Our Programme Manager, Ros Beeson, tells us all about how our new interactive storytelling game, ‘Well That Escalated Quickly’, was created and why you should come and play!
Q: Hey Ros! If had to sum up ‘Well That Escalated Quickly’ in an elevator pitch, how would you describe it?
Well That Escalated Quickly is an interactive multiplayer storytelling game. You play as part of a team trying to complete an ordinary, everyday task whilst things around you are going very, very badly wrong.
Q: What should people expect when turning up to the event?
A whole lot of laughs, an opportunity to play in a supported space and a friendly improviser ready to weave a story for you and your group.
Q: Ooh how intriguing! So where did the inspiration come from?
We were looking for a way to use improv to engage with our audience in a new way and provide opportunities for people to play together. Katy Schutte had just run her Ghostwatch show which was an interactive experience where the audience were given roles to play and this all fed into the show which Katy was brilliantly managing from her role as a presenter.
We thought this was a brilliant idea but we wanted to create an experience where the players were in control of the story and it could go pretty much anywhere.
We looked at ways in which people have already been hanging out together and recognised the joy that D&D and RPG games bring to lots of groups where the players build a world together. Also how invested our audience for ‘Tales of Adventure’ are interacting on the chat and inputting suggestions.
D&D tends to be a long term commitment however, as you slowly build up your characters, relationships and go on campaigns together and can also be quite complicated as it features a rule set and needs one person to take up the role of Dungeon Master and run the sessions.
We wanted to tap into that joy that you get from playing D&D and combine it with the everyday fun you get when playing a board game with friends where there is a fixed goal and end point within a shorter time frame – just without the need of a board!
After some online research I came across Micro RPG’s these are one off games that have been created for teams to take part in for one session only, using a simplified rule set. Some really awesome micro RPG’s you should check out are: All outta bubblegum, Honey Heist and Everyone is John.
So a combination of the above was the inspiration for Well That Escalated Quickly.
The name though? That just came from my love of memes!
Q: What did the development process for the event look like?
It started out quite gradually with a jamboard; a number of title suggestions, game play ideas and lots of general ideas which I then took to Stephen Clements with his years of experience playing and running D&D games and performing improv.
We talked over various game mechanics and the possible aim of the game, throwing about ideas and building a very early prototype, this was how it started to take shape.
Stephen then worked his magic in the background and came back with a fully realised product, and using his knowledge and experience created a really fun easy ruleset and whittled down the concept until he had Well That Escalated Quickly.
We then tested it using our colleagues as guinea pigs and had a demo playthrough. Final tweaks were made and Stephen went away to polish it up and create the game as we now know it which is run by both himself and the brilliant Cat Murphy.
Then our very talented co-worker Billie Appleton created our wonderful illustration and here we are.
Q: You make it sounds so easy! Were there any hurdles in your path?
Trying to find a way to make the game mechanics as simple as possible has been a bit of a hurdle but the whole time we’ve been focused on one core idea: ‘we’ll do the work you just turn up and play.’ Other than that we’ve mostly just had a whole lot of fun and I think it shows in the game!
Q: Absolutely! Why do you think it’s important for people to play (not only in WTEQ but in life generally)?
Play has an enormous role in our lives, as children play helps us to build friendships, learn, develop, grow and communicate.So why do we stop playing as adults?
The thing I love most about improv is watching as people come together and re-engage with play for the first time in years. That joy they feel is electric!
Play is essential now more than ever, it helps with stress, it helps us to bond together and form new friendships and strengthen existing relationships. Most importantly play can help us to process our emotions and our day on a whole providing us with a bright spot of positivity.
Q: What’s your favourite aspect of the game?
My favourite aspect so far is that you’re given a role within the team, this really helps when you’re creating your character. I love it!
Q: How is this different to other online offerings that are around at the moment?
I think it comes back to the core of ‘we’ve done the work you come and play’ unlike with other one shot concepts where one person has to ‘run’ the session.
Also we leave a lot of room for things to become very, very silly indeed.
Q: Who do you think is the ‘target audience’ for the event?
