improving improv

Elseweb I put together something I’m pretty proud of, a list of ways to help build the local improvisation scene in 2019. It’s here at the Open Heart Theatre blog. Doing it involved gathering together ideas from a bunch of people across the UK and beyond, and it was a rare example of Facebook really being useful. It was also a chance to flex writing muscles a little, as I’m not doing as much as I’m used to doing. Here’s a good point from one collaborator:

Believe in ourselves more. The UK scene has the world’s longest running improv show (Comedy Store Players) and started Whose Line which took improv into the mainstream. Keith Johnstone came from England, and we have inherited a rich theatrical tradition populated with leviathans. We have some of the most successful improv shows worldwide (Showstoppers, Austentatious, Comedy Store Players) as well as improv groups that have broken out into other theatre (The Mischief in the west end and broadway).

We have developed a glorious melting pot of styles, thanks to our own traditions and the benefits of being geographically near to European community and linguistically near to improv centers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Let’s keep being brave and experimental and non-exclusive.

Retrospective on Murakami improvisation

On the “social murdiers”, someone asked me about our Haruki Murakami improv format, and I’m reprinting it here to keep.

The format was the brainchild of Susan Harrison. Our group Storybag had  been working on non-genre narrative for a couple of years and wanted a genre that would improve our skills but also complement the philosophy of narrative work we had settled on, which avoided skeleton structures and mandatory beats and focused on following what felt important from the story so far.

Murakami was a neat fit because his work blossoms with tropes and a particular atmosphere but doesn’t live or die on its particular structure (an aficionado might well be able to identify one, but it didn’t seem to us the primary thing offered by his writing, which is elliptic and avoids clear endings).

What tropes? He loves riffing on the Beatles or jazz culture, on the best way to make a broth and the contours of the city. He dives into details and gives life to them. So we tried to get better at that quotidian specificity. To avoid a vomit of bland detail we practiced reading expository sections of the books and improvising from there, allowing us to internalise some of Murakami’s voice and the flavour of his enthusiasm for these details.

We looked at highly fantastical characters and the way in which Murakami was efficient in allowing such characters to encounter the protagonist. Generally their fantastical nature is recognised but accepted, rather than denied or held in extended disbelief. This means such encounters are often calm and curious, and to reach there we had to overwrite an old skill developed to respond to weird situations, the classic “game of the scene” approach of calling things out and being a resistant voice of reason. Instead, we would try and allow ourselves to get swept along while still telegraphing some of the strangeness. A muted Alice in Wonderland, perhaps.

Another trope found within such encounters is that the fantastical character often has access to things intimate to the protagonist – knowing the other person’s thoughts or history or having habits that parallel something from their backstory – that aren’t explained at the time. There are a couple of excellent improv skills that align with that well: making thing personal, and jumping (making a step forward) before justifying (worrying if it makes sense). So we just had to identify the relevance of these skills and start to explicitly use them.

There was lots of other stuff: playing strange characters in relation to each other apart from the protagonist’s normal world, storytelling skills, other tropes like talking animals. Our musician had recently bought a Kaoss Machine:

…. so we were working a lot with samples and atmospheric background sounds that added a lot.

In a sense the shows were Murakami reimagined or digested and dreamt, rather than faithfully reproducing something that would have felt as thorough as the novels would have. I much prefer this approach to improvising work, compared to distilling the core path and trying to follow it show after show, but I don’t know whether a Murakami fan would have prefered a Murakami by numbers… it’s an open question whether that is even possible, mind you.

Thoughts for people who want to start teaching improvisation

I got contacted recently by someone looking to run an improvisation course and looking for a few tips. I thought my reply could be useful for a general audience, so here it is.

I was asked about syllabus and general advice. I’ll come to syllabus at the end because it’s a tricky one to answer, so I’ll lead with the more practical things, written with a beginners course in mind: a couple of tips on preparation, a couple on how to run content, and a few more on how to engage with those participating.

