Monday, 28 February 2011

Narrative Workshop Notes

These narrative notes are made up a bit from notes from Saturday's session in the Bedford, and a bit from a previous session as I didn't take detailled notes of what we did on Saturday. 

I then ran a bit of a narrative session for Music Box on Sunday and then another one at The Free School on Sunday night. So I'm a bit narrated out right now. 

Overall I think it's important workshop to do as narrative can be one of those conflicts between improvisers that is actually due to a difference in language rather than a difference in aims. 

Some people say 'you shouldn't worry about plot cos you don't want to be planning ahead and missing what's going on', wheras I say 'to be good at plot you shouldn't plan ahead and should pick up on what's going on'. So it's basically the same thing. 

To be good at narrative don't worry about the narrative, just set a firm platform, expand it, and reincorporate like mad constantly. You don't know where you're going, just where you've been, and that's what gives it structure. 

Also obvious obvious obvious is the key. Your obviousness is someone else's originality, so just be obvious. We can work together when we're obvious. 

I also made the mistake of being slightly negative in the workshop, which isn't like me (I was tired), so I won't be doing that again as I felt I slightly lost the room. I think it was something along the lines of "make a story that could be put on at The National Theatre. Actually then again, don't, they're shit". Even though I only go to the National Theatre for lunch, so this wasn't actually based in fact. 

One slightly negative point I do stand by though is the following:

Lots of people have said to me "not all scenes need a platform, they can work without a where, who or what". However I've never seen a scene where I thought "do you know what? I really wish I hadn't known so much about where they were, or so much about their relationship." But I've seen loads of scenes where I wanted to walk out and dunk my head in ice water because it seems to be just two vague people nowhere talking about nothing for no reason while doing nothing at all. So given the choice that one option sometimes works, and one always helps, I'd go for making a platform and expanding the where who what everytime. 

And even then saying that almost every show I've been in or seen (Music Box included) there is just scenes after scene apparently set nowhere at all. Oh well.

Opening Chat and room setting
We all lay down on our fronts in a circle on the floor.

A brief name game of just saying everyone's name in order round the circle.

I'm never that concerned about people knowing each other's names as a prioirty, as sometimes it's helpful to actually not know everyone as it can free you from your normal personality. Keith Johnstone never asked anyone's name and we were with him for a week. It was because it didn’t matter who you were or where you had come from or how much impro you did, it was who you were right then that mattered.

For similar reasons I also never ask questions like:

"Who has done a narrative workshop?"
"How much impro has everyone done?"
"Who doesn't know this game?"

These sorts of questions have only two answers, neither of which go anywhere positive:

Either the person has done narrative, loads of impro and knows the game inside out - in which case they either feel embarrassed, under pressure to live up to their reputation, or develop a slight ego - none of which are very helpful for improvising.

OR they've never done any impro, don't know narrative, and are the only person to put their hand up about not knowing a game – and they now feel alienated from the group, different, and like they are holding people back.

So I don't ask. I try and do what the group looks and feels like it needs right then, it doesn't make much difference what people have done before.

So….opening chat to set the room....

  • This is the team for the day. People spend so much energy trying to be accepted that you might as well make it clear they are accepted already, then that energy can be used elsewhere.

  • You don't have to be clever or funny to do this. This is especially true for narrative, as the more obvious people are the better otherwise stories grind to a halt.

Narrative Theory

We then had a discussion about impro narrative, which was taken slightly seriously but I'm glad we did this as it set up a reference for the day.

I also said that narrative applied to all impro, not just a one aside topic, as you can have stories in 30 seconds and also in hours. Stories are a great thing to aim for in impro, otherwise you're stuck just trying to make something funny on every single line (which is also fun though). Without narrative impro is just people on stage doing "stuff".

First I drew the concept of "circle of expectation". For any suggestion or location the audience has an expectation of what might happen. As the action continues this circle gets smaller. Suggestions from outside this circle can be disappointing, while obvious ones from within are rewarding.

I stated that the current circle of expectation was infinitely wide. I asked for a suggestion (Manchester) and then I drew a circle to show the new circle of expectation. I then asked for suggestions of what was expected from Manchester - and got The Haccienda night club, then disco balls, mirrors, shell suits, smoking, DJs, drugged up ladies, conflict on the dance floor. This started to tell a story just from constantly being obvious and choosing what was expected.

I next drew a big circle and then around the circle I wrote the following things in order:

  • Start
  • Platform/Where Who What/Establishing Routine
  • Tilt/Breaking the Routine
  • Free association
  • Reincorporation

The start can come from a suggestion or just from two actors on stage.

