Course Notes, Impro for the Stage

Notes from Level 2, Improvisation for the Stage (Winter 2014 edition)

Many games were all about narrative, and different ways to tell a story, starting with some we knew, then stretching into others.  Included were:

* Word at a time, two people telling a story one-word-at-a-time.  We’ll go back to this game often, it stops planning ahead, and requires you to carefully listen and instantly respond to your partner, all good things for good improv!

* Story Spine, told in a circle, then played as short scenes. In the simplest version story spine is seven lines long. The first line describes a character with a characteristic. Then two lines that begin “and every day” – establishing the world of the character, aka the platform. Then comes the tilt with “but then one day”, something occurs that changes things forever. Then two lines that begin “and because of that”. Finally, the world settles into its new order, ending with “since that day”. Few onstage  stories will ever be that simple of course, but it’s a good start: establish character, build platform, have a tilt, reach a resolution.

* Typewriter : a narrated story structure. Players can concentrate on character and colour, with the ‘author’ responsible for moving along the plot.

* Angel/Demon : a player has a good voice and a bad voice (two other players) telling them what to do. The audience can see and hear this advice, other characters in the scene cannot.

* Inner Voices : often played as a first-date scene. Two characters interact, their secret thoughts expressed by other players. A relatively bland third character acts as waiter, they may express some sort of pithy comment to sum up and end a scene.

* Evil Voice : One player is occasionally controlled by their own evil self, and does bad things which they have to justify

* He said She said : A fiendish evil game that messes with heads – players take turns making statements, and giving each other instructions. A scene might go something like

Player Bob : I missed you yesterday
Player Sue : he said, blowing on his coffee / I’m here now!
Player Bob : She said, checking her lipstick in the shiny kettle / Your flight leaves at 7
Player Sue : He said, flipping through the days mail / I’ll be back before you know
Player Bob : She said, picking a bit of fluff off her pilots jacket / etc etc

Harder to describe than to do, but it can be a way to establish an environment, relationships, and make offers that change these. From an audience point of view it’s lovely to see the players surprised by their instructions, or getting themselves into trouble.

Painting a character : as a group describe someone who is a character, including their appearance clothes and attitude, at a general level (“he’s wearing a brown cordouroy jacket”) and then some telling detail (“in the pocket of the jacket is a creased picture of two smiling children”). The painting ends when the character says a line. This exercise extends onstage to having the painted character interact with other people, or be interviewed about their life.

Painting a scene : as a group describe a place, build a “somewhere” for the action to happen. Usually work from big things “The walls are dark stone, cold and slightly damp to the touch” to detail “there is a huge book chained to the table, the tarnished gold letter on the cover is a curly R” This can make the job of the characters in a scene ridiculously easy, although it also makes promises to the audience. If there is a book chained to the table described in great detail, they’re going to expect it to play a part of the scene.

The trick with both kinds of painting is listening carefully to what has already been set up and build on that, mostly. A little bit of quirkiness or one thing that is deliberately out of character with the rest will add interest, but too much quirk and it gets hard to use in a scene.

These are both great ways to start open scenes on stage.

Endowment games: there are many endowment games. Many many. We didn’t play them all, ooooh no, there are many many variations on this theme. The best draw on genre for their snap and fizz, and all rely on the audience enjoying the cheerful confusion of the person doing the guessing, and the escalation of silly clues (phrased as questions) to the point of being ridiculously obvious, and then that happy thrill of identification when there is success! Endowment games can be excruciating if they go on too long, but can be a lively change of pace in show that needs one.

Murder Endowment – A game for three players, with others ready to come on if needed. One person, the prisoner, is sent out of the room. Three suggestions are then obtained from the audience: a celebrity who has been murdered, a location, and an unusual weapon. The prisoner is then escorted in to sit on a chair and challenged to confess by two police officers, who may cheerfully play every stereotype of law enforcement. The prisoner show throw out plenty of wrong guesses, and the police give increasingly obvious clues, with the audience trained to go ooo when the answers approach being correct.

Adoption Story Endowment – someone has turned 21, so their parents are ready to tell them who their celebrity parents are, and what unusual method of contraception failed

Blind Date Endowment – A TV dating show, with a host, the guesser and a date. Typically they must recall where they went on their date, what unusual method of transport they used to get there and the gift given at the end of the evening. Part of the fun is adding in the recognisable elements of the genre, typically ending with the host asking “so will you be seeing each other again?”

Press Conference Endowment – a game for the whole group. The person doing the guessing is giving a press conference on behalf of someone, typical things they must guess are what organisation, a secret scandal, and a law they’ve just helped through parliament. The press ask questions, which are clues, eg if the organisation is SPCA, questions might be asked by “Sue Kitten from Cat Fanciers Monthly”

There are many more endowment games described at the ever-handy Improv Encylopedia and I’ve played others.  But don’t worry, so long as you have the general idea, instructions from a director on the night of a show will get you through.  Definitely don’t try to memorise lists of games, that way madness lies.

Attachment – as characters describe why you are all so attached to a particular object. The same object (eg, a scarf) becomes different things, eg a scarf becomes “the red carpet I walked on to get my Oscar” or “the rope I used to tie my victim to the railway tracks”.

Characters from a box - people take a random object from a box of random objects to shape, define or reflect a character in some way. These instant characters were then used in . . .

Points of View – candle light tale. Points of view as played on stage is usually done with three or four people, telling about The Day Something Happened. Often this is The Day [audience chooses a celebrity, eg Brittany Spears] visited [audience chooses a small NZ town, eg Fielding]. First round people introduce themselves and their contrasting characters (Jim, retired truck driver and Mayor, Aarvi the new Community Constable, Mavis who owns the Dairy etc), then there are several rounds of building up a tale, creating the place and establishing the relationships (the everyday of StorySpine), and then the event, and a few rounds of “because of that”, until some sort of crisis point is reached, and then ending with a resolution, “since that day”. It’s always tempting to skip the beginning bits, the platform of place and relationships, but it really does make it much easier to get to a satisfying ending if there is platform to go back to – eg the relationship between Mavis and Jim somehow inspires Brittany Spears to get off drugs and move to Fielding, with Aarvi as her parole officer.

In the version of the game known as Spoon River, the tale is told by recently dead people who somehow are all in the same place when they all die at the same time. In the US this is often played as a whole show in itself, with breaks between the character telling the tale alone for scenes to be played out (so it becomes the Typewriter game), with use made of flashbacks, and timescales that differ between characters. Somehow it all comes together in the end . . .

La Ronde : a series of (typically) two character scenes that describe characters and their intersecting lives.    One player starts on, he/she is endowed with a name and some characteristic (perhaps an occupation, or could be a character flaw) by the audience.  They establish the where, then a second character enters.  There is a relationship of some kind between the characters: certainly they know each other.  The first person on stage endows the second person with the name and relationship “Hello Aunty Sue”.   When that scene is over (a slice of a story), the first player leaves, and the second player establishes a new environment.  When the third player enters, they are endowed, in completely different relationship, and so on.  Usually, the characters meet in turn for a second scene, with events having moved on.