Plan a variety of activities, such as

– whole group
– small groups (eg 3-4) in parallel
– pairs in parallel
– solo/pairs/groups in serial, with the remainder watching

Often start with group activities and then use a blend of the rest, not spending too long in one type. If possible, warm-ups are in service to the topic at hand, but it’s never a wrong move to build connection, attention or energy.

Prepare a few more exercises than you need
Sometimes things don’t go quite as you expect, or for practical reasons prove undesirable (a running game when two people turn up with foot injuries). Sometimes things get done really quickly – there was a lesson you thought everyone needed to learn but they already knew it. So it’s always nice to have a few backup exercises in the bandolier. However, bear in mind you should…

Run fewer exercises than you think
This took me a long time to learn! As workshop leader, we often get fixated on working through our Agenda, and we’re so buzzing with ideas and activities that we miss that there can be a lot of pleasure and learning that comes out of an exercise repeated. There is no rule for how many you should do, but often, aside from warm-ups/energisers, two to four exercises (maybe with variants or add-ons) can be enough. Even in beginner workshops which are heavier on the warm-ups, if the group is really into a game you can stick with it for a while. Even 30 minutes or more if it is helping the group coalesce. You can always tweak the game a bit, which brings us to

Be open to tweaking on the fly
As a teacher you are also improvising, so always be prepared to pause an exercise and suggest something to improve it, from the more obvious “let’s do that again but with four times the commitment” to the seemingly arbitrary “let’s keep passing the ball but continually shift from sitting to standing.” Trust your intuition in the same way as you are asking your students to. Sometimes students themselves will suggest tweaks; teachers differ on how to handle this but personally I’m open to trying these out, while making it clear that the responsibility for the workshop remains with me. Speaking of students,

Allow participation
Allow time for students to reflect aloud on their experiences of doing exercises. When things are allowed to be spoken it helps us to really know what we are thinking and feeling, and sharing these insights with others helps them to understand things better. Also encourage students to ask questions, to check understanding or to voice doubts or uncertainties they have. As the leader of the group you may need to restrict this kind of dialogue when it risks turning the workshop into a talking shop, but it’s important the opportunity is there. You can plan check-in points in your teaching plan, but also be alert to what’s needed. After all

You’re mainly a listener
Again, impro basics, but again it’s true. What’s the energy like at the start of the day? How are people responding to high-energy stuff? How about now? Is everyone integrated or have things shifted into a few sub-groups? Are those two people just a bit anxious or ‘have a reassuring word with them in the break’ anxious? Could we do with a break now? How do people feel when they pair up with that energetic person with the massive voice? Drinking everything in with every sense you’ve got. You don’t have to get this stuff right! You just need to care about it. And active listening includes asking a question and getting the answer. And be prepared to act, because

You’re also a leader
Make the calls that need to be made: if you think an exercise must be abandoned, abandon it. If you don’t like content in a scene, call it short and say why. Take responsibility for the atmosphere and make sure people feel safe. I strongly recommend taking time at the start of the course to set out expectations for how people treat each other in the class. It doesn’t need to be a fully scoped code of conduct but you should let people know that respect and comfort are key to the work you are doing together. You can also ask participants to contribute to these expectations.

I haven’t said too much about personal style. There are almost as many effective ways of teaching as there are types of people. Some teachers are preternaturally calm, others cheer at every opportunity; some stay seated, others gravitate into the scenes they are coaching; some reassure whereas others tease. Be decent, be encouraging, be fair, and be you.

Now, syllabus. This is a general question that is impossible to provide a general answer: it depends on the particulars, on your philosophy and the style of improvisation you want to seed. Many people in the UK began by learning shortform games, but I know many schools that don’t. Some people might consider open-ended group performances to be advanced-level stuff, but when Randy Dixon taught the organic Harold, I asked him whether he could see teaching beginners with that form, and he could. I very often use masks in introduction courses, which to others might seem too niche an area to call on.

If I was to give any explicit advice it would be to make sure that the early weeks focus on connection, getting to know each other, positivity, finding fun in mistakes, and the simple joy of playing games together. Other topics that I might focus on would be status, letting go of control, staying in the moment, mime/space and playing different types of things, story structure, emotional reactions, truthfulness, the idea of ‘platforms’, more complex games with restrictions. But most of all, unpack the vision that you care passionately about in improvisation.