I’d say anyone who loves to play games, but I’d also say if you’ve really been missing improv and laughing with a group of people, creating bespoke jokes and playing characters that are wholly different from you in real life then this is the game for you!
Well That Escalated Quickly continues to run on Friday and Saturday evenings (19:30 – 21:30 GMT) throughout March.
Ahead of her upcoming Yoga & Improv taster session, Cat Murphy shows us how both practices can mutually benefit from one another…
Improv can be stressful.
Making stuff up on the spot? In front of people? On a STAGE?
Fight or flight mode: engaged!
I often become overwhelmed and overexcited on stage (sometimes all at once!) and have found yoga techniques such as scanning the body to release tension, engaging my breath, and connecting to the ground beneath my feet have helped me play from a place of calm.
This got me wondering: if yoga has affected my improv… has improvising affected my yoga? After a little digging, it turns out that yes! My processes in improv and yoga benefit each other in many ways.
Here are some gems I found in my digging process:
Awareness of the body as our tool, our home, and our friend.
We use our bodies all day, every day. When acting, sleeping, running, writing, thinking, breathing, eating crisps, watching telly. Yoga helps me discover and rediscover ways my body can move and feel. Theatre Practitioner Maria Kapsali discovered that ‘yoga can increase self-awareness and physical vocabulary, increase connectivity with ourselves and others, and help with imagination and visualisation in theatre.’ The more familiar we are with our bodies, the more comfortable we are with accessing it as a tool, which is hella useful as according to studies, 55% of our communication is through body language.
The Present Moment (that old chestnut)
It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: in improvisation, the only place we can play is in the present moment we are creating. But what is the present moment? Simply put, it is right now – the time when things are happening. If we’re thinking ahead or trying to plan the action, we are disengaging from the moment and our fellow player(s).
We train in anchoring our attention onto the action, onto our scene partner, to listen and respond to what’s happening right now. That’s what’s so exciting about live improvisation, we are celebrating the shared present moment in all its joyful immediacy. Similarly, in yoga, we focus on the present by anchoring awareness onto the self – be that the breath, the body or the experience of mind, with the aim of really being with ourselves right now.
Shark Mind is Our Friend
Much to my chagrin, yoga has taught me that the brain doesn’t stop thinking. It’s like how sharks never stop swimming, it just what minds do. I sit and meditate, and my mind comes with me, thinking about anything but the task in front of me. I go on stage, and yep, my mind is in tow, jabbering away.
This used to really bother me, until I discovered that in improv thinking is our friend, and that if we work with it rather than against it, our imagination can delight and surprise us. This then helped me realise that the goal of yoga isn’t to never allow the mind it to wander but to notice with kindness when it does. We can notice what we’re thinking and use our wandering, free-associating mind to inform our play and bring truthful contributions to a scene. We can own the thoughts rather than letting them distract us. We can use our whizzing, wonderful ever-thinking minds to our advantage. We can trust our instincts and let our shark-minds be our friends.
Curiosity is a doorway to listening.
Curiosity drives our intention and strengthens our capacity to listen. If we are interested in ourselves and those around us, we are more likely to investigate, explore, pay attention, and in turn find what delights and inspires. I see yoga as an act of compassionate curiosity. As Adriene Mishler puts it “find what feels good”. I’ve found this mantra hugely helpful in my improv – knowing what feels good in my own body and experience helps me negotiate boundaries, as well as helping me follow the fun of a scene and play wholeheartedly.
Listening requires vulnerability.
When we listen in improv, really listen, and allow our scene partner to affect us, we tear up our plan for how we think the scene should go, and instead follow the ideas that are unfolding between you organically. It’s vulnerable. And it’s this vulnerability which leads to moments of spontaneity, joy and connection. As actor, Alan Alda puts it: “When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues.”
When we listen in yoga, we can discover strength and mobility in ourselves, as well as tension, aches and pains. The whole shebang. But that’s where the truth is, and this provides a platform for us to see, accept and say “yes, and” to ourselves where we are.
Embracing the Suck
For me, yoga poses aren’t a series of finished products. They are tools for listening and accessing messy, explorative processes. They are meant to be experienced, not performed. Similarly, improvisation celebrates the process of making things up and getting things wrong. To engage with yoga or improv is to risk not being perfect.
