5.4: Development through Improvisation
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Now that we have a somewhat structured story we are ready for some improv. I say “somewhat structured” because you never know what will happen during the improvisational phase of the devising process. This why I find using improvisation during the development stages of a new play to be invaluable. You never know what an actor will bring to the table. An actor may say or do something that you as a playwright may have never considered or even thought of. A good actor has the ability to bring a richness to the development of characters that we sometimes can’t find while sitting in a chair in front of a computer screen writing dialogue.
Now that most of table work is completed, into the rehearsal room we go with scenarios in hand. The process is simple. We start with scene one and progress through the entire play to the end. This is a fun way to work but it may take a bit of time to complete. Depending on the play you may want to consider a good solid week or two dedicated to this part of the process. I must make a distinction here. There are a number of ways to devise a piece of theatre and there a number of ways a final product can be achieved. You can devise a play with an ensemble of actors and never produce a single piece of written material. That works great. I have developed numerous plays that have been completely and totally improvised. However, those plays were new creations from beginning to end. This particular play, Scarecrow, deals with a piece of existing literature and it is important that we take care that we try to stay as true as we can to the nature of the world found in the literature. This why we spend a lot of time engaged in table work with this type of play. If we were creating an original Commedia dell'Arte play we would spend more time working lazzi and less time worrying about the story. For this particular play we are using this process to create a final script to be used by a different cast for the following year.
When enter the rehearsal room it is important that we set up some guidelines for our student ensemble. Our rehearsal room is a sanctuary. Because we are improvising new material we want everyone to feel at ease and open. People seem to be the most vulnerable during this phase of experimentation and journeying through the unknown.
- Be respectful to everyone in the rehearsal room.
- Be respectful to everyone’s ideas.
- No harsh criticisms. Allow the director to engage in constructive criticism.
- No excessive talking during scene development.
We also give some creative guidelines to our student ensembles upon entering the rehearsal room for the first time.
- Bring your copy of the scenario everyday!
- Come prepared. Bring pencils and notebooks to take notes.
- Make notes in regards to things you said and did that seemed to work during improv sessions.
- There are no “bad” ideas. Ideas are ideas are ideas. A perceived “bad” idea will more than likely will lead to a more useful idea.
- Throw out your first idea. I say this because more times than not, your first idea has already been done by someone in the world somewhere. We strive to challenge ourselves to be creative and original.
- Don’t hold on too tightly to your ideas. If for some reason your idea may not work at that time let it go.
- Try not to be offended if your idea is rejected by the ensemble. Keep trying.
- Your ideas belong to the ensemble and to the play.
Once we get settled into the rehearsal space characters are assigned to ensemble members for the day as well as note takers. If you have a stage manager or a dramaturg they would be very helpful in taking dialogue and blocking notes for the final script or performance if that is the direction you are going with your play. Depending on the ensemble I will assign characters to different ensemble members everyday. I do this because every actor will bring something different to that character and we will ultimately, in my opinion, create a more well rounded and interesting character. If you just stick with using the same actor again and again during this period you run the risk of creating a character that is flat without dimension. It is not uncommon for us during these processes to create a character based on the workings of three or more actors.
Once the characters are assigned we get on our feet and start working.
Every director works differently. Each director has her/his own methods for conducting rehearsals. Some directors spend time warming up and playing games. Other directors like to get to work right away. I find value in both approaches. Warm ups and game playing are great ways to bond your ensemble members together. However, those take up valuable creation time. If you would like to engage in game playing at the top of every rehearsal there are numerous ensemble building games out there to play with your student creators to get their improvisational juices flowing. The work of Viola Spolin is a fantastic place to start. Below are a few games you can play to get things rolling if you wish.
- Players are paired up
- Each player takes a turn telling the other player their activities for the entire day up until the moment they came to class
- While telling the partner of the activities they use physical movements to simulate that activity
- Players must continue talking without stopping or saying ‘um, um’
- After each player does this then partner A repeats the same story but at one point the Instructor will yell ‘Freeze’.
- The Instructor will then offer a prompt, example: ‘Suddenly, Big Foot shows up with a bundle of flowers.” Once the prompt is heard the player must incorporate that prompt into their original story.
