Saturday 27 October 2012

Of Dying and Death

When people start to improvise, the scared actor often looks for any excuse to leave the scene. One common one is to die. For this reason (and the fact that the player left behind probably won't have the skills or confidence to carry on alone), improvisers are generally encouraged (or told) not to die. This training sticks and is not helped by the generosity that improv engenders which means we don’t like to kill our fellow players or leave them stranded. Often there is also an understandable attachment to our own characters and a reluctance to have them killed off.

But we should realise that there are times when dying is the best thing we can do. It’s the right choice for that scene, story or situation. Death is a very big part of stories. Of the last 10 films you saw, how many involved people dying? People die in stories all the time. In a murder mystery at least one person HAS to die. Imagine a war film where nobody is killed? You'd probably want your money back. Historical dramas, Westerns, thrillers, science fiction... all of these are highly likely to feature someone dying. Even rom coms will knock off characters more than you’d think. How many times have you seen someone's elderly relative shuffle off her mortal coil after imparting some aged wisdom? See Four Weddings and a Funeral for a prime example of death in a rom com and fairy tales for plenty of examples of it in children’s stories.
Scene from Up!
Scene from Up!

Proponents of the Hero's Journey school of story construction will tell you that death is a big part of it. Death is very important as it shows the importance of this quest. It highlights that it is a life-or-death struggle. So death will be faced by the central character, maybe literally (as it often is in myths where the hero dies and has to be reborn), but often metaphorically (as in death of a way of a way or phase of life) or (as is the most often in modern stories) it is experienced through the death of a loved one or trusted aide.

So for the improviser, this means that if we are telling stories (and we are, even without trying), we should realise death is an important aspect of stories as it is of life. It is one of our greatest fears; it is the ultimate price that we can pay. And it is through facing, experiencing and maybe overcoming death that stories become more vital.

So don’t be afraid of death in improv. Embrace it. Have it in your arsenal of things that can happen so that when the moment is right and the story/scene feels like it needs it, it can happen and then you or the other players can deal with the consequences.

And if you are killed off, it doesn’t have to mean the end of your character or your involvement in the scene or story. This we’ll deal with another time.