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The Tuesday Group at the Ante Festival

There’s a two day arts festival at the Kirkgate Centre in Shipley on the 4th and 5th of May.

We’ll be there! We’ll be running a beginners’ intro session at (or around) 12 noon, then we’ll be looking at some of the social uses of improv, focusing on a South American technique called “Rainbow of Desire”. This is a very quick and easy way of knocking a short play together that explores a way in which you’re being ripped off or put down, and looking at ways of pushing back. The audience writes it, so if you don’t want to be in it you can help write it. Or just watch it, the choice is entirely yours.

Either way, should be a lot of fun. See you there we hope.

Journey. A few thoughts.

We’ve been doing some remarkable stuff in longform recently. I have sat there watching the performance group working with the hairs on the back of my neck prickling and my mouth dry.

I’ve also been in pieces that have just… stalled. Gone nowhere.

This is fine, this is cool. We’re in the practice room. If we’re not getting stuff wrong we’re wasting it, but why does one piece grab and hold the attention, while another bores? What engages? What doesn’t? What matters? What doesn’t?

In shortform, the improv most people who are used to improv are used to, nothing is really supposed to matter. We play silly games. If they work it’s funny. If they fail it’s still funny. Essentially you’re watching the performer walk a low wire; if they make it to the other side then we all cheer. If they don’t then in reality no harm’s been done. Shortform has its uses. We use it. You can knock a show together in minutes with shortform. You can jump in and fill half an hour with virtually no notice. And it doesn’t really matter if it goes wrong. Brilliant stuff.

Longform isn’t quite so forgiving. Longform is starting to take us out into the wilder waters of theatre. To hand in longform you need (I will say) a sense of scene and flow. What we call “beat”. In longform improv you need to act. If you’re going to put a sketch or short play on the stage then you’re going to have to be able to keep up with the demands of that.

The longforms I’ve been held by have had an internal purpose. They’ve had a journey. We’ve begun with recognisable human beings who haven’t by any stretch been the performers themselves. I am very pleased to see that members of the performance group have not only committed to character, but have committed to unpleasant ones. Then we’ve gone somewhere. Something has happened. Those characters have changed.

In a sense (I should stress that this is my current opinion, it could change overnight) longform is a conversation. Shortform is a gag, a joke. I tell you a joke, you (hopefully) laugh, the job is done. We don’t sit there for the next thirty minutes picking the joke apart.

With longform that’s exactly what you do do. You present your opening, then the next block of time (and longforms can last for hours) is spent expanding and exploring that opening. Discussing it. Exploring and expanding it. Challenging it.

Longform improv is a conversation, with your fellow performers and with the audience. It is improv as theatre. It follows the same development path as conventional theatre. We are as obliged as any narrative artist to obey the laws of story. And just as obliged to break them.

Blocking. (Making Things Happen #1)

“You block when you want to stay in control.”
(Johnstone, 1999: p101)

Blocking, in the end, is saying no. Your partner makes a suggestion. You say no. That’s pretty much it.

“Hey, we’re in an airplane!”
“No we’re not.”

Righty ho then. Good scene.

There’s a couple of things here. The first and uppermost has to be trust. Putting an idea out there is a risk. It’s an act of courage. If you read the Tuesday Group class rules you’ll see that one of the number one ways you can get yourself removed from a class is to sneer at other people. Not because we’re all fragile cupcakes, but because we know from hard experience that that crushes creativity. People shut down, their enthusiasm turns to anger and you’ve lost the group.

So why would people do it? A lot of people do seem to take a sense of accomplishment from spotting the problem. I’m afraid there are people who take pleasure in putting other people down. It’s a status thing for them I suspect. If I can make you back down I’ve won. Something.

Another is the fear of endings. People seem to dislike endings.

And another is the compulsion to be the cleverest thing in the room. If you meet a pixie on your travels who asks if they can come home with you then why not take the pixie home? A lot of students don’t think that that’s clever enough. They seem to think it won’t impress, so they tie themselves in knots trying to think of something clever.

Just take the damned pixie home.

Keith has an exercise where two people block each other. It’s not enough to ignore, you have to actively shoot the other person’s ideas down. It is fascinating to watch the mood of the exercise shift from joyful to resentful. It’s a bad idea to end that one without feedback and rebalancing.

Notes for Ged:

Both Block (two worlds). Players both inhabit different worlds
First to block loses
Remove the blocks
Block Tick – first to block gets replaced
“Sounds good to me” limit one actor’s responses to positive acceptances
One blocks / one accepts
Accept but make negative offers
It’s Tuesday – over accept offers.
“The Eyes” – 2 person drawing exercise. Koppett does this with a letter at a time caption.

Making Things Happen

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages. We’re going to look at chapter six of the mighty “Impro for Storytellers” by Keith Johnstone: “Making things happen”, as it’s the best basic toolkit I’m aware of to give a starting improvisor.

Johnstone identifies seventeen different things an improvisor can do to make life difficult for themselves. We’re going to look at all of them. As this would make for an insanely long post, we’ll break them up. One post each. Onto the first:

Blocking.

From the Circle of Expectation to the Oblong of Ordinary, to the Pearls of Possibility.

The legendary Keith Johnstone talks about “Circles of Expectation” in his 1999 book “Impro for Storytellers” (Johnstone 1999, p79). According to Johnstone when you launch into a scene the audience has an expectation of where that scene will go. Just as importantly it has an expectation of where it won’t go. So, to take an example from the book:

“Where are we?”
“On an unexplored planet!”

