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.
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.