The platform is where the actors define where they are, who they are and what they are doing. Note my preference for stating where first, as I find this sets up a scene better. If you think about it this is also the preference in films and theatre - an establishing shot usually shows the jungle/museum/court first to set the environment before we see the characters. We hardly ever see a film where the characters are seen first and then the environment is set. In impro this “where” can be set by naming it, miming it, using a narrator, use of props, doing an activity etc. 

The platform is also similar to establishing a routine, which I treat as a similar process but with slightly different theory and terminology, and there is more on that later.

The tilt in Keith Johnstone terms is the thing that pushes the platform into action, the balance of normality has been tilted. In Impro for Storytellers he tends to talk about deliberately forcing a tilt and even has pre-set tilt lists. I tend to disagree with this approach as I feel it intellectulises the process and misses what's actually going on there. I've found that if the actors are picking up on offers and yes-anding, a tilt tends to come up naturally anyway when they try and be ordinary - you just have to look out for it.  When I did a workshop with Keith Johnstone he seemed to have gone off forcing tilts and was instead coaching us on being altered more, which actually makes more of what's already there.

I also mentioned this is similar to breaking the routine, but more on that later.

Next comes free associating - which is what a lot of impro exercises are about including yes-and, offers and accepting etc. This is when we build on what's there and expand information. It's important to note though that it's never too early to reincorporate. We build on what's already there, expand on what's happened.

Towards the end of the circle comes more reincorporation, where we reincorporate things we left behind, justify mysteries and make connections. When all these reincorporations have been made the story is usually finished. If there's too much free association without reincorporation then the story reaches a point of no return and just becomes "stuff". In fact even though this usually gets mentioned as being towards the end of narrative, I actually think it’s ongoing right from the start and you can’t improvise soon enough. In fact I’ve found it helpful to refer to free-associating as ‘expanding’ instead, to make it clear that you are expanding on whatever is there rather than just making stuff up randomly until you decide on something. The story is happening right there, right at the start, whether you like it or not, so might as well stick with it.

I also mentioned the importance of justification. In impro there are no mistakes, just stories that haven't been justified yet. These can either be justified into the story or drastically change the story for the better.

I draw these things at the start of the workshop as I find having a visual reference is usual throughout the day so people know where the exercises fit in and why they are doing them.

Platforms, free associating and reincorporating seem to use different parts of the mind, so it's good to know which part you are exercising and why.

Word at a time Stories

First we told a word at a time story in pairs. We just used this as a warm up, without being too concerned about what happened.

I find it good to do exercises first without comment, as people learn lots from just doing something a few times, and me interrupting too soon can remove self-reliance. With impro you need to have faith in your own offers.

I then made the group do it again but this time with more commitment and without being too concerned about making mistakes. This was fun.

I play this game a lot to encourage listening, saying yes and not planning ahead. This time I instead played it with the emphasis on reincorporating as you go, of not leaving things behind.

This made a big difference to the stories I was in as they were easier to follow, told a story and had structure.

Yes Let’s

This is a great game at teaching the Circle of Expectation.

The entire group stands in a circle. One person says a simple action. The whole of the group shout ‘Yes Let’s’ with enthusiasm and carry out that action. Immediately someone at random says the next suggestion. And So On.

We repeatedly this endlessly, sometimes with the group leaving when a suggestion blocked the story, until the group gradually relaxed and allowed themselves to be obvious enough for the stories to flow.

Take the pressure off by saying that the individual offer doesn’t have to be clever or get a laugh, and if they freeze up they should just relax and add the smallest detail they can think off or reincorporate something without knowing why.

This generated some cool stories like the spirit of a Victorian Gent going to the palace, and the shadow of an evil sea witch being good to a stranded sailor.

What Happens Next Pairs

We first played this in pairs. One actor says what comes first, the other actor tells them, they carry it out, then they say what comes next, the other actor tells them, they carry it out.

For instance:

- What comes first?
- You are dressed as a fairy.
- What happens next?
- You are skipping through a meadow of flowers and butterflies.
- What happens next?
- A butterfly lands on your hand.
- What happens next?
- It says "would you like to be the butterfly princess?"
- What happens next?
- You say yes.
- What happens next?
- A hundred butterflies flap down and pick you up and fly you over the meadow to a forest clearing.
- What happens next?
- A huge caterpillar comes out of the clearing. 

It's important that the actor just carries out what's said and doesn't add too much that's new.

The one giving the suggestions is like Al the hologram in Quantum Leap, they're able to see and be involved but they don't participate in the scene.

What Happens Next Group

We then did what happens next as a group. One actor was on stage asking 'what comes first' followed by 'what happens next.'

It's very unusual for a group to be able to start like this - usually the first stories have very negative or no platforms.