Players must maintain eye contact, cannot break eye contact.
- Players stand in a circle facing clockwise
- Cues are words that the players must execute throughout game.
- Cues: Go: Walk Cue: Turn: pivot and face opposite direction
- Cue: Jump: Jump and land facing in opposite direction
- Cue: Twizzle: Jump while spinning 360 degrees in air and land in the same direction as started.
- At anytime the Instructor will call out these ‘Cues’ and the players must comply or be asked to sit in the middle of the circle or Mush Pot. This is an elimination game.
Players must freeze in the position they landed after executing the ‘cue’. No scratching, adjusting clothing or talking. If any of this occurs then that player goes to the middle of circle and sits in the mush pot.
- One player makes an ‘ask’ for an object, item, or scenario
- At any time players may call ‘freeze’ and enter the scene
- Every time a player enters the scene, the scene must change completely, but be connected to whatever action or position was taking place in the previous scene.
- Only two players may be active at any time.
In ‘Tap Out’ all players arrange themselves in a ring or line, with one player to begin the game. This player makes an ‘ask for’ : object, item, situation, etc. and begins the scene. At any time one player may call ‘freeze’ and enter the scene. Once a player has entered the scene they must change it completely, but have some connection to the position or actions taking place in the previous scene. The game works the best when done quickly, typically no more than 15-30 seconds should lapse before someone changes the scene. Linking the scenes to current events or humorous stories in the news also greatly increases the effectiveness of the game.
- 4 Players line up
- 1 Player begins with an ‘Ask For’
- Each player subsequently stops the scene and chest it with their own introduction
- The 4th player to enter the scene must find a reason to leave the scene
- After each player leaves the scene it reverts back to the previous moment
- Players may not use dancing as a means of excusing themselves from the scene or beginning one.
This game begins with t a group of 3 to 5 players; though 4 players is ideal. The first player begins the game by making an ‘Ask For’ be it an item, a situation or a profession. At any point the remaining players can call out ‘freeze’, the scene then stops and that player changes the scene to whatever the player(s) appears to look like they are doing. When the final player enters the scene is t is their job to change the location, position, or action of all other players and then find a justifiable reason to leave the scene. After a player leaves the scene all remaining players revert to previous scene but must now justify their new positions or movements. This is repeated until the original player is the only one left on stage
As stated earlier, we usually go through the scenario once scene at a time in order. We do this because it helps to maintain continuity and a sense of rhythm to the play. Handle each scene in the play as it’s own little play that has a beginning, middle and an end. I find it very helpful to read or have a stage manager read aloud the scene before we begin. You can give some initial direction as you begin if you would like. I will usually just let the actors start and see what happens. If something is working don’t stop them too often. However, don’t be afraid to stop the actors to give direction. Look for the stuff that seems to be working and then expand it. It is always better to have too much material to work with than not to have enough. Don’t worry too much about blocking the actors unless movement is a part of the story telling. What we’re looking for here is mainly interesting and motivated dialogue. These types of rehearsals can be as free or as structured as you would like. It is totally up to you.
Usually what happens after a scene has been improvised a small group of ensemble members will take their observation notes and begin putting that scene on paper. They will distill all the useful and interesting material to create dialogue that flows well and feels natural. Typically after a few days regardless of how many scenes we get through we will return to the table with copies of all the written material. We all sit around with coffee and pencils in hand reading what has been written thus far from the improv sessions. This is an important step in the process in that we get to see whether or not we are on the right track and to see if we need to go back and make adjustments in certain areas. We will usually only have a day back at the table after about three days of improv. We will maintain this pattern until we have gone through the entire scenario thoroughly.
Once we feel good about the work we’ve accomplished in the rehearsal room back to the computer screen we go. There are two directions you can go to from here. You can either take ALL the information gathered from the entire process and fine tune the script by yourself or hand it off to another independent writer or secondly you can fine tune the script by assigning scene to groups of writer within your ensemble. I have found it better to tackle the final stage of this process as a lone writer. I say this because as a lone writer the script will have a single unifying voice. Again, there are numerous ways in which we can create a new piece of theatre. This is only one approach and very useful one at that in my opinion. Regardless of what creation style you as an artist deploy we must remain open to new ideas and methodologies.