Saturday 9 July 2011

Highlighting the Story

Although the basic premise of improvised storytelling is to keep it simple and logical, there's actually a bit more to it than that. There are definitely other skills to use to make your story really be effective.

One important skill is having a sense of where you are in a story. This is almost essential for making those choices when the next step can be one of several things, any of which lead down wildly different paths. It can also help see how particular events can be used to show the progression of the character.

Quite often in a story, certain things will happen several times. Their outcome or impact on the story or character differs depending on where you are in that story.

For example, say a particular story is about a guy who hangs around a bowling alley. Almost certainly this guy is going to bowl a couple of times. Probably much of the time the bowling will be background / environment work in that it won’t be significant. The bowls themselves won't be important, but might be used to show mood. I'm a great believer that saying "I'm angry" is (generally) much less interesting and realistic than doing what you're doing in an angry way.

In our story, for example, 2 people could have a heated discussion whilst bowling and we can see how the rollercoaster of emotions affects their bowling. We can see what they're feeling without it having to be explained to us. A sadly bowled ball is vastly different to a triumphantly bowled ball.

But, occasionally, some actions will be given a high prominence in the story.

At the start, a bowl could help define the character (or establish the ordinary world) of the hero. Put simply: If he scores a strike, he’s a great player; if he scores a gutter ball, he’s an awful player; and a middling score means he’s an average Joe.

Depending on where he starts, you can often predict what later bowls will be like. To show what I mean, let's look at a classic “comeback” story:

The hero starts the piece bowling extremely well – he's at the top of his game. But something happens and he starts playing really badly. This is a turning point (or first threshold) and around here he will have a spectacularly bad shot that symbolises everything that has gone wrong. He will then fight to get back on form. In this sort of story there's usually a big build-up to a comeback match upon which everything depends. Not just the match itself, but also the player's career, his relationship and even his life. This match will eventually hang on one single shot. This shot will obviously be given a lot of status (through the build-up and the way it's talked about and presented – in a movie, it will probably happen in slow motion with dozens of cutaway shots to see people's reactions). It will also be an amazingly skilful shot or an unfathomably lucky one.

Now, whilst scenes should not be about what's happening, but instead the relationship between the characters, stuff should happen. And if that stuff actually reflects or symbolises what's happening to the characters, then this is perfect. In fact screenwriting is all about making stuff happen that illustrates the characters and relationships because we can't see the human brain working, we can only see the effects it has on people, namely their actions. Thus this final bowl isn't about a ball going down an alley. This ball now represents everything: The hero's hopes, dreams, career, love-life and even himself. If the ball makes a strike, the hero regains his self esteem; the girl will love him; his peers will welcome him back with open arms; he'll have the prize money to pay off his debts and not have his legs broken by the debt collectors. If the ball goes into the gutter, his hopes and dreams follow it; the girl he loves will leave for good; and he'll wind up a sorry, broken man, or even dead. It's really not about bowling any more. In fact, it never really was.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Great ways of getting suggestions from improv legends, the Mersey Beatlesports

Three great ways of getting suggestions from Liverpool's top improv group, the legendary Mersey Beatlesports:

  1. Can I have an unusual location where we could all live?
  2. Could I have an unusual object that could personify happiness?
  3. And finally, where is Lucy and what does she have with her?

Friday 1 July 2011

The Perfect Form

A lot of comedy relies on the personality of the performer. Improv is rarely an exception. However improv is a discipline where the personality of the performer can actually get in the way.

In acting, certainly, the ideal is to lose oneself in the role. Become that character. However, that ideal is at odds with what the public seems to want. Many of the most popular actors tend to be people who keep the same character no matter what the role. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, etc. Most of the early Hollywood stars can be included as well. That's not to say they can't (or couldn't) act, but their success was in part due to a constancy in the characters they played.

Actors who lose themselves in a role tend to take a lot longer to get recognised by the public, basically because they are harder to recognise.

There is actually a very similar phenomenon in improv. The person who the audience goes home remembering is not necessarily the best improviser. He or she was the one who shone, who was the funniest, the one the audience warmed to the most or got the best line in. But he or she was supported, set up and allowed to shine by other players who yes-anded no less (and often more) than he or she did. In fact, sometimes, because audiences can often enjoy jokes that are at the expense of the scene, or having the ridiculousness of a situation directly pointed out to them rather than it being used to create a new world, and they do find utterly hilarious the destructive mischief of a deliberate block, it can be that the player the audience remembers and loves the most was, ironically, the most destructive player in that show.

When the direct audience feedback of laughter is all that is sought by a player or a group, it is very easy to fall into bad habits. Joyful, well-rewarded bad habits, but habits that can make telling longer stories or playing scenes with any realism or honesty difficult.

So, in the same way that the perfect actor is one who loses him- or herself in a role, the perfect improviser is one who loses him- or herself in the scene. That is by being, saying and doing whatever the scene needs regardless of their regular habits, the things they like to do, their usual way of standing, moving and talking, and their standard set of stock characters. And often at the expense of the jokes that keep appearing in their head.

It seems like the path to getting singled out for praise less, but, if your fellow players all think the same, you will find yourself in a group that can play or do anything: tell fantastic stories, make awesome scenes and allow rich, nuanced characters to emerge that will stay with an audience long after the cheap fizz of a knowing block.