Brene Brown once said: “I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck.” This quote sheds light for me on how my two favourite practices require vulnerability to be brave. I’ve learned that when we embrace the suck in both improv and yoga, when we celebrate moments of messiness, we allow ourselves to grow.
To risk sucking is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be brave. To be brave is to be present.
Being brave, in the present, listening, staying curious and seeking what feels good?
These are qualities I value both onstage and on the mat, yes. And I’ve also found that the wisdom and truth found in both practices have a lot to offer in terms of personal development, growth and connection in our day-to-day lives.
Cat’s online class, ‘Yoga & Improv- Playing from a Place of Calm’, is taking place on 17th February at 7:30pm.
Find out more and book tickets for Improv & Yoga.
Pippa Evans tells us all about her upcoming guest workshop on status & her new book, ‘Improv Your Life’…
Q: Hi Pippa! We’re so excited for your upcoming workshop at the BIT! Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
I am excited too! We’ll be looking at how status affects our interactions with each other and how being aware of it is useful not just on stage, but in life.
Q: How can playing around with status add to an improvisor’s tool kit?
Often we play with a similar status because we are friends on stage together. We are equals. By becoming aware of status, we can breathe a new life into our characters and create a subtext from simply the way we respond to each other in a status transaction.
Q: And conversely, how can improvising status help someone in ‘the real world’?
Ever been in a conversation or a meeting or a relationship where you felt something weird was going on but couldn’t put your finger on it? Chances are, there were status games being played – consciously or unconsciously.
By being aware of status games, we can start to know when we might need to explore or challenge the status we have found ourselves in or the status we are giving to those around us.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this workshop?
A deeper understanding of the role status can play and how to work with it to find more nuanced scenes, better conversations and the ability to see what is happening when we walk into a room.
Q: We’re also very excited about your book, ‘Improv Your Life’, which is coming out soon! How have you found writing it?
It comes out Feb 18th. Writing it was a blessing for Lockdown one, since all my live work was, of course, cancelled. I felt like I had been given an opportunity to put into words the work I had been doing with Improv Your Life for the last six years. It’s always hard to write anything but when it was finished, I felt like a bloomin’ legend.
Q: And finally, what is one thing you wish the whole world knew about improv?
That it is more than just comedy sketches above a pub on a Saturday night.
It is an art form that offers so much more to its players and its audience.
Respect the improv.
In this fun (and exceptionally cute) blog post, Imogen Palmer tells us why audiences inevitably fall for the cuteness factor and how you can harness this in your improv…
Something surprising happened to me last year. I fell, utterly, inconceivable, wholly, in love….
With Baby Yoda. A character (played by an INCREDIBLE puppet) in ‘The Mandalorian’.
Myself (and most of the internet) share the pure joy & love which stems from gazing at his beautiful green face- we feel the fear and anger when the villains in the Mandalorian try to put Baby Yoda in danger.
Baby Yoda isn’t the first cute character to play our heartstrings – I’ve also been know to watch 15 minute highlight reels of Baby Groot, Nemo (and Dory), Puss in Boots, Paddington, Totoro…. (I can go on but I don’t want you to think I spend my whole life on Youtube).
What can we learn from these adorable characters? How can we bring this into our acting, improv & storytelling?
- Vulnerability accelerates connection
As Puss in Boots teaches us in Shrek 2, there is nothing more powerful than an open, vulnerable gaze to communicate ‘I am not a threat’ and ‘care about me please’.
A look like this can steal the hearts of a whole audience.
2. We don’t need to work too hard when we channel our inner ‘cute’
As this very catchy rap about Baby Yoda communicates….’He can sit there and doing nothing…he’s still so relatable’.
I believe less is more when it comes to cute, so much can be communicated in a look or slight gesture of fragility. ANYONE can be cute- it is about attitude.
3. Playing cute earns playing angry
When a cute character, who has won over the audience’s love, becomes angry, this is a BIG DEAL.