 

 

An image of ten improvisers posing in garish t-shirts
My continuing group in Germany last year – we had a cheesy t-shirt theme to the final class, an idea I stole from iO’s Todd Edwards. Any gimmicks you’ve found useful to beginners?

 

A dreaming phoenix

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Last week, I reflected about the fun I’ve been having recently with Storybag. Another delight in late 2014, appearing like a phoenix from the flames, was The Dreaming.

The Dreaming was born back in 2012 – briefly called Carnosexual before we thought better of it. I formed the team, coached and occasionally played when our numbers demanded. And here I have to make an aside, if you’ll bear with me. I’ve noticed that improv teams, like many groups of people outside of formal structures, can struggle with naming and recognising ownership and authority, often preferring to promote a consensual vibe and muddling through when it comes to crucial decisions or matters of vision. (I think these tendencies are magnified twice: once by the conflict-avoidant, passive aggression of the English middle class, and the other by training that can be [mis]characterised as prizing consensus over standing up and playing your part.) This finger points at no-one more-so than me, which is why I’m owning up, explicitly, to authoring the group into existence, and shepherding it forward according to my goals. It was my baby, even if its manifestation was utterly determined by the great players I was lucky enough to touch and be touched by. In the end, this iteration burned bright – a slew of really fun gigs –  before real life and geography dispersed us.

This September I found myself sharing a few days with founding members John Agapiou and Clare Kerrison at the Maydays Impro Comedy Festival at Osho Leela in Dorset, and the idea came up: why not get the band back together? So, with the help of superb musician and Mayday Joe Samuel, we did. And then we did it again in Cambridge, and – back with Joe again – in Brighton at the end of the year. So, it’s kind of a thing now.

And you know what? I wouldn’t call it my thing.

I formed the group with a simple and selfish agenda of giving my friends new to London a forum to play in. As conditions have changed – my buddy Brandon is back in the US, and John is plenty busy on his own terms – that need simply doesn’t exist anymore.

On top of that, in 2012, I had come back from the Improv Olympic with a clear picture of pursuing  long-form highly organic sound-and motion touchy-feely morphy stuff – what the Dreaming are all about. During the hiatus, I’ve become more focused on other components of improv: on slower, longer scenes, unearthing character, that sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t rate the morphing abstract stuff, it’s just that the desire to do it has been sitting quietly, waiting to be woken up. And it got woken up loud, by John and Clare, with John in particular driving our rehearsals and revealing to us something hidden inside our work together: that we had to embrace looking like pretentious arseholes to get close to doing the kind of work that excited us.

I am totally invested in what I get to do with Clare, John and Joe. But it’s important to recognise that this is not my thing anymore – my thing lived its mayfly life and was done. From the bones of that we’ve boiled up a new soup. New philosophy, new direction of energy. It feels good to recognise how that can happen, the phoenix, the new thing directly from the old thing, wearing its skin, but new again.

The Murak-army

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Yesterday I got back together with my improv family Storybag to rehearse our latest show, an improvised play based around the themes of Haruki Murakami’s novels.

Storybag was a project that took time to come together. Perhaps rare among improvisers nowadays, who aim to get as much stage time as possible from the off, we spent nearly a year rehearsing together to find our groove, form a group mind and develop trust before asking audiences to come and see it.

We did a string of shows, a few being some of my favourite things to have done on stage. But over 2014 it began to feel less inspired. As I wrote about in the past, in the absence of genre, our stories all began to accrue that particular impro-story genre. We needed a shot in the arm, which we got last September when Sue (Harrison) proposed Murakami. Not only our first genre show but a genre which is specific, challenging and inspiring to our own perspectives. As Sue is a Murakami superfan she’s been able to provide clear artistic direction from the off, and as we immerse ourselves in the work, our group mind reattunes itself around the landmarks and milestones that demarcate this world.

