Friday, February 3, 2012

Archetypal Improv Revisited 2

In the name of clarity, fun, and general, all-purpose niceness, I hereby present some of the notes I recently shared with Opening Night Theater on the Vanilla Six Hander Format. The original question was: how do I teach it? My reply (now somewhat tidied up) was as follows:

  • First, I make sure people have a strong grounding in status and listening skills.
  • Then, I set expectations. Getting really good at full-length plays that might have been scripted usually takes about a year to really master. Also, some people find collaborating on complete plots a bit of a head-scrambler. People who just want to have fun on stage and don't enjoy having their brains burst often bow out before they absorb all the skills.
  • I introduce the basic structure and why it's used.
  • I run a workshop on getting into trouble. This often involves teaching tilts, escalation scenes, and some coached play openings.
  • I teach just Scene 1 and give people plenty of opportunities to explore it until it's starting to come naturally. This sometimes comes with a small shock, because people are used to 'starting positive' to build a platform and avoiding 'instant trouble'. I encourage people to start working on dramatic tension from the first line if the story needs it by realizing that the best way to help a fellow improviser can often be to put them in an awkward situation that paints a sympathetic picture to the audience. 
  • I teach just Scene 2 without a scene 1 preceding it, so that people can get a sense of what it feels like in isolation.
  • I build to Scene 1 followed by Scene 2, so that people can explore linking the two together and picking out themes that will work together.
  • Once players have stabilized on how to link scenes together thematically while keeping the content distinct, I teach 1,2,3.
  • I start getting people to ask the following questions. What is going to be the lowest moment for the protagonist? What is the best way for this story to end? I emphasize the fact that everyone's version of the obvious answers are going to be different, and that's okay. I also try to encourage people to actually be able to go dark in terms of plot content. Players, even very experienced ones, often find this very hard to do well. A lot of improv is taught with the mantra 'be positive and always say yes'. When you're doing long form, you often have to hurt a character to help a fellow improviser. 
  • I start coaching plays, letting them extrapolate forwards, usually encouraging players to drop a play at the point at which the troupe is feeling lost and start again. When a lot of scenes have been invested in a play, it's somewhat harder to think of it as 'disposable theater'.
  • I coach players towards delivering a complete play, trying to help them see ways to get the protagonist in and out of trouble with escalation each time without making choices for them. 
  • When the troupe is able to pull off a complete play that they feel happy with, celebration is compulsory.
  • Throughout the process, I watch the interpersonal dynamics very carefully. Constructing a full play is a challenge for many improvisers and requires developing new skills. That's often intensely rewarding for them but also tricky because some people pick it up faster than others. Also, some people inhabit their characters as they go, while others suddenly focus on plot and forget how to act. All this can cause friction that needs to be managed.
  • I also make sure that I have at least one pencil and paper session in which I teach the troupe how to rapidly plot a movie or novel using the sequential approach. This provides a second lens through which to view the story-building process.

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