Who's In Charge Of Having The Baby?

Pregnancy gets used as a metaphor for a lot of things. As does gardening. I'm not much of a gardener, but I have had kids so it is usually my go to example when I'm trying to figure things out.

To me, stories (especially the ones on stage) are like babies. They've been written, created and birthed by their authors and then they wind up being born again, in a sense, on stage in 3-D, with actors inhabiting the roles, directors choosing the vision and look, designers and techs making the on and off stage magic happen.

For the most part, with scripted stories, there is labor and development, but the outcome is generally assured on a nightly basis. We all know how Romeo and Juliet will end. The show will not end in miscarriage unless there is some kind of extreme fuck up. An actor doesn't show. The lights fall onto the audience. All the sound cues are missed. The words are there and they must be said out loud and in the proper order in order for the show to live. And that very nearly always happens.

Improvised storytelling? Really different. Keep in mind that I am indeed talking about improvised storytelling, narrative long form (60-90 minutes). For this post I am not focused on short games, competition play or the like. I'm talking about creating a solid story (world, characters, danger, love, climax, denoument) in the space of an hour and a half with a few suggestions and a basic theme.

This is where it gets interesting....in some shows there are certain characters pre-cast. Say in improvised Twilight, there is a "Bella" and an "Edward" but all the other actors are free to create friends, parents, enemies, vamps, wolves whathaveyou. And in fact most of the actors will play many of those roles and try to keep all their myriad characters in place and helping to move the story forward while the Bella and Edward drive the action. I think it works best with a minimum pre cast situation.

So we've got our characters. And lots of support. And then comes the question....if the story is the baby and all of us onstage are delivering it while creating it at the same time, who is in charge of the actual "push"?

All of us? None of us? Does the story come or go at it's own whimsy? Are the actors in this case just vessals for the birth? Or are all of us in group mind breathing and pushing and growing together?


Sometimes, things become a clusterfuck and the baby gets stuck in the birth canal. Sometimes a character winds up pushing too hard, or one not enough. Fear sets in. People stop listening and start trying to "fix". This sometimes makes things much worse. This can lead the actors to often feel bad, or blame themselves or others for things not working. Sometimes you get some pretty wack storybabies out of a show. They usually live, but they might not be the prettiest to look at.

Personally, I think it comes down to a few things to make a successful improvised story burst out in full glory, and these dynamics were all modeled well for me by my teachers.

1) Listening to each other intently (allowing your idea to drop if someone else's comes first or is more delightful, going with what is said, calling back offers from the beginning to tie things together) 2) Main characters establishing clear objectives (which may or may not come into conflict with other characters smaller goals), and 3) Expecting your character to be changed in some way by the other characters, by the story itself (the hero falls and rises again. The villain goes from bad to worse. The lovers fail and fall apart).

Two other things, and this might just be something that I'm personally keen on is...allow the characters to be as real and grounded as possible (which means the actors are remaining charged, but calm and vulnerable to the possibilities). Just because it's improv doesn't mean it has to be all gags all the time. Allow the story to tell us what to do, give that gift to the audience, do the story the honor of letting it live. The funny will come naturally.

(And of course I don't mean that "real" doesn't mean hilarious characters. But those characters, even the wacky ones, often don't think they are wacky. They think they are 100% real. They just happen to be wacky to everyone else.)

Grounded vulnerablity, listening, accepting, changing...that's really much harder to do than it appears. I know personally, I have a hard time IN as well as AFTER longform shows, when it was clear that I was not really there, or that I was trying to hard to either get a laugh or drive a theme. There is a funny zen flowspace to improvisation.

We are all in charge of having that baby, of being in the service of the Story. Of opening that up to the audience and loving the in the moment creation.

All just my opinion of course, but in my experience so far, when all the pieces come together? There is hardly anything better in the whole world.


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