Thoughts on genre


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.

Improvisation you can’t understand?

I saw Klancyk perform while I was in Warsaw, so here’s an obvious thing.

I’m on my European jaunt, rootless, nomadic, and drinking in improvisation, and well, it’s handy to speak English, as many Europeans do also, well enough to make it possible to meet, collaborate, teach, learn from and perform with them. Even so, if you’re into improvisation and in Europe you’re going to see shows performed in languages you don’t speak. And you should.

Lacking the ability to parse what exactly is being said in a scene, you find other ways of making sense of the scene. Your attention moves to the manifold ways we communicate around the words, ways to which we should be paying more attention anyway. Tone of voice, rhythm of speech, silences, body language, emotional expression, characterisation, physical contact. You find what you can appreciate.

I’ve seen shows recently where I’ve been impressed by the clarity of establishing a scene, of visibility and consistency of character choices, or of the way that the performers engage with the audience at the top. Klancyk really impressed me by making me laugh out loud, several times, at a show I couldn’t honestly understand a word of.

Go see improvisation you can’t understand, and see just how well you can understand it.

Go to Europe

The improvisation scene is great. The warmth, the inventiveness, the commitment to the craft, the welcoming atmosphere. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you agree.

Only… what scene are we talking about? I’ve found that we think about our scene in terms of our local area, or perhaps stretch it out to include the folk we encounter at the Edinburgh fringe once a year. Of course, we also pay tribute to the big hitters in North America, and some of us are privileged enough to make a pilgrimage out to one Mecca or other ( , ), but these are necessarily rare events. The thing is, it needn’t be that way. Almost every month of the year, you can stretch your improv horizons outside of the UK. Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce… Europe.

I myself got an introduction through mask-work, a somewhat niche activity that gathers nationalities together for an opportunity to play. (In other words, like in so many areas, I didn’t take the plunge, the plunge took me.) That opened my eyes to just how much activity is going on in Europe, highly accessible to foreigners through a developed festival circuit. A circuit on which you can both encounter celebrated international performers/teachers and be exposed to wonders previously unknown (such as Gregor Moder & Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s wondrous two-prov FM )

Yes, I know. We don’t speak the languages. We don’t like flying. We’re scared of currywurst. Not to worry! Many events, including most of the festivals, use English as their lingua franca. You can take a train or even a bus to a great many locations. And once you get past its gruff exterior, the wurst is a kindly beast.

Here’s a potted description of just some events coming up.

[There must be more stuff going on in summer, but I can’t be speaking to the right people!]

  • October sees the annual Würzburg festival, which I’ve made twice in a row and is great (and tends to sell out). Workshop big hitters included the top flight of the Loose Moose Theatre, Patti Stiles, and many more. Shows (in English) included an experimental longform night, Theatresports cups, narrative plays, the works.
  • November is time for Slovenia to rise. I hung out with some of this crew at Würzburg this year and they are super fun, and the lineup they pulled together for last month’s run was very strong.
  • Bringing us full circle, December welcomes the Halle festival. This year it has hit some financial challenges and may not go ahead. Hopefully next year will prove better.

If you find something that takes your fancy, you might want to explore it with your friends, as it’s always fun to share such experiences. But even if you would be flying solo, remember: The improvisation scene is great. The warmth, the inventiveness, the commitment to the craft, the welcoming atmosphere. Go to one of these festivals, and I’m even more certain you’ll agree.

Improv Nonsense: Trying To Win The Scene

Improv Nonsense: Trying To Win The Scene

Give and take: character success in improvisation

I had a fun chat on Google Plus last month with a few gamers about different approaches to managing successes and failures in the fiction. The conversation was originally framed around roleplaying games but I was invited in to talk about improvisation. How do we mediate ‘giving and taking’: who gains advantage or disadvantage in a situation or narrative? Glancing back over it it seemed worth sharing, with a bit of tidy-up. Here you go.


Although improvisation and gaming have fundamentally different agendas – in brief, the distinction between playing just for the experience vs with the aim of including an audience – ‘give and take’ is relevant to both. For now let’s just look at this in terms of character success; obviously there are other even more crucial things to give and take, like focus, space to develop ideas, spotlighting and endowing one character or another.

