reality of the scene is being molded all the time. A quirk of an eyebrow, a change of direction in movement, breaking or creating eye-contact with a scene partner, throat clearing, being too pre-occupied with a physical task to respond to your scene partner’s verbal offer, all of these things are offers to the scene that affect the reality that is being co-created moment by moment by moment.
To block an offer is to ignore or disregard or shut down or negate offers that have been given to the scene. This frequently occurs with improvisers who are not present in the scene, who are instead occupied with something within their mind – perhaps wondering about where the story is going to go or what on earth they are going to do if they actually have to physicalize climbing a mountain or something.
The point here is to be consciously aware of the fabric of a block, so that we may make informed decisions while improvising. I liken this idea to the rules of the road when driving a car… the rules of the road should be followed and they are there for your safety and a common understanding between drivers. You shouldn’t flip a U-ey or turn brodies in the parking lot or speed or drive the wrong way on a One Way street… but sometimes that's fun to do and more importantly sometimes it’s necessary. Have you ever driven the wrong way down a One Way? Did you do it on purpose or was it on accident? When you drive the wrong way on a One Way on accident, I think the tendency is to feel like an idiot… this is largely due to the possibility that there are other drivers honking at you or looking at you like you’ve farted in their personal elevator.
It’s a feeling that is pretty similar to the feeling you get when you’ve blocked a scene or offer in a big way. When you’re going to be late getting to an interview and you can see your destination a half a block away on the wrong end of a One Way street, and no traffic is coming, and your alternative is to loop around the three city blocks it’ll take to go the legal way and be late for your chance to get a job, you might drive the wrong way and feel awesome about it (Seriously, though, follow the rules of the road people; there are enough bad drivers out there).
Point is, blocking doesn’t end the scene and sometimes it serves the scene by giving it forward progress or adding crucial information or bypassing an offer that derails the scenes progress. I love this (paraphrased) quote from Randy Dixon about offers and I think it applies to blocks too: “There are no bad offers, only bad follow-throughs.”
When I had been improvising for about 5 years I took a big ol’ Tour and traveled to a bunch of cities and sat in on workshops and watched all sorts of teachers teach and students improvise. At first, I was really bothered by the amount of low-level blocking being done (Why can’t you just accept that you wrecked the car?), but then I had a conversation in Winnipeg with a good friend of mine, Mr. Sim, and he reminded me that regardless of what another improviser “does to me” on stage with their offers or blocks, it’s up to me to choose how I respond. It’s the follow-through that is key. If I’m in a scene and I make a sweet-ass offer to my scene partner and their head is elsewhere and they absently block my offer, the audience is either going to hate them or love them based on my response. If I react with anger and call them out for blocking me, I’ve made them look bad (and sure, they may have deserved to look bad) but if I accept that their block is the new reality of the scene I have no time to make them pay, only time to exist in the new reality, which is where the audience is already.
P1 walks out on stage and sits on a block and begins whimpering while holding her hand. P2 walks out and stage and strikes up a conversation with P1. With regard to the injured hand, P1 explains that they’ve slammed their hand in the door and it hurts real bad. P2: "That sounds horrible. Here, let me cut it off for you." P1: "Yes, and after you’re done I’d like my stub wrapped up real nice with Toy Story bandages."
The question is: If P1 had said: “No thank you, I’d prefer to keep my hand.” would that have been an acceptance or a block? “No thank you, I’d prefer to keep my hand.” Is an acceptance of the reality of the scene; which is that someone, in this case a stranger, has offered to cut off a perfectly good hand that has only been hurt in a door-slamming. Although ‘Yes, and…’ is specifically not stated in the line, it certainly is a “Yes” to the reality, though it lacks the “and” of additional information. Adding the “and”, the line could become, “No thank you, I’d prefer to keep my hand. I’m just waiting on my pain medication.” This could inspire the psychopath (P2) to slam his hand in the door to get some pain meds, or maybe reveal that he is here for a job interview and had only asked to severe the hand because he wanted some job experience.
Accepting moves the scene forward, blocking stalls the scene… generally. If you are in a scene and it feels stalled, it’s probably from a lack of agreement or buy-in to the reality.