If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop, Yes, And, and Conducted Rant.
Stay in this nice line onstage, just like you’ve been standing in for Conducted Rant. Now we’re going to do the same thing, where I tell you when it’s your turn to speak, but I won’t have more than one person speaking at once this time around. Last time, you each told your own stories. This time, you’re going to tell one story all together.
Tell me a brand new fairy tale. You know how sometimes a 3 year old wants to hear the same story over and over again? When my brother was little, he didn’t just want “Jack and the Beanstalk” every night; he wanted the same wording and cadence every night. Tell this story in such a way that if I said, “Do it again!” you could.
Fairy tales can be about anything — some of them are scary, some are sweet, many have magic, some don’t — but they are not complicated. I don’t a story that you’d find in Orange Is the New Black or LOST that requires keeping track of a bunch of nuanced characters and plots. Give me a simple beginning, middle, and end.
(I wanted to keep them building a continuous story instead of sort of a jokey idea salad, which is a common tendency for people who are trying to be funny. Giving a positive goal, “Tell a fairy tale,” is more helpful than “Tell an uncomplicated story.”)
One more thing — when I’m conducting you, just like before, I may cut you off mid-thought. That’s ok. The next person will pick up where you left off. That means everybody needs to listen, just in case you need to finish someone else’s sentence.
(In the beginning, I let each person get a thought out. After everyone has said one thought, I start cutting people off sooner. If I cut someone off in mid-sentence and the next person doesn’t finish the thought, I redirect them. Like this:
Person 1: And then Charles said to the fairy godmo-
Person 2: Then Charles ate –
Me: She left off at “Charles said to the fairy godmo,” so what sounds like it should come next?
Person 2: Oh! Charles said the the fairy godmother, “I’m going to eat you alive.”
Me: Thank you, yes. Keep going.
I watch for them to get bogged down in the middle of the story. Most groups, if I say “Time to look for an ending!” will reincorporate elements from earlier in the story, which is an impulse I want to encourage.)
What made this easier?
- Not thinking too far ahead. Yes! If you think too far ahead, you’ll miss something. You might have the fairy godmother saying something, when the person before you JUST established that the fairy godmother got eaten.
- Just saying the thing that makes sense. Absolutely! Just say what seems obvious to you, what sounds like it should probably come next. The beautiful thing about making collaborative art like this is that you’ve had a different day than I’ve had. You have different life experiences and a different brain. What’s obvious to you may seem like a revelation to me. What’s obvious to me may seem like it’s out of nowhere to you. A bunch of people being very obvious and honest will end up making something original.
- Not trying to be funny. Yeah! Saying whatever feels like it’s supposed to come next is harder to do if you’re worried about being funny. If I say “once upon -” don’t say “platypus” just because you think the word is funny. Nobody here did that. You did a great job of serving the story instead of trying to stand out as the funniest person. That’s the kind of improviser I want to play with and watch.
- Saying something someone said before. Yeah! Not everything has to be new every line. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Take what everyone else said already as a gift you can use. Also, repeating some element of the story helps us know when the story is over. In fairy tales, repetition is a feature, not a bug. It’s satisfying to us to hear about Jack going up the beanstalk several times and stealing something each time. If he stole something the first time, then washed the giant’s car the second time, then built a fort out of the giant’s napkins the third time, it wouldn’t seem like much of a story.
- Being ready to change what you thought the story was going to be. Yes! Whoever says it first makes it true, because improv is magic. If you were picturing Charles as a person with brown hair, then someone says that Charles is a fish, Charles is a fish now. In fact, now Charles was always a fish. The picture in your head needs to change to match the new reality we’ve discovered.
- Giving the characters names. Yeah, we got tripped up a little when we had two male characters who just went by “he.” We had an easier time once we had Charles and George, and an even easier time once someone made Charles a fish. The more specific, the better. Specific things are easier to remember than vague things. The story where a guy goes a place and takes a thing isn’t nearly as memorable as the story of Jack climbing a beanstalk and stealing a harp. People tend to get vague if they’re afraid of stepping on someone else’s toes or if they weren’t listening and are afraid they missed something. Listen so that you accidentally override the reality the group has already established, but don’t fret so much about messing the story up that you’re afraid to be specific. You’re not going to break the story.
(Somewhere in here, a new player might say, “You keep saying not to try to be funny. I thought that was the whole point of improv.”)
Dave Pasquesi said somewhere or other that every show is us shooting an arrow at a target. The tiny bulls eye in the middle is The Perfect Show, which nobody will ever achieve. Shoot for it, but know that it’s impossible. But the rings around Perfect are Fascinating, Intriguing, Enlightening, Provoking, Moving. That outer ring is Funny. If you shoot for Perfect and you miss, you’ve got a pretty good chance at hitting Interesting or Funny. But if you shoot for Funny and you miss, you’re off the target entirely, and you’ve probably sold out your scene partner.
Laughter is the byproduct, not the goal. Being honest is easier than being funny, and it still makes the audience laugh. Audiences like to hear someone else express how they’ve felt before. They’re laughing because they’re connecting with you, not because you said a witty thing. Laughter is how people release emotion in a theater like this, even if the emotion is sadness or anger or surprise.
Life is a rich tapestry and there is nothing new under the sun, so there isn’t a point in working hard to be funny. This is great news! You can relax. Relaxed people are better listeners.