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I’m particularly happy that Dylan (Buckle), our musical performer, has leapt on the opportunities and challenges that Murakami brings, from a forensic interest in Western music styles from jazz to rock and even classical, to the tonal demands of the work, which he’s deftly exploring using his Kaosmaschine (I don’t know either, but it’s cool piece of kit).

Our debut in December was a real delight; we played on the tips of our toes, toppling into characters that stretched us and exploring mood and emotion. We’ll be kicking into gear with the show in 2015, and excited about where it can bring us. If you’re in London on the 9th March, we’ll be bringing Murakami to the wonderful Duck Duck Goose night.

Competition! Round Two: Show over Self

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We’re talking about competitive impro – see Part 1 here. We left off with a nice account of how Theatresports, with its ‘contest’ of team versus team, is well positioned to create heat and energy in the audience

Obviously, not all competitive shows need to be the same. You might decide to play with an energy and vibe different from wrestling/sports, or even deconstruct it in some way. And I should note that Theatresports is carefully designed to produce its atmosphere, through Judges-as-bad-cops, scoring often taken out of the hands of the audience, the ‘Horn for Boring’, the basket. The Maestro format certainly has less ‘heat’, on the whole – although if you have a couple of mischievous players, like Daniel Arantia and Shawn Kinley, then all bets are off. But the core point remains: competition isn’t, really.

In actual fact, sometimes for the good of the show you need to take a risk that may provide you with a lower score, like doing a differently-paced scene to avoid pushing the audience to the limits of what they can take, or even just doing something crazy experimental with a strong likelihood of ‘not working’ to show the audience early on that the show can take any twists and turns, and we’re ok with that – and ok with their honesty on what did or didn’t work.

I remember a Theatresports final way back when – this is second-hand reporting; I couldn’t make the final (anyway we got kicked out in the first round, which is a typical Theatresports for me. Maestros treat me well, though). Somehow, an audience member managed to get entered onto the scoreboard as if they were a team, awarded points each round, and ended up winning the show. Apparently the front-runners were incredibly gracious in awarding them the trophy, but in the days that followed there was some wondering  (perhaps not from the group but from friends or fans) whether this prevented them from claiming the bona fide champion title, for their press/flyers etc. It’s an understandable instinct that is also symptomatic of how easy it is for real-competition to creep into play-competition.

Similarly, I remember operating lights in another show and bringing a blackout three seconds into a scene because the very first line was a clear, funny button. (I would have been too chicken to do this on my own; the director correctly waved me down.) Again, I got the sense of a little dissatisfaction from the players: the scene got a good but not great score, I guess because the audience felt they hadn’t earned max points, and the team were very strong, so may have felt that possibility was stomped on.

And in terms of fair competition? Absolutely, they were (possibly) robbed of a point (or we saved them from mediocrity, who can really say).

But in terms of the show? The show needed a short scene, some contrast, a surprise. If the show is constrained by ‘fairness’ and due process of the competition, this puts those impulses in tension. It allows recrimination. Forget an early blackout, what about when a player from another team comes into your scene with a call-back, some meta-commentary, or even just to be mischievous and steal your chair while you aren’t looking? How can we as a collective ensemble – all the players in the show – be free to take risks when it might be perceived as sabotage or bad sportsmanship?

In addition, when we stress, we fail. The best shows are the ones where we feel the most effortless, where we feel even-handed towards whether we are doing it ‘right’ or not. When you pile on the pressure onto yourself, when you feel more judged by others, or less safe, you are very likely to do worse work on stage. J and I were asked to fill a gap in the last 5-aside, but were simply too knackered to feel we could put in a showing. For the hour or so we toyed with it, we decided we would have to set our own criteria for success: most pretentious group; fewest words spoken, most scenery in other people’s scenes. Anything but ‘winning’ or god forbid, ‘our best improv.’