The clearest example of ‘refusing to give’ is when performers are unwilling to get their character in trouble. I saw some clear instances of that at an improv show recently, the defensive instinct where unconsciously we see risk to the character as risk to yourself. None of us are totally immune. In every style of improvisation it’s vital to get past that, but the ways in which we give and take are going to differ from style to style.

In narrative-focused play, the ratio of give to take may depend very much on the role your character plays in the narrative – we are probably enjoying seeing the ‘big bad’ be successful and fearsome earlier in the story, but later their invulnerability is likely to be up for grabs. A stand-alone scene with a high-status character may have them ruling the roost for two minutes and then we want to see them toppled.

In game-style play (associated most strongly now with the UCB) it’s possible for the give and take to become hardwired into the scene. Once an action has been determined to have consequences, it will continue to do so rather than fizzling out because that is the pattern of play thus defined. Example from one of our rehearsals: the loafing paleontology grad student will continue to find fossils wherever he sticks his shovel, to the disbelief of his professor, whose string of certificates have never resulted in a successful find….because that is the pattern we are exploring in this scene. When grad student gives – “Oh… nothing here!” – then we have jumped tracks into a different style of play (no bad thing, but doesn’t negate the point).

In more Chicago-style slice-of-life play, my sense is that give and take (in terms of character success) is driven much more by the implications for relationships. In fact, the give and take is the relationship. Example from a recent Alex and Julia show:

J “I feel our sex life was more exciting at the beginning." 

Me "But it was awkward! Now we’ve settled into a groove. You have sex, you come. It’s nice!" 

J "Exactly. Nice. Which isn’t the total of what sex can be.”

The last point is weighty, so I let it land instead of quibbling. You could see that as a form of success. We allow this established fact to have significance and move forward, ok so our sex is nice but that’s not enough for her. What does that say about her, and what does that mean about our relationship? So it’s a success with consequences, that we then explore (I start to see her as a specimen collector of sexual experiences).

Outside of the relationship, other successes/failures aren’t trivial (do I command my environment or am I frustrated by every bottle I try and open?) as these serve to ground the situation in detail and give life to the characters. But the ones that serve the relationship dynamic are key, and at this stage in my development I can’t see any rules of thumb around them: every choice to give or take moves the relationship into new territory that can be richly explored if you are honest and true to the characters and the established situation.

Playing with your voice

Julia has been back in London, and we managed to cram together a string of shows, from awkward to joyous. We learned a lot.

Firstly, a reminder that improvisation is all about connection. As well as raw time spent together, we managed to fit in two rounds of contact improvisation and pulled some solid rehearsals, which began after the first two (awkward) shows and took us to a good place together, with better performances as a consequence

One of those later, fun shows was a duo set at Hoopla’s crash pad, where we performed Postcards from the Edge, something we tried in Marburg and inspired by Moon’s Pocket, a show we watched on our arrival to the Würzburg festival. The form is sitting really well with us now, and I’m hungry to get back to it. My learning from that show was if you honestly talk about sex it is the best kind of funny.

The other two shows we trio’d, the first with Ed Bennett in a family gathering form we’ve toyed with before and the other with Brandon again, a montage begun with a painting of a two-dimensional picture at stage front. The former was simply wild fun, with the three of us in hysterics after finishing the show, the second had some magical moments, from slow discoveries to gentle monologues to steamrollering our scene partner (yes I did but it’s ok).

My learning from those is just how important voice is for me to get out of my head and be active. In the family gathering opening scene, when I opened my mouth I made an arbitrary choice to sound Russian. Now, I’m not good at accents. I want to be better, am even doing accent classes, but I know it’s not a strength. And my Russian simply wasn’t good enough to be pleasing as an offer in itself: I could feel it from the audience after a few lines, an almost disappointment ‘oh. It’s an accent but not really, and not in of itself funny’. And I could feel the pressure to drop it, to accept that I’m not delivering something useful there, but stuck with it.

