Lucy Fennell talks about the stimulus and conception of her new, online course ‘Live Devised’
The title of the scene, projected onto the wall is ‘Prawns’… the lights flicker, an instrumental begins to play, two performers confidently take their place centre stage, standing back to back and, with their elongated shadow in the eye line of their scene partner, they simultaneously begin to mime eating with a knife and fork. At one point, a performer offers a taste of their food and the other mimes eating it from the proffered fork, all the while facing away from each other.
This vignette, performed with aplomb by Alison Cowling and John Gallagher Portero, is the first and I think, only piece of improv I have seen where the performers did not make eye contact from the beginning of the scene to the end. Neither, as far as I can remember did they interrupt each other and, when the scene came to a natural conclusion they both chose the exact same moment to walk away, never once turning to face the other.
The resulting scene was remarkable; unfolding as a visual metaphor about connection, as the characters (a married couple) demonstrated their (literal) outward-facing preoccupation with everybody else’s relationships at the expense of their own. This scene set a high bar for the sort of improv I have aimed to perform, direct and teach ever since; scenes performed with fierce theatrical discipline, deliberate moves made with conviction, glorious subtext, multiplicity of meaning, visually arresting staging, and all miraculously achieved without script, rehearsal or choreography.
For context, I should probably mention that this particular scene was performed as part of ‘Is it improvised, does it matter? – an experimental show I made in collaboration with the Bristol Improv Theatre. It was a collection of scenes, some of which were completely improvised, and others which were entirely scripted, choreographed and extensively rehearsed. The ten scenes were shown in a random order and all had one-word titles submitted by the audience prior to the show. The audience’s role in this experiment was to consider, after each scene, if it was improvised or not, and on account of the high proportion of experienced improvisers in this audience, they were almost always able to tell. However, when it came to ‘Prawns’ many were deceived and the majority of people voted that it was scripted.
Like all good experiments, ‘Is it improvised…’contained successes, failures and things to learn from. Getting the audience to guess was quite alienating for them, and I didn’t much like the potential hostility of the test element. But there was something interesting about the way the challenge affected the performers. The stakes were incredibly high as they set about trying to imbue the scripted pieces with the effervescence and ‘joy de vive’ of spontaneous creation whilst sticking to their well rehearsed lines and blocking. Understandably, the stakes were even higher when there was no script. Having to improvise in such a way that the audience might feasibly think the scene was scripted and rehearsed meant that every moment, from the placing of chairs on the stage, the entrances and exits, every uttered noise, gesture and choice of dialogue had to look like a pre-planned, deliberate move. The audience were seeking out the signs of muscle memory, fixed on the deliberateness of a single step, the placement of a ‘um’, the way a line interrupted stood to serve or detract from a scene. It was all under the microscope and being analysed by experts trained to spot if that moment was funny because we had planned for it to be, or if the very fact it was unplanned made it funny.
In the process of rehearsing for the show we kept taking notes of theatrical elements being employed in the work we were devising and scripting. These included: physical sequences in sync, monologues, silence, repetition, motifs, choral performance, direct address of the audience, language juxtaposing with action, use of autobiography…all of these came up in the work we were lovingly devising and rehearsing. It dawned on all of us that if these ambitious elements were present in the scripted scenes, then it would be out of place if the improvised scenes were devoid of them, we had to reconfigure our improv style to stand any chance of winning* the guessing game against the audience.
In rehearsal I also observed the importance of precision in regards to language and action. Using a script heightened our awareness of everything that was said and done in the improvised work, because if ‘Prawns’ had been scripted then the line “Please pass the salt” could have been crafted to have an intention behind it and a tone alongside it. Picking up the napkin and spitting gristle into it might have been written into the stage directions as a humourous manifestation of the character’s disgust at what their partner had said. The conceit of a guessing game about what was improvised and what was not gave the performers permission (not that it was needed) to take their time, hold the space and improvise as though someone had written it, which in a way, they had.
‘Live devising’ then, is to be actively conscious that our improvisations are being crafted in the moment. It is an illusion that takes the work of nanoseconds and presents it as the chiseled masterpiece of a lifetime. It is the art of being deliberate in our use of words and actions, and perhaps of saying less but ultimately saying more. It’s the freedom to make less sense but to collaboratively shape a bigger meaning from the chaos. It’s a challenge to ourselves before stepping on stage to make every output count. And for me that’s a headspace that’s terrifying and thrilling in equal measure.
*Ultimately the only winner was improv.
Lucy’s online course, ‘Live Devised’, starts on Monday 26th October and runs for 6 weeks. Make sure you don’t miss out on some fantastic teaching! To book your place, just click here.