It might seem like genuine competition has a function, to identify strong teams, but I think that’s a red herring. The strongest players should be making others look good, regardless of whose team they are on. And on any night, our function is to give the audience and other players a good time, and learn something along the way. That might mean doing a calmer scene/set than you might have done, because the group on before went wild and wacky, and you want to give the audience the gift of a moment to regroup, and the other group the gift of contrast, setting their piece apart rather than outdoing it. (And sometimes the opposite, attempting to outdo their crazy with ridiculous bravado and swagger – to the point of breaking down or looking ridiculous – might be the right decision for the night.)

We can’t be mischievous or risky unless we feel safe, and it’s difficult to feel safe when other people are in some way ‘against’ you. The best competitions I’ve seen have involved a great deal of mischief, but it does depend on that safety: if there are people on-stage who take the competition at face value rather than as a conceit, they may well resent it or even view it as gamesmanship.

Let’s sum up. I find competitive formats great because:

  • they can generate heat
  • they can allow more people on a single bill than would normally be practical, using elimination (eg Maestro)
  • they give a clear shape to the show – people understand competition, eliminations, points-scoring et
  • they encourage mischief and make it mean something, as the mischief can be punished and ‘justice’ done
  • they give playful ways for different teams on a bill to interact – challenges, helping, sabotage
  • they can provide authority figures with high status to look after the show and give freedom to players to act out – kids need the adults around to really be seen as such
  • it’s a great way to tells a second story (another Tom Salinksy insight for me): the story of the performers as well as the stories within the scene. Grudges, gratitude, the whole shebang.

And the advice I try and give myself before a competitive show:

  • Set yourself a fun goal
  • Don’t attach too much meaning to the prize
  • Form a one-off group to play with. Then you won’t subconsciously worry about winning or placing well.
  • If the conditions make it safe to do so, be mischievous.
  • Warm up together – regardless of whether you’re on different teams. Get together, you are the cast of one show.
  • Try to make other teams look good.

The next Impro 5-a-side is coming up on 23rd March.

The next London Maestro will be at the Camden People’s Theatre on Sunday 4 May – details to come at the Spontaneity Shop.

Competition! Round One: Generating Heat

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Last month London kicked off the first of a series of 5-aside competitive impro events, and by all accounts it went really well. This prompted me to muse a bit about the benefits and pitfalls of a competitive format. This got big enough for me to split: here I’ll focus on a useful pointer for competitive impro, and one of its biggest benefits.

I’ve played in competitive formats in Europe, the UK and Canada, mostly some derivation or other of Keith Johnstone’s formats, specifically Maestro and Theatresports. I’m repeatedly impressed by the evolved and considered philosophy that sits under them. There is a lot that could be said – Patti Stiles runs workshops on ‘How to do Theatresports better’; Maestro now has a (very unpretentious, helpful) guidance manual. But the idea that made the most impression on me is really very simple.

You shouldn’t be competing.

I heard this first from Tom Salinsky in the run-up to our first Maestro in the pleasant Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. (I walked past the Theatro Technis, another occasional Maestro spot, on the way to the bar in which I’m writing the first draft of this.) In the next post I’ll get into why this is so important, but to make sense of a show that is both Competition and Not Competition, it’s worth turning to Keith Johnstone, who recounts how he was inspired to create Theatresports by watching wrestling shows. As we all know, the outcomes of wrestling are fixed, but the experience isn’t fake. Wrestling generates ‘heat’ – provoking the audience into an excited, passionate and even angry frenzy – and that kind of experience is a rare one within a theatre. Fake competition generates authentic emotional results. Julia witnessed a Theatresports at the Loose Moose Theatre that epitomises this.