One thing to note is that as the character became more familiar across the show and his turns of phrase became reused, then something that wasn’t funny became funny-ish and then plain fun. Stick with your details and give your audience the gift of familiarity. But my main point is what the voice did for me. It took me out of my head. How?

Firstly, a booming, clipped and jolly diction is simply distinct from myself naturally. When I use my natural voice, the voice that I buy chips with and talk to customer service reps with and probably have anxious thoughts about improvisation with, I’m holding my own identity close. A different voice doesn’t so readily cue those memories, and once the character has started rolling the voice will cue character memories, which are far more useful. As a case in point, my Russian had at least three games running (talking about life on a Gym Ship, finding wisdom in Dumpling-making, and preferring to examine people indirectly through a mirror) and I never felt myself trying to remember any of them, they just kept returning.

Secondly, the voice was strong and diaphragmatic. I’ve done Trance Mask work for coming up to four years now, and it’s clear there that the state of effortless trance that the masks allow you to discover is accessed in part through bodily vibrations from the sound that each mask possesses. In a sense, simply speaking louder gets you some of the way there – which is what I discovered in the steamroller scene I played with Brandon, and is akin to Christian’s scene mentioned elsetumblr. Even more fundamentally, the quieter you are the more inward you are retreating, and the louder the more you approach and mix yourself with the outside world.

A final caveat to myself. Julia reminded me afterwards that techniques such as voice, physicality and stream of consciousness (which we rehearsed heavily to great benefit – do it if you can!) were just one approach to staying out of your head, with another being to simply be present and not want anything, just let it come. I know that’s true – we had found that on stage the day before – but I can easily find myself worrying that I’m not giving enough to my partner, or indeed the audience, if I’m not bringing at least a specific energy to the stage, if not a more explicit offer. Devolution into ‘you-first’ improv, essentially, the crime of the polite English. The fact that I’m resisting this evident second wisdom as being so useful to me makes it certain that I need to approach it more, and be, shall we say, present in active emptiness.

To Marburg, to play.

On the back of the Würzburg festival, Fast Forward Theatre generously invited Julia and I to join their stage in Marburg. FFT’s Martin and Christian run a show in an endearing, wood-stove heated box room, playing with different formats week on week. Julia and I took 25 minutes in the first half to do a twoprov that kicked off with something between an organic opening and Matthieu Loos/Marko Mayerl’s matter-working image approach: intuitively finding a physicality/action onstage and allowing your observing partner to name and make sense of it. We then moved into a series of scenes. It was interesting and I think a nice gentle start to the night, but there are definitely things we are learning about playing together: we have a tendency to slide into realism very quickly and although this can be refreshing sometimes the playfulness can be sidelined, in spite of how much we enjoy it. We chewed this over the next day pretty comprehensively; one of the things I love about working with Julia is that we can love the work but also talk about it objectively and robustly.

We checked in on the crowd at the top of the show as to whether some English in the show would be ok, and although they gave no objections, we were all aware that it was an indulgence that shouldn’t be taken too far. Accordingly, the rest of the show was entirely non-English language. The native speakers ran a fun narrative set together, and in the second half we did a series of short-form games. Given that prior to August my German language was pretty much limited to wunderkind, kartopfelkopf and danke, and is only dimly beyond that now, this was a fun first for me. As I suspected, the restrictions perversely freed me up, urging me to bigger characters, more physicality and strong, raw emotions. It was a ton of fun and seemed to delight the audience, proving the Johnstonian maxim that impro audiences are happy paying money to see people screw up good naturedly on-stage.


Würzburg fest

Fast Forward Theatre

Matthieu and Marko, whose Moon’s Pocket is a lovely show you should catch when you can, as they now live in different cities (and also in France).

“That’s right. I’m a one-legged seagull, all fucked up! All because of PLASTIC!!”

