Friday, 2 November 2007

Impro class (part two)

Impro class Two

Story and Interesting

The following are notes are the second part of an comedy/theatre improvisation (impro) class I recently gave.

(In case further explaination is required, by impro I mean getting up on a stage without any prepared material and making up a show/sketch/play/story on the spot. Theatresports and Whose line is anyway are two well known examples of this.)

As I said in part one, this is how I think about impro. It's a collection of ideas which I've sopped up over many years of improvising, and which probably owe much to well known impro improsarios, such as Kieth Johnston or Viola Spolin - although I couldn't tell you which ideas are mine and which are there's

It's worth looking over class one first, but to summarise it: Impro is about lying to an audience. You invent random thoughts and statements for your character, which you sell as reality to the audience. Your main weapons in maintaining this facade are justification and reaction.

Now we need to work on making our realistic improvisations interesting.

The Air-plane Analogy:

I think improvising is much like flying an airplane. Let me explain. At this point I have defined three components to improvising - Emotional Reactions, Justification and Random Ideas. Lets look at them in turn.

Reaction: Reacting is the driving force behind impro. It's what keeps everything moving. Look at this scene that contains no emotional reaction.

Bob: Mary, look I've just been attacked by a shark.
Mary: Would you like a sandwich?
Bob: The winds getting stronger.
Mary: I've forgotten to take back my library book.

Or try doing this scene in an emotionless monotone voice:

Bob: The house is on fire.
Mary: Oh dear, shall we go outside.
Bob: I think the kids are burning.
Mary: I'll get a blanket.

Rubbish. Reacting moves you forward. Reacting is the engine of the plane. It moves you forward and makes everything else work.

Justification: "She canny take it captain" shouts scotty from the engine room. Every plane can cope with certain stresses and strains before the wings fall off and it crumbles. Justification is that inherant airworthyness. Justification is used to sell the lies that we are creating. If you are week at justification, if you let it out that this is all a lie and you don't know what you are doing, then everything comes apart. If, on the other hand, you can justify yourself out of anything then your stories can go where ever you want them to. The harder you pull back on the control leaver the stronger your plane needs to be before bits starts shooting off.

Random Ideas: Randomness, the adding of new information that is unexpected is the upthrust of our plane. The injection of the unexpected make a scene interesting. It raises questions that must be answered, it breaks routines. Think of Pulp fiction as a perfect example of the power of randomness; Mia Wallace over doses - didn't see that coming, Marvin gets his head shot off - a twist that came out of no-where. New ideas have the same effect on a story as pulling back the control stick of an airplane. You go up. You take off. The weirder the idea the faster you climb.

The key to good impro is to learn how hard you can pull back on that control stick. How steeply you can make your plane ascend(Ideas) depends on the power to your engines (Reactions) and the airworthyness of your plane (Justification). How wild can the ideas you use get? Too little and the plane stays on the runway. Too much and the plane goes vertical, stalls, the passengers puke, and the whole thing plunges into the ground.

The three components above work in tandom. You can have the most airworth plane in the world, you can yank the joystick back and forth, but if the engine isn't running it won't make an ounce of difference. Likewise an air worthy aircraft pelting along at full tilt won't go very far if you never pullback on the stick.

Our aim is to fly, but what sort of flight are we giving:

The Aeronaughtic display: Tiny planes flying in crazy whirls and loops, exciting fast, and we secretly don't care if the odd wing comes off. This is the impro of short games, of theatresports and other performances done for the hell of it. Quickly get the take off with big ideas and in the short time available thrill the audience with the impossible. A few points:
1 - Randomness is a key here, you want to be throwing that joystick about and making the audience gasp. You can throw mad ideas into the pot, but to make this work you have to have a tough plane - lots of justification. Lots of power - lots of over the top reactions. Little offers, weak reactions and mundane ideas will be dull.
2 - Often in this kind of display we set up stunts to try, a scene in reverse, a scene in gibberish. Knowing what you are attempting to do will thrill the audience (even if you don't pull it off, which brings us to the next point).
3 - Although exciting this kind of thing can get dull fast. "Ohh his 15th loop the loop", they know you can do it now, they don't really care anymore. They want to believe that you might crash, they want it to look like the propeller will fly off at any second. Being too good is a almost a curse. Crashing can be a great thing - but only if you jump from the wreckage of an exploded scene with a smile and a "Ta-Dah!". They don't want you to get hurt, but they want excitement. Dare to Fail. Dare to fail big. You do this by pushing yourself beyond your limits of control - but with a huge smile on your face.

The Passenger flight: The telling of a story or narrative. The very basis of a passenger flight is that you are taking someone somewhere. A journey. With an aeronaughtic display, we don't care if the story goes no where. In a passenger flight it's essential. ("This is passenger flight 757 from London to London" - no good). Going somewhere means story, which is what I'll cover next. First some pointers:
1 - The longer the passenger flight the more confort the passenger requires. If it's a short 20 minute hope on a seaplane you can afford to lash your passengers to wooden benches and bank up into the sky at 30G. But it's kind of essential that a long distance flight affords your travellers with comfort and safety. Boeing 757 jets don't take off so fast that everyone in heaving before you've reached cruising altitude. In this respect I'm talking about Randomness. To many big offers too soon and you're creating a roller coaster ride. Take it easy, take it slow. They should barely notice the take off and landing.
2 - You need big engines for a long distance plane: Emotional Reaction has to be key in a long narrative. If Romeo and Juliet ended with "Juliets dead, arse, still plenty more fish in the sea" it would be rubbish.

