“All the world’s a stage; And all the men and women merely players”. And so begins the wailing Jaques as he paints a melancholic portrait of life. Tragic portrayals of life’s inevitability aside, Jaques is right and all the world really is a stage. Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been doing some improvised theatre workshops and I’ve learnt a lot, but nothing more important than that.
Credit for the entire construction of improvised theatre really goes to Keith Johnstone. He didn’t invent it, but he was the first to really understand what worked and what didn’t, why some things felt right and others wrong, and what made it funny. Now in his late 80’s, he’s long since retired, but Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White were two of his students They’ve started The Spontaneity Shop and have continued to build on his work.
I can’t quite remember why, but just a few short weeks ago I’m sure I thought the idea of doing improv was terrifying. Compelling plot lines. Deep and coherent characters. Clever, funny dialogue. Without any preparation. Unimaginably impossible. Except it’s not like that at all. For one, the standards aren’t that high and audiences will enjoy and laugh at anything the actors on stage are enjoying themselves. For another, via games that are literally childsplay, you learn simple techniques that make it work. Fantastically, it turns out that those simple games also work off stage, in the improvised theatre of life itself.
Like Pointing, a game of three parts. First, you walk around a room pointing at things and saying what they are. “Carpet. Door handle. Fire extinguisher. Redness.” Unsurprisingly easy. Next, you walk around a room pointing at things and saying what the last thing you pointed at was. A little counter-intuitive but practice rapidly makes perfect.
Thirdly, finally, what should be the easiest part of all: Walking, pointing and saying anything except what the pointee is. And here, although there is only one wrong answer, the first time I played this game I was totally stumped. It seemed like I couldn’t think what to say and nothing would come to me except what I was pointing at. I just could not do it. Arrrgh! Disaster!
Only it wasn’t true. I really was thinking of things, but I was stopping myself from saying them. They sounded dumb, or silly, or repetitive. But explicitly, by the very rules of the game, they were none of those things. I could have walked around the room and called everything a unicorn and I would have got 100%. How could creativity be so easy?
This then, was my first big lesson from improv: it’s not that I can’t think of anything. I can, and it might not be Shakespeare but at least it’s something for others to react against. At least it keeps things moving more than twisting my tongue into unnecessary knots. And keeping it moving is key. It’s true on stage, and what is life but one improvised theatre performance after another?
And storytelling is exactly the same. You’re one of two people on stage. “One of you is interviewing the other for a job.” Just a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have dared move a muscle without knowing the script from start to finish, complete with funny puns and artful humour. But it turns out you can craft a 1, 2, 5, infinite minute scene from nothing, just by making a decision and accepting what the other offers:
“I’m so sorry I’m late, the tube drivers were on strike again.”
(“noticing” the other person’s shoes) “Oh my, with those gumboots I hope you didn’t have to run too far! Let me just say how glad I am you made it. The TfL desperately needs a new Director of Punctuality and your experience today makes you a very strong candidate.”
And last but not least… status games. Keith Johnstone sketched out a rich set of status games in his book, but you can dig a lot deeper and it’s amazing what I’ve learnt by doing and not just reading. Whether it’s watching someone mundanely buy groceries and still finding myself impossibly absorbed just by changes in the actors’ status, or whether it’s using my voice to define my own status or just noticing why someone else seems intimidating (it’s those high status hands again!) all I can say is I’ve learnt a lot.
And that sums it up really. It’s been a fantastic, fun couple of weekends, the time and money very well spent. I’ll be doing it again and I can’t wait!