October sees the Würzburg Improfestival, this year its eleventh and my second. It was a chance to study with wonderful international teachers – Patti Stiles and Matthieu Loos, in my case – reunite with a core of my Improv Olympic cohort and enjoy playing together again, and to socialise with the wonderful, diverse body of attendees, including old friends from last year and others not seen since Canada in 2010. Oh! The shows! From wonderfully dishevelled cabaret-style chat to long-form reinventions, together with time-honoured formats…I enjoyed it a lot. (I also got myself back into the lighting booth for a few of them, which was tremendous fun.) If nothing else, consider this me urging you to go next year.

I caught a Micestro show during my stay, which was a great example of the form at its best: bitty in parts, sluggish early on, but building in confidence and playfulness to a glorious end; a great arc to the evening. The wonderful Filipe Ortiz came out top, with a solo prison break scene that will forever stick in my memory, but another scene moves me to write. Christian Capozzoli of NYC’s 4track, was called up along with Jim Libby, a top-rate improviser I’ve seen before in Wurzburg and at the London impro festival, and I was looking forward to seeing in action here. But in the scene that followed, Jim didn’t get to say a thing. Really, didn’t get to do a thing. Christian steamrollered the scene. And it was brilliant.

Let me unpack. The scene was a police interrogation, and Christian was the cop. He began talking, a tough mouthy new york plainclothes, establishing a situation that was pretty close to the bone – Jim was under suspicion of murdering children in a theme restaurant  ball pond. You could kind of feel in the room this sense of ‘we’re going there?’, but Christian stuck with it, and kept talking rat-a-tat at Jim, and… it started to become apparent that this OTT cop was enough for a scene, and Christian knew it and was feeling happy and good about it being that, and that he saw that Jim was being overwhelmed but in a fun way. And that he realised that he could give his partner a ride on the crazy train.

Then it just kicked off. All the emotional tonal switches in the scene that prevent it being monotone? Christian was good cop and bad cop moment to moment, beseeching then outraged. All the content he generated got fed back into the next round, feeding himself constantly in a stream of consciousness that stopped making sense and became cut-up poetry in interrogation format. Plastic drinking cups led to the murderous plastic of the ball pond, and on to beach creatures maimed by 6-pack connectors, to later him delivering his righteous smackdown in the voice (and flapping, ridiculous gait) of the one-legged seagull.

And as this went on, what was Jim doing? Corpsing like crazy. Every muscle of his body was convulsing as Christian brought the ridulousness up notch after notch, rabid and careening in his face. It looked like torture: pure, blissed-out torture.

If you can delight your partner more by breaking every rule, do that. Jim had a great, active show, but I’m sure he had the best time in that scene where he didn’t have to do a thing.


Würzburg Improfestival

My teachers there, Patti Stiles and Matthieu Loos

Filipe Ortiz and La Gata impro

Christian Capozzoli 

Jim Libby and the English Lovers

sinful characters [g+ backpost]

Hi gaming peeps

(I’ve just added back a bunch of people into my gaming circle – if you aren’t into that, please let me know.)

I’m toying around with a little technique to develop interesting characters that I’d love to get feedback on. I haven’t formally tested it yet, though it grew out of things I do semi-consciously on occasion. Also, I’m particularly interested in this as a stage technique for improvisation shows, and it may feel less useful/needed in some rpg contexts. But I reckon it may be relevant for any on-the-fly character generation.

This is intended to mitigate 1-D characters by dipping into charged and easily accessible human qualities, or as these are typically termed, sins.

The seven sins – wrath, pride, gluttony, lust, greed, envy and sloth – are fairly accessible in Western J-C culture. So what happens when we mindfully use them as a palette to paint our characters in, together with a set of guidelines for the kinds of results you are likely to get? I think fun happens! Here are the guidelines:

1. Different combinations encourage different roles

You want someone who performs a social role in the story/situation, but with a bit of definition:

A flawed paragon is markedly prone to a single sin

Examples: the priest who is pious but lazy, the artist who is selfless but obsessed with the greatness of their sacrifices.

You want someone who is pretty horrible – a real heel – but want to accent their self-indulgence with some iron discipline

A disciplined badass has several sins but is totally immune to one or more.

Examples: the greedy, wrathful priest who can never be tempted by sex, the artist harping on and undermining the success of others, too lazy to achieve it on his own merit, but cannot be bought off by any amount of coin.