Ok fine, we’re on an unexplored planet. That is a perfectly valid opener for a scene, no problem with that at all. As an audience member instantly – and try this yourself – a whole set of expectations pop into your head. How did they get there? What are they doing there? What might they discover? What might happen to them?

According to Johnstone, an offer was made that something was approaching, at which point one of the actors said, with horror:

“Oh no it’s my mother!” (ibid)

I’m going to gamble that of all the possibilities you had for this scene, an astronaut meeting their mother wasn’t one of them.

Now as I type this, it’s not the disaster it’s presented as in the book. On the face of it it’s a limp joke. Any tension has been thrown away for the sake of a very cheap gag. But there is still hope for this. We can still save it. Right now I want to know how is our astronaut seeing her mother? Is this some kind of telepathic predator? Was her mother an astronaut too? Was she lost on a previous expedition?

Of course if another actor obligingly marches on and shouts “Sheila you forgot your sweater and it’s cold in space!” then all is lost.

The Circle of Expectation may perhaps be called the Parallelogram of Plausibility. The Tetrahedron of Trope. As offer succeeds offer and we move into the scene, an audience raised on structure will expect structure. If we start leaping around all over the place:

“It’s an alien world!”
“I’ll fetch my shotgun!”
“The one that fires peanuts!”
“It sings 80s pop tunes!”
“I’m going to talk to that tree!”
“Look, it’s Batman!”

And so on. The performers may think they’re being terribly imaginative. The audience will think something else.

As we begin a scene possibilities arise. Consider the following:
“Weather’s bad.”
“aye, might rain”
“thought it would this morning”
“bit dark”
“it was. got brighter though”
“turned cold though”
“not as mild as it was”
“no”

We could go on. Please don’t make me go on. Please let us agree that nothing is happening.

Nothing is happening. But surely something is happening? Surely two people are talking about the weather? Isn’t that something?

Maybe it is, but it’s not enough to hold my attention. As an audience member I will grow bored. I grew bored just typing that.

Yet surely all of it fell within the Circle of Expectation? Yes, but it all fell inside the same Circle of Expectation and that appears to be the problem. If every offer and response falls inside the same Circle of Expectation then the scene quite literally goes nowhere. We remain trapped. Nothing has happened. Nothing has changed. They call smalltalk small for a reason.

We are inside what I will call The Oblong Of Ordinary

THE OBLONG OF ORDINARY

Your scene partner presents you with an offer. You respond to the offer, making your own counter-offer. Your scene partner accepts your counter offer and responds. And nothing happens. Two people are stuck on a stage in front of an audience and nothing is happening. It is excruciating. The audience are fidgeting, offering those helpful little “get on with it” titters, and you feel the “oh god this is dying” panic set in. You are trapped. In:

THE OBLONG OF….

we get the idea. Experienced improvisers will know that a danger waits for even the most wary performer, a danger that lurks in every scene. It is a concept I will borrow from Gestalt Psychotherapy: it is Aboutism.

“aboutism (…) lets us talk about things, gossip about ourselves or others, broadcast about what’s going on in ourselves. (…)

“Talking about things or ourselves and others, as though we were things, keeps out any emotional responses or other genuine involvement. (…) This approach is based on noninvolvement.”

(Perls 1966, cited in Fagan & Shepherd 1970, p17)

Go back to that conversation about the weather. It’s about the weather. Our players are two passive observers with no agency and no volition. With, let’s be honest, no reason to be there. They’re talking about something that is happening externally to both of them and we are learning nothing about them. In improv, as in therapy, the conversation never leaves that first circle of expectation. It never escapes the oblong of ordinary.

Talking “about” something is the one, sure fire, way you have as a performer of getting trapped inside a scene that is absolutely, resolutely, going nowhere.

Let’s go back to the very first offer, the one taken from Johnstone’s book:

“Two players asked the audience, “Where are we?”
They were told, “Exploring an unknown planet!”
(Johnstone 1999, p79)

brilliant response by the way, gives the actors lots to work with and plenty of scope to be changed.

There’s our very first offer. We’re on an alien planet.

What’s within the circle of expectation? That they’ll explore. You don’t come all this way to an unknown planet without having a poke around.

Ok so now they’re exploring. What’s within the circle of expectation now?

I’m going to suggest that the expectation here is pretty focused. If you find yourself on an alien world and you begin exploring, your audience is going to be disappointed if you don’t find something.

Ok so what do you find?

How does that affect you?

How do you respond to that?

Do you enter? Do you meet someone?

Do you see that we are moving from circle of expectation to circle of expectation? I’ve given possibilities above, you can think of better ones. The point is that each time we make a decision a new circle presents itself. By committing to a choice inside that circle, we shift, so that the next circle is different. We move, from circle to circle, and each circle is different, takes us somewhere new. We build a narrative. Our actors are changed, by and within the scene. The scene moves forward.

There isn’t one circle of expectation, there are thousands. There’s a new one at every step in the scene. Every offer changes the circle; and, by moving from one to another we create a moving narrative and we don’t get trapped in the oblong of ordinary. Our circles of expectation are arranged on a narrative string. Like pearls. Pearls of Possibility.

Bibliography

Keith Johnstone (1999). Impro for Storytellers. London: Faber & Faber.
Fagan, Joen and Lee, Irma editors. (1970) Gestalt Therapy Now, London: Penguin