I had the feeling that the only people making suggestions were ones who had done the exercise before, and that people who hadn't weren't getting to say anything. So we repeated it a few times with only a team of five people making suggestions to make sure that everyone was getting to say something and learn.

This produced some really interesting stories.

The words 'what happens next' tend to encourage immediate action. Therefore I've modified the game to instead start with some platform building questions like 'where am I', 'who am I', 'what am I doing' etc. This way the group can build an environment and platform before progressing into rapid action.

We then repeated this exercise with other groups making suggestions so that everyone got to have a go.

Five Things

One person gives the other person five disconnected things with description – people, objects, locations etc and the other person has to tell a story using only those five things. It’s a great game for practicing reincorporation.

Final Thoughts

It’s great to perform with people who have the same shared understanding of this and are creating stories together, but unless you’re all rehearsing games like What Happens Next together a lot this is never going to happen as you have to be in the same obvious frame of mind with the same awareness to improvise solid stories together.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Genre Workshop Notes

Whoahhhhh! That was awesome!

I ran a genre workshop on Saturday and it produced some of the funniest, most compelling, exciting improvisation I've seen in ages. Yet again (like accents workshop) it started off as a skill I thought would be 'tip of the iceberg' but actually produced some incredibly cool stuff and seemed to really helpful.

Also, like status, genre seemed to be one of those things that when actors concentrate on fully everything else is taken off. This is probably because playing a genre has corresponding characters and locations that when the actor sticks to and concentrates on it can become more real.

Playing a genre makes actors "do stuff". They are not waiting for things to happen, they act, take characters, move across stage, tell a story.

We also found that genres are freeing, not restricting. A genre gives you such a solid circle of expectation that you are supported by it right from the start and it triggers loads of exciting ideas. We're also finding this with Music Box at the moment, that an interesting suggestion can work wonders with inspiring the actors, so we're actually no longer taking the first suggestion and instead taking the one that most excites us.

I was originally planning to use film examples in the workshop, and had my laptop all ready to do this, but in the end we didn't have to. It turns out we already know so much about genres, as we've all seen so much. And even with the more unusual ones we don't need a big idea, just that fragment of an idea made bigger. In fact that became a rule of the day - don't question the genre suggestion, just commit fully to the limited idea you have.

Also we didn't do Film Noir! This is probably the most popular audience suggestion for genre. I think this is because on this workshop we were not doing impressions of genre (which usually happens with Film Noir, although Chris Werren is changing that), but instead we were trying to be the genre. You're not doing an impression of a western, you're not even "in" a western - you are a sheriff sat in a hot and humid jail drinking whisky.

I think a pleasant side effect of doing genres are the marketing advantages. The Penny Dreadfuls took off partly because they appealed to people who like sketch comedy and people who like Victorian stuff, and the two genres don't cancel out each other's audience. Showstopper perform to people who like impro, and people who like musicals. There are millions more people who like musicals than impro. So by doing a genre show you can take an impro show to a whole different audience, rather than the other way round.

Stuff We Did:

Name circle - say your name and a memory of early furniture or room decorations. Accidentally illustrated how adding details can lead to stories and humour by itself.

Three line scenes

Three line scenes with each playing a random genres - exceptionally funny

More than three line scenes each playing a random genre

Curtain discovery - pull back an imaginary curtain and explain to your team what you see in the space, after being first given a genre. Amazing at getting locations seen and discovered, rather than thought up and created.

What happens next - big group and small groups. This started without a genre as I thought it would be easier but actually when I gave them a genre it was easier. The genre has so much implied story that it's an amazing starting point. The added rule was if I saw the story on Film Four on a Wednesday lunchtime, I wouldn't think the story was weird for the genre. Sticking to this rule stopped stories going 'impro weird' and made it really satisfying. Also Albert was given Kung Fu movie as a suggestion, without us realising he was actually a martial arts expert. I've never seen anyone do a backflip kick in What Happens Next before, amazing!

The rest of the day we improvised longer stories/scenes in a set genre, with the rule again that if it was read or viewed it wouldn't look outside the realms of that genre. I helped by describing the 'Where' of each scene inbetween each step, which is a style I quite like and helps out as it seems to be the thing actors are most likely to forgot to do, and yet so essential.

We ended up with some great stuff, including:

A Dickens novel, "Man of Means", a tale of conflict between love and family and a one man's quest to raise himself from poverty and enter high society. Featuring stunning locations in  London, the South of France, and
A sports drama, "Timothy", a tale of six year old Timothey, bullied at a private boarding school but saved by a kindly yet stern headmaster who taught him to run.
A Western, "Red Bull", a tale of a rancher and his wife under attack from Indians, whose only hope is a down and out alcoholic Sheriff forced to face his demons and choose between being a tree or a mountain.
Shakespeare, "The Tomb", a tragedy of two brothers encased in their Father's tomb and confused by shape shifting witches. So perfect, and a death scene that made us cry.
Scene Whore, 1980s cop character drama featuring an alcoholic cop in New York and the characters in her life.