Check out Paddington’s ‘hard stare’, or for an even more extreme hyper cute to hyper angry, Uni-Kitty in the Lego Movie is hard to beat.
Starting a story as an angry or cruel character can make it hard for the audience to warm to you…start cute and then turn mean- BOOM! They are putty in your hands.
4. Putting a cute character in danger can raise the stakes instantly
I just died when baby Dory from ‘Finding Dory’ loses her parents. I don’t believe this one is a spoiler because it is essentially THE PLOT OF THE FILM.
Due to the fragility of her betrayal (those big eyes, that sweet voice), it is hard not to fear for her.
Having a cute character in your story can dramatically raise the stakes- by putting them in danger OR even killing them, you can create a powerful motive or game-changer for the rest of the story.
5. Playing cute is FUN
Practicing how to invite fragility & vulnerability into our performance is a skill to be practiced. Once we’ve found it, playing with it can be hugely rewarding. Just check out the Totoro at the bus stop scene to see how a cute character can go from awww to ‘aaaah!’ and back again.
Whether we’re playing a baby bird or a sweet, naive person who’s about to get in a lot of trouble (‘I don’t believe those old ghost stories, let’s go in anyway!’), playing cute is an awesome string to add to our improv guitar.
Imogen is teaching the online taster session ‘Playing Cute Characters’ on Wednesday 3rd Feb. You can book tickets here.
We were delighted to be able to talk to Monica Gaga earlier this month about how improv can be used to empower young people, the transition to online learning and her upcoming guest workshop at the Bristol Improv Theatre…
Q: Hi Monica! We can’t wait to host your workshop at the BIT on using Improv to empower young people. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from the workshop?
Expect to leave this workshop with a smile on your face and the tools to build, deliver and evaluate a youth engagement programme. I have designed this session to be fun with a mixture of practical and discussion based activities that you won’t need a background in the arts to enjoy.
Q: In this chaotic and unpredictable year, online teaching and learning has been something many students and teachers have had to quickly adapt to. Can you tell us about some of the challenges this might pose?
The digital divide means that some young people may struggle to get online and if they can, finding the space can be difficult. This something we will consider when looking at youth engagement in the workshop. We will also touch on how to turn what we may see as cons into pros as we work in an ever changing landscape.
Q: Conversely, what are some of the positives of online teaching and learning? How might you empower young people online?
I definitely am not missing the commute and for some young people they can participate in more as they do not have to rely on the availability of their parents or guardians to take them to sessions. Being able to take ownership in your own growth can be so empowering for young people and the start of them being able to make informed choices.
Q: And where/how does improv fit into this?
Improv is about working with the unexpected, accepting and building on what you have and when you throw in some of the other principles of improv like listing, the power of place and taking the fear out of failure you have a fantastic vehicle for change, growth and empowerment.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this workshop?
A fresh look at how to engage youth people and tap into the power of play for their groups and theirselves.
Q: Finally, can you tell us one of your favourite things about improv? Do you have a favourite memory of a great event or the aspect that makes you particularly passionate about your work?
I love that moment in a session or a project when the young are really in the moment, they are present, they are engaged and they are having a great time. It’s then I feel they are ready to grow, are open to change and most willing to take charge of that journey.
Imogen Palmer discusses the vital topic of handling sensitive issues in the improv classroom in the lead up to her online interactive panel.
I am very passionate & enthusiastic about talking about how to hold supported spaces and practicing how to handle sensitive issues in the classroom & rehearsal room when they arise
By sensitive issues, I mean sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism etc. and also when personal emotional or physical boundaries have been crossed for participants or the facilitator.
In improv, we are teaching students to override their self-censor which is wonderful but also means subconscious bias can emerge. Nervous students can also misjudge boundaries both physically and emotionally.
I have been traumatised in the past by teachers & directors who:
>>> brushed over incidents where I was clearly uncomfortable
>>> Became defensive when I (as the student/actor) tried to have a conversation about what had made me uncomfortable.
Two examples of incidents (for me) are:
1. a man I didn’t know grabbed my waist from behind in a scene to simulate me giving birth
2. a scene where the group game was to call the only female character a ‘slut’ (a word I find highly triggering due to past trauma).