To continue this analogy we need to take a look at story.


Story is (to my mind) about change. There are three things that can change in a story; The world, The relationships, The characters.

The world: Someone builds a bridge. This is a change in the world. From a story perspective this isn't that interesting or important. You can often skip over world changes. We don't need to see the bridge being built, you can just time jump between scenes. "I'm going to build a bridge", three years later "What a lovely bridge".

The Relationships: Gary and Matilda fall in love. This is a change in relationship. It's interesting, it's important. We want to see it. Mid summer nights dream contains a lot of relationship change. It starts with some people in love, and some people in hate. The fairies come along with their magic and change round the relationships. The bulk of the play is then the reaction to that change. Finally the fairies change them back and we have more reaction. Relationships are important and interesting. Disagree - look up the viewer figures for Big Brother.

The Characters: Gary realises that he's a failure, he is a broken man. This is a change to a character. These are the most important changes. They take the longest to happen, maybe only one major change per story. The change in character is the most powerful of our changes. Think of every Disney film you've ever seen. The little spoon was scared but now he's beaten the dragon and he's changed - he's a hero.

Three types of change: Change to the world (physical changes), relationship changes and emotional changes. Now note this: You can't have change if you don't have a an initial situation. Everything has to start somewhere - much like a plane journey.

Imagine a situation where everything will always be the same. Every day Gary gets up and goes to work. Everyday he stares at Gina, who he adores, but will never ask out. Instead he photocopies paper, then goes home and gets drunk.

This is the setup of the story. It's a state of being that will keep repeating itself. Every day Gary goes through the same routine. That's not a story, but it can be the beginning of a story.

One day Gary gets hit by a car. It is this event that will allow our story to happen. It is where change starts to occur. It is the first event in a long string that will result in the breaking of Gary's continual routine. During the setup the plane taxied down the runway, we see where we are, and the pilots tell us what sort of journey we're going on (this is flight 345 from Gary's horrid life to what ever happens to Gary. This will take around an hour, please enjoy). When the car hits Gary the joystick is pulled back and we take off. Before take off the actors are just reacting, motoring down the runway, just as in the story Gary is just reacting, everyday, in exactly the same way.

After take off our pilots orient the plane down the path is will fly, more adjustments to the joystick (new ideas, justified by our new set of circumstances):

In hospital Gary meets Ted a circus juggler, he promises to teach him how to juggle.

It's really random, but who cares. It's justified. Gary is bored, Hospitals contain random people.

We are on our way. The pilots put the thrust on full (react, react, react), and the make only minor adjustments to keep us going on a straight course. Below the plane there is change. Land and oceans fly by. That should be your rule. As long as there is change in the direction you want to go, that's fine. Don't worry too much where you are now. Just move forward.

At the circus school Gary is rubbish at juggling and falls out with Ted (change of relationship). He goes back to work where Gina talks to him out of sympathy (change of relationship). Gina and he go on a date, but it's a disaster (change of relationship). Gary calls Ted the only other freind he has and they meet up (Change of relationship). Ted tells Gary he needs to stick at stuff and gets him to try juggling again, he succeeds and feels new confidence (change in Character). Gary tells work he's quitting, Gina is impressed and they make up (Changes in relationship, and further change in Gary). Gary and Gina are together. Gary is confident and happy. His life no longer needs to change. Everyday he gets up and sees the woman he loves. Events that got started by a crash have led him to a new place where he is at rest.

The plane has landed.

Lets recap: You start with somewhere, anywhere, and you start with a routine that will keep repeating. A state of no change. You introduce something that destabilizes that routine. Then reaction to the new situation drives our story along. As long as there is constant change the audience will know that they are moving along. Eventually there will be no more change because our hero's have reached a new comfortable place. That to is driven by reaction, the same reaction over and over again "I am happy here, I do not need to change". At which point we have reached our destination and the story is over.

This method of journeying isn't planned. It's guided. The skill of the improviser is knowing what corrections to add in - what tugs on the control stick:
1 - Where are we going: It's bad to know where a story is going, but that destination is inevitably announced during the take off portion of the story. "Every day Gary gets up and goes to work. Everyday he stares at Gina, who he adores, but will never ask out. Instead he photocopies paper, then goes home and gets drunk."
That is what the story is about. There are many ways that Gary's life can change, but the promise of the story is that it will change.
2 - War and Peace is a story. The Train that could is a story. When you're storytelling you usually have an idea of the time space you want the story to fill. My advice. Keep it simple. If you want to go longer, explore the moments. Most impro is short on that. If you can feel a story coming to land, pull up on the throttle a bit with a new idea - but be warned - nothing is more frustrating than an obvious ending that is just delayed for a while. That's just circling the runway. If you do chuck in a new idea at the last minute, land somewhere else. Somewhere unexpected.
3 - I want to re-itterate the types of change we have available. World change, relationship change and character change. I include this because it is your measuring stick. Every scene should include change. World change is dull - make it quick. Relationship change - good stuff, make these scenes go longer. Character change - The best stuff, take your time with this. Often the character change is less of a single scene and more the whole story.

This post has taken about 9 months to get finished - only about 2 hours in real time, but I've been rather distracted in life for a long while.

I hope it makes sense and I've no doubt I'll revisit these ideas later.

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