Performers from Calgary and Edmonton were playing each other in ‘The Battle of Alberta. (In reality, the Edmonton team was topped up by some Calgarians, something you wouldn’t normally see in a Derby match!)
In Theatresports, teams get points from a set of serious judges, who are the grown-ups in the room to contrast with the players. Early on, the judges made a fairly harsh call for one of the teams, docking a point for use of the word ‘Bum’. The team made a show of resentment at the call, echoing ripple of dissatisfaction in the audience.
As the show went on, that team started to act out more and more: running into competing scenes, using ‘Bum’ as a punchline, and provoking the judges, who responded unemotionally by docking them points and giving players time-outs – the Theatresports ‘basket’ worn upon the head for 5 minutes.
Both teams were getting on with doing scenes and giving challenges, both doing good work, but with the misbehaving team taking risks in and out the scene, whilst the other team played up their role in the show – the nice, diligent participants.
The audience started getting furious. “Give them points, that’s so unfair.” “They basketed all but one player – how are they going to do a scene? Oh, you’re making them do it on their own?????”(Solo scenes are actually a gift to a player, but within the theatre of Theatresports, they can appear a daunting challenge.) “What? They are all punished? They are all in the basket? Now they just miss even doing a scene!!!” They yelled, roared together, stood up and booed the judges.
By the time the ‘bum’ player basketed for the 2nd or 3rd time, his run through the aisle to the timeout area was met by audience members leaning out to hi-five him, like wrestlers or a baseball game. Thing is, no-one turned up with a strong desire to support that team and boo the ref – to this day, I’m not sure whether the punished team was the home team or the ‘Edmonton’ one. The game ended at 30-7 – the mischievious team were crucified. But everyone got a story out of the show.

And make no mistake, the players of the losing team would have left the show knowing that they had – together with their rivals and the judges – spent the night winning in every sense imaginable. In the next post, I spend a little time exploring why this spirit is so important.

Maxims and Reality

With Patti Stiles in town this past week, reinvigorating tons of friends with the fun agenda, I thought I’d post a little maxim that I’ve been finding useful.

Maxim: Find the fun you can have with what you have right now, rather than worrying about the correct thing to do next.

Not following the maxim:  Start playing a scene: discover I’m low status and they are high. Ok so I know scenes can work by reverse a status relationship, so my job is to figure out how to do that, thus solving the scene and doing it properly.

Following the maxim: Start playing a scene: discover I’m low status and they are high. How much fun can I have with my partner, that high status character? With this relationship? Enjoy that, rather than trying to ‘work toward’ the next step. When what you have feels like it might want to turn into something else, you’ll find it is easier and more obvious to make a change (eg a status shift) because you have immersed yourself deeply in the moment and created a reality that gives you lots of possibilities.

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To put meat on the example: maybe I bow when the master makes any request and I discover a ridiculous, pleasing physical quality to my right-angled bows, allowing them to get bigger or more awkward. Simultaneously my partner enjoys using ever-longer invectives to insult me with – ‘you miserable millipede-legged fascimile of an ape’ (he’s not a happy high-status at all!).

These things are fun and we are playing with them, along with adding other details to the scene and messing with each other: what happens when the servant needs to bow with the plate of champagne flutes?  At a certain point though it feels like it’s done, and I find myself saying ‘I’ve been practicing for this moment, sir’ and give him a mighty bent-at-the hip stage headbutt. Or my partner says: ‘I’ve insulted you for years, and yet you are so stoic. I break apart at the hint of criticism… can you tell me how it’s done?’ The thing that is needed, more often than not, just comes from being with what’s already there.

This isn’t to suggest bridging when the scene is calling for a change (see this quote). We don’t want to delay for fear of moving forward. But we also don’t want to press forward with an scene-solving course of action for fear of being present with what we have. We don’t want to be preoccupied with the correct ‘game move’ when that gets in the way of what’s happening right now.

It’s a tonal thing, for sure. It’s not about squeezing every drop of juice out of the current situation – we may want to come back to it. But we want to establish and enjoy things, and not feel pressured to drop things for being ‘not good enough’

Maxims are cheap tricks – they are right until they are wrong, because reality is infinite and cannot be constrained by words.

imageMaxim Reality. Prodigy dude and a cool guy.

But right now, I’m finding it a handy trick for me, and maybe it will be for you, too.

Thoughts on genre

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Western stories aren’t about big hats and chewing tobaccy and slurring. Improv Western scenes often are! And that’s fine, you can have a beautiful scene playing around as cowboys, sending the genre up or, to my preference, sending ourselves up and revelling in the joy of clowning around with a bunch of scene-toys. But it won’t be a Western story so much as a Tribute to, Pastiche of, or Playing About in the Western genre. This post concerns my thoughts on improvised stories in a genre.

