Hey! I just noticed I still had some of these improv questions I never answered!
It IS a thin line. But the real answer for it is that, if you’re responding to the last thing said, you’re not controlling the scene. If you’re honestly listening and reacting, you can be as aggressive as you want, because that means you’re building the game together with whoever is in the scene with you. Shitty controlling players don’t listen. They just have an idea and try to jam it into the scene/down the audience’s throats. But a good aggressive improviser seizes on the ideas as they come up in the scene and then blows them out. Doesn’t act coy, doesn’t defer, and doesn’t hesitate to shine a light on what she thinks is funny about the scene. But she also adjusts what she thinks the scene will be based on what her scene partner does.
Although, here’s a bigger, macro-issue here that I see. In classes and in indie shows, the #1 thing I see that destroys scenes ISN’T someone being controlling or domineering. It’s teams refusing to be confident and decisive in their scenes. Everyone is so damned polite. And politeness kills more improv scenes per annum than being too aggressive by a stunning margin. No one ever walked out of any type of comedy show and thought “What I really liked about that show was how POLITE they were to one another! Wasn’t it great how they both just constantly deferred to one another in that scene?” To build a scene, you both need to be listening, responding, and adding things to it, confidently and declaratively. But both players need to be making choices and asserting their personality, humor and will on the scene as well. Otherwise, you end up with nothing but bland “Hey roommate, you did something minor that I don’t like!” scenes.
If you’re building a house, even if a team of architects is designing it, at some point, decisions need to be made. How tall is that wall? What will the floor be made of? How many sconces do we need (probably a lot. I love sconces.) And multiple people cannot make a decision. ONE person needs to make it. And then everyone else supports it and builds it and when you have house guests over they all say “Oh my gosh! What beautiful sconces!” and then they go home and get into fights with their spouses because suddenly their sconce-less house feels inferior and two years later they’re divorced.
Same thing with improv (minus the divorce part, probably.) A decision can be made by ONE person, and then supported by everyone else. THAT leads to good improv scenes. Can I tell you a secret? I never fully bought into the cult of “group mind.” I don’t buy it. I find it often puts students in their heads as they try to all think the same way at the same time, and that’s boring. Think the way YOU think. Play the way YOU play. That’s why people want to see you improvise! And then support the hell out of the way your teammates think and play as well. I see so, so, so many improvisers trying to play the “Right” way or in a house style. And they always fail. If there were a “right” way or if UCB taught people to improvise with a specific style of humor, then how would Zach Woods, Betsy Sodaro, Nick Mandernach and Jon Gabrus all be as successful at it as they are? They all play wildly differently from one another, yet they all play game and are all funny… because they apply themselves to the scene, and apply their style to the show. Never convince yourself that’s a bad thing to do.
There is no reason to do a scene that you don’t think is funny. So when naming the game, name it something that you think is funny, that makes you laugh. And, assuming you were listening and responding and reacting to your scene partner, that’ll be a valid, fun game. And if they don’t take the bait and play that game that you just tied up in a nice little bow for them then, guess what? THEY’RE the one being controlling, even if they’re not trying to.
TL;DR - If you’re listening and responding, you’re not being overly controlling and, for the love of God, stop doing polite improv!