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:
“aye, might rain”
“thought it would this morning”
“it was. got brighter though”
“turned cold though”
“not as mild as it was”
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.
Keith Johnstone (1999). Impro for Storytellers. London: Faber & Faber.
Fagan, Joen and Lee, Irma editors. (1970) Gestalt Therapy Now, London: Penguin