I now really want to make some shows out of some of them. Probably not for a while though, but next big project candidates I think.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Music Box and The Miller more fun than the whole of Australia

Just realised the ingredients that make a blog happen:

1 show at The Miller
1 pint of Becks Vier
1 Northern Line train back to Morden
1 lack of Evening Standards laying around to read

Currently lost ipod though so no David Bowie and Phantom of the Opera to keep me happy.

I've got a thing about Manly Bay in Australia.
I know that there is such a place as Manly Bay in Austalia, just a short ferry ride from Sydney, where you can surf and it's always warm and get out into the countryside and you can get into the city. The people are really healthy and the food is amazing.

So why don't I move there?

London Bridge is currently dark, cold, rainy and busy with traffic and people shuffling back from work, while the ghostly image of the half built Shard looms above.

But I'd rather be in The Miller doing an impro show than Manly Bay.

If I was in Manly Bay laying on the beach after a surfing session, eating prawns, I'd just be thinking "I wonder how that Music Box show in The Miller is going".

Music Box is really good fun. Some of the craziest characters ever and stuff actually happens. This evening I apparently planted dynamite in the church using my young carnival bride, made a confession to a missionary priest, spoke to Jesus, and danced to raise the dead. You can't do that in Manly Bay, what a shit hole!

The next Music Box show is going to be immense! Wednesday 2nd March. One half of cabaret followed by one half of Music Box.

Sometimes I invite people to shows and spread word because I have to, but one Wednesday 2nd March it's because I really really genuinely think it will be such an amazing evening that I don't want anyone to miss out. I want to put on loads of shows I feel that way about.

So far we've got booked poetry, comedy, science demos, music, dance, a card ninja and opera. Can't wait.

Now I'm at Balham, almost at Morden. There is something reassuringly shit about South London and the Northern Line. You're not really going to get any inspiration or enjoyment from the natural environment, so you have to seek out new things and create your own world instead.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Steve's Top Tips to Budding Performers

Just bloody well get on and do it you young scallywags there are loads of things out there so just get stuck in and don't wait for anyone (especially me) to tell you "you're ready" because nobody is ever ready anyway it's just that some people do things and some people don't so just get on and do things. I've seen some amazing stuff in workshops recently that should really be on stage or film or you tube so grab and do it. Again, there is no magic moment or green light or blah blah so just do the things now. There isn't really anything you can learn from workshops and other people which is anything more important than being yourself, all of yourself, in the world, without fear, right now. Blah blah blah. And buy a yak.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Maydays

Well that was a fun one. I'm currently sitting on the Northern Line again heading south to Morden. Why do you need to know that? Don't know, it seems if I have two pints this blog contains pointless facts about my life, and makes it further away from the American style useful five points to success blog I actually meant it to me. If it helps, I'm listening to David Bowie again doing "that man who sold the world" song that Nirvana did uncut years later. Fuck me, that bit almost sounded cool. I went to gigs once me. In fact me and Edgar were in a band, even though we didn't play instruments. We just planned our NME interviews.

Show tonight was fun. We played to a small crowd. In fact before we went on we were even planning cancelling it, but then just before magic people turned up and it was all good. The audience gave us stories and we gave them scenes based on those.

Before the show I'd repeatedly asked John Cremer what we were doing and he almost couldn't compute the question. "Just take suggestions and make stuff up" he said and shrugged his shoulders. So I asked Katy Schutte what we were doing and she just said "don't worry about it".

In a comedy world of formats and marketing strategies and themes and so on it's refreshing that The Maydays do genuinely just, err, make stuff up. I can't think of anyone else who does just do that in its purist form.

And tonight it seemed to come together. I particularly enjoyed being a boss of a boss who had earned the right to be a dickhead, and a marathon runner's friend obsessed with the word "training". In fact there were lots of magic moments.

Music has now changed to The Yardbirds, and I'm dreaming of a sandwich. I just have to navigate past the Morden Kebab Shop without giving into whatever lure they have on offer.

And oh yeah! I totally used loads of status in the show, and it seemed to work. Low and behold it allowed me to play background characters with more confidence, because they didn't 'die' just because they weren't talking and it generated lots of stuff. Usually the only thing I take into shows is "react to everything the other person says or does and then add a tiny detail to it", but I'm now adding status to this. 5 years of impro and I've gone from being able to do one thing, to being able to do two things. At this rate I'll be able to do everything in 85 years time, can't wait.