September 25, 2007

Reflections from the Fringe: Improv Storytelling

So I've completed my run of You Go First at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, a show which was essentially an experiment conducted on the hypothesis that if you drop two experienced actors with a long history of improvisation on a stage with no script, no games, and no suggestions from the audience, that something interesting would happen.

We would create scenes in the moment, and either play them until the lighting technician turned out the lights, or we both left the stage. What happened next is that one or two of us would come back out onstage and start a new scene.

Often I would enter to start a new scene having no idea of how to set the next scene. For one thing, if I entered first, I had no way of knowing if my partner was going to come out and join me for a two person dialogue, or if I should start a monologue.

A few observations about the kinds of stories we ended up creating:

1. Many of our stories involved characters who used the Web to conduct part of their daily lives (whether it was looking up an address for a store to checking email to blogging to reading Wikipedia). The immediate challenge was the question of how do make that theatrically interesting? Because a stage picture of someone sitting down at a computer is not that compelling.

We figured that out quickly-- you make the search for information have high stakes-- essential to the character, so that the narrative depends on how this character reacts to finding or not finding this information.

I found it interesting the way different audience members reacted to our references to the digital landscape. On one night, blank looks from a couple in the audience made it fairly clear that the term "Wikipedia" held no meaning for them. On another, a reference to "poking" got giggles from a few in-the-know Facebook members in the audience, but if you were in the audience that night and aren't on Facebook, that phrase didn't have any meaning to you (although we made sure it did to the characters we were playing). Later in the show my partner did a monologue about MySpace in which he described what one could do with MySpace, mainly because it fit with the theme of the show we were creating (the theme of identity, and how we present ourselves to the world) but happily it gave context to those in the audience who weren't familiar with it.

Given that we were performing in San Francisco, a very "wired" city, we made a lot of presumptions about the extent that digital devices permeated our audiences' respective lives. No doubt we were guilty of overestimating the relevance of our own social networks.

But storytelling is filled with opportunities to introduce new words and new cultures. In fact, that's one of the benefits that storytellers hype when they try and drum up business in schools. Your students will learn new vocabulary, learn about cultures that are new to them....

Being aware of this, I once asked a group of fourth and fifth graders, "Do you know what a jackal is?" A few did, and volunteered that information with the group, and then I started with "This is the story of the Brahmin, the Tiger, and the Jackal."

"What's a Brahmin?" three of them cried in unison. My own children are similarly inclined to interrupt me at every opportunity to learn a new word.

Actually, I had to remove the term "crone" from my adult version of Rapunzel, because adults in my audience (even the storytellers!) didn't know what that word meant (and truth be told, I introduced the word in the moral to the story, so there wasn't enough context to decipher that I was referring to the witch who had imprisoned Rapunzel).

2. One of the storytellers who came to see the show was fascinated with the moments in between the words. "You two were listening so well to each other you could almost see it," she told us.

In the absence of a script or game, listening is the most valuable tool an improviser has onstage.

But I think that it has been my experience storytelling that allowed me to be comfortable standing onstage, in front of an audience, and not saying anything. The improviser inside me knew a story would come out eventually. The storyteller in me trusted that the audience could wait.

I don't think a handful of seconds is an unreasonable amount of time to not say anything onstage. Would you be comfortable not saying anything for 5 seconds in front of your audience? for ten? fifteen?

3. In improv, we're trained to jump to the next most obvious scene. If we set up audience expectations that a story will go somewhere, we should go somewhere, rather than delay.

In one story, where my character was convinced that another was stealing/dissolving my identity in bits and pieces, we chose to draw this story out, adding depth and color and backstory. Seeing how my character was dealing with other people besides his antagonist. Yes, it was delaying the inevitable. But I don't regret adding the extra texture. I like to think it made the inevitable final scene more satisfying.

In the moment I was mostly focusing on what was happening right then and there, but I knew in the back of my mind that we already made the call of how the story could end (my character would disappear completely) and the question was back there: when would we do that scene, if at all?

Funny how in traditional storytelling, knowing the ending ahead of time (we know how Jack and the Beanstalk is going to end-- and stick around long enough, you start to internalize the Aarne-Thomson tale types, and think, oh, this is AT 1620, I know how this will turn out) doesn't take away from the experience.

In fact, and I can't remember who said this (Duncan Williamson???? I'll have to track it down)-- knowing the ending and knowing the plot points are an essential part of enjoying traditional tales.

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