Learning genre well involves getting into the guts of what makes that kind of story stick. I believe it’s better to focus on the audience’s experience than the workings of the story itself, which is why I say ‘make it stick’ rather than ‘make it work.’

Noir stories stick with me when they show the consequences of good people making bad choices and how people can be swept up by forces bigger than them. In contrast, adapting something in our given reality and exploring the human condition is how a sci fi story sticks with me. And a Western sticks with me when it shows compromise and hard decisions, underpinned with an examination of honour and how much it is actually worth. (It’s often, but not exclusively, also an examination of masculinity.)
 
You will probably find that some of the things that make science fiction, noir or westerns stick with you are different to what makes them stick with me. Great. This isn’t prescriptive. If you play with a group you will need to hone in on what resonates for all of you, but your Zombie Survival show may – should – have very different priorities than the one playing down the road.

There are also efficiency benefits of learning genre; Katherine Weaver (of Impro Melbourne) spent some time in her Supernatural workshop on honing investigation scenes so they aren’t boring and expositional. Essentially, there are some ‘necessary’ parts of a genre that easy to deliver in a cliche’d or boring way, so why not delve into how to keep these engaging?

For me? I don’t have a yen to do a show within a genre, but I see the value of soaking some genre instincts into these improv bones. In improv, we can go anywhere – any story is possible. But in practice, human beings are heavily bounded in how we think, behave and react. Without knowing it, we’re playing a genre, except it has no name and so we can’t even see that we’re within its limits. Worse, these limits might not even be our own, but inherited from the first ten improv shows we saw, which were inherited from the first shows they saw…

Genre is good because it dictates a specific sensibility for your scenes, your shows. What does it feel like when your ‘mean’ character doesn’t come good at the end of the show, but remains a prick? What does it do for the story, and what does it feel like for you? Difficult? Then it’s worth doing some more, until that choice feels as effortless as any other. Developing human freedom (as Luke was talking about recently)…

That said, at the moment when I start an improv show I want anything to be possible that night. And it’s true that imposing genre gives you rails of a sort. Isn’t there a risk of settling into the rhythm of the genre, and starting to switch off?

It’s possible, I guess. But why not keep moving: learn a genre well, then try something else, as acclaimed Austin group Parallelographophonograph do?

At its best, genre gives you a shared language, and through that a freedom to treat offers differently. You understand that when your partner sighs and says “Jebediah, I loved those horses as much as you did but that fire was 5 years ago” this sentence offers an invitation into a certain kind of territory, of longing and not letting go of the past, exemplified in the Southern romance genre (maybe? Not my genre).

This is the internal promise between players. This is the moment where you and your partner lock eyes and say “ok we’re not going to ignore this, but neither are we going to resolve it just now. This is the thing we can return to in fifteen minutes and boy the weight it will have”.

The marvellous thing, of course, is that this is a Schrodinger’s moment, where multiple possibilities are alive or not-alive. You can look at your partner and say ‘Deke, though, the thing of it is, this newspaper report… it’s the exact same way our stables burned. The exact same way.’ Now we’re in conspiracy, and that’s cool too. It’s a kind of semiotic dance, where each offer is a sign that can elicit many signifiers. Genre gives us some scaffolding, so when we decide to go for one, we understand some of the avenues it opens up (mining themes of isolation and human frustration, or themes of secrets and terrible acts justified), and can play down those avenues for a while, rather than thrashing about in our heads worrying about plot. The less time we spend worrying about plot, the better.

So, genre.

A sensitivity to certain kinds of impressions we can leave on the audience.

A way to coordinate between players especially in a longer piece, so bits of resonant platform can be named and then put aside as potent features to return to.

A way to make every signifier rich: taking one option rather than another presents tons of possibilities, in-tune with one another, rather than a ‘shit, how do I solve this’ conundrum.

And, finally, a choice: we’re playing in a Southern romance until we’re not, until something is there that we want to follow instead, and suddenly we’re in the mad head of one character and it’s Kafka for the last act.