You want someone who is colourful, you kind of hate them but just when you make your mind up you love them again.

A big-hearted scoundrel has several sins but also exhibits the polar opposite of one sin, to the extent that it kind of redeems them.

Examples: the lustful, lazy priest who desires the best for others at the end of the day, the artist perpetually drunk, full of pride, and wallops anyone who doesn’t appreciate expressionism, but is respectful, diligent, even courteous to the opposite sex.

(This is my favourite and the reason I started making this stuff explicit, after reading John Berger on Rembrandt: ‘no saint’, indeed)

2. Different specific sins have a different emphasis on plot vs immediacy

Firstly let’s unpack the sins a bit more. To my mind,

 –   Wrath can include irritation at small things, and great roaring enjoyable anger cf Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, a bellowing Falstaff.

 –   Pride can involve suffering when other people see the world other than how you do – eg how Roger Ebert probably feels about McG’s success.

 –   Gluttony includes boozing, drugs, all vices of consumption.

 –   Lust isn’t merely desiring sex but any example of objectification of other people.

 –   Greed involves any material advancement, including ambition/getting status. The ‘lawyer sin’, reptilian, whereas pride is more peacock, where you really believe it and can easily be wounded.

 –   Envy includes any wishing-ill on others, general grumpiness and zero-sum attitudes towards life (those immigrants get all the social housing!)

 –   Sloth encompasses laziness, unhelpfulness, and demandingness to others (clean my teeth for me!) – a classic nasty Master sin, for those familiar with the Keith Johnstone improv set-up.

So what’s this about emphasis?

The first two are energetic and egoistic. They make the character grow out and show themselves, their sensitivities and buttons to push.

The next two involve approach and physicality. They make characters approach immediate components of the world and grab things (or people) within reach.

The next two are more tactical and scheming. They might involve grabbing things within reach but can be a little more abstract, and execution is often a bit more considered. Think Iago.

To my mind, the first two are great, and the third can be tricky, risking putting players in their heads for the ‘right’ way to get their goals. Compare with Be Angry Now/Get My Mack On.

What about Sloth? To me, it’s a bit of a wild-card. On a stage, played well, inactivity can heighten immediacy and perversely, make stuff happen. This is trivially true if the character has a high status – the king that requires the retinue to carry him to his horse, or delegates all the important decisions to his page – but also for ordinarily low-status roles: the stable-girl who never carries out the orders of the (highly-strung) head of household. No surprise, really, who can care less is status, after all…

But! I think this may play very differently at a game table, where an inactive character can be genuinely forgotten about.

3. How it works

For me, the notion is simply to walk on stage, find reasons to exhibit a sin or two, and then elaborate on these in the context of your role in the story (find a reversal to show your scoundrel’s heart, for instance).

That’s it as it stands. I’d love to hear your thoughts, both from a tabletop and Larp perspective.

Nov 2012

Play With Intent – tools for open play

I’m super excited that Emily Care Boss  and Matthijs Holter have released their roleplay framework, Play With Intent, as an open document. It’s a customisable methodology that helps us make up a story as we go along. It can be used in a way similar to ‘tabletop’ play – sitting around a table and describing events – but encompasses acting out events live, using mime objects and environments, cinematic techniques (‘cut to…’) and so on. For improvisers it will feel familiar in some ways to what we normally do, but it can go to very different places and is forgiving of lack of improvisation training.

I played with it twice at the Solmukohta convention in Finland earlier this year, and it was a blast – particularly the first session, pulling off an involving melodrama between a group of people who hadn’t played before, going to emotional places and forming a truly unexpected but coherent narrative, played live before each other. Much credit must go to the other players, of course, but that was the point where I became satisfied that the framework is much more than a set of training wheels for improvisation.

After playing with it I became fascinated with the customisability, and wrote some notes on  comedic techniques that Emily and Matthijs have built into the framework. Fun! They are mostly taken from improvisation and clown training, and simplified as much as we were able. But comedy is only a small part of what we’re capable of, so have a look, and be ambitious with your imagination.

Play With Intent is freely available here.