Leader’s response to the above two incidents
1. No acknowledgement of my discomfort whatsoever when I screamed. Everyone laughed. We moved immediately onto the next exercise and I was left shaken. I was new to the company and the man was an experienced player who had been away for a while.
2. I tried to have a conversation around the ‘slut’ scene after the run through (I had started to cry during it and owned it as a character choice to make it work). When I raised it as a question- ‘did anyone else find that scene uncomfortable?’ -the leader and group became defensive and shut my objection down. They told me it was part of the story.
What does a best practice response look like?
I was motivated by numerous incidents like these to go into teaching myself and have now done it 5+ years. I am still learning how to handle situations like the above.
If I could magic wand the above and be a teacher / participant in the room of either of the above, I would:
>>> frame the sessions so that everyone is mindful of different physical and emotional boundaries and encourage healthy dialogue about them.
>>> If it is a beginner/ mixed group, consider putting a ‘container’ around personal space bubbles.
>>> Support the student who is expressing discomfort. It does not matter how much it seems like ‘not a big deal’ to me. We have no idea of everyone’s stories, backgrounds and boundaries.
>>> If I noticed a student become uncomfortable from their body language, pause the scene to check-in with everyone or put a container around the word ‘slut’ which is a sexist & outdated slur for a woman. I would encourage the actors to play to the top of their intelligence & challenge outdated stereotypes.
>>> Encourage students to check-in with each other. Eg.
A: ‘How did you find it in that scene when I grabbed you from behind?’ B: ‘I actually hate being grabbed from behind. If you’re going to touch me, please can you do it in my sight line and say something like ‘give me your hand’ so I have some warning/ I can consent’
>>> Privately check-in with the student later to see how they are. Avoid being pitying with this or treating them like a fragile, breakable object. We all have triggers and react in surprising ways sometimes. ‘How are you?’
‘Is there anything I can do to support you?’
And then LISTEN.
No teacher is capable of catching everything in the class, nor are they able to know everyone’s different emotional or physical boundaries.
This is why I believe it’s vital to frame and facilitate conversations around emotional & physical boundaries and encourage students to have an open dialogue with each other and the group.
I LOVE THIS ART FORM. The reason I want to write and talk about this is because I believe it can be an amazing tool for learning about boundaries and consent.
I believe we can use it to explore challenging issues like sexism with groups who have open dialogue and have built up trust over a long period of time.
When we just shut down a scene if it goes blue, that stops the opportunity for dialogue and learning.
When we ignore the incident, the person who is uncomfortable may never come back to improv.
By facilitating conversations we have more freedom to be braver and risker with our work. I am charing an online interactive panel with a host of international experts, via The Improv Place on Sunday 20th December, 2 pm – 4 pm (GMT).
The panel includes:
Monica Gaga (https://www.monicagaga.com)
Stephen Davidson (https://impromiscuous.com)
Laxmi Priya (https://www.icbangalore.com/trainers)
Velvet Wells (https://thevelvetduke.wordpress.com)
We talked to one of the UK’s longest standing longform improvisers, Katy Shutte, about her two upcoming workshops at the Bristol Improv Theatre…
Q: Hi Katy! Thrilled to have you hosting some online workshops at the BIT this winter! Can you tell us a little bit about what’s coming up?
I’m leading an immersive improv experience based on a pre-reality TV show called Ghostwatch from the 90s and I’ve (improv) gamified some of Brené Brown’s excellent research on vulnerability and empathy.
Q: Sounds great, we’d love to know more! Let’s start with ‘Ghostwatch’- where did the idea come from & how did you put it together?
Since improv moved to Zoom I’ve been wanting to do something where being alone in our houses can be terrifying! My last scripted show was a folk horror and I’m also borrowing heavily from the scary experience of watching Ghostwatch as a kid in the ‘90s. I’m basing the form on the beats in Ghostwatch and giving everyone separate missions, characters and tasks like a role playing game.
Q: And the same question for your ‘Play Like Brené’ workshop- for those who haven’t heard of her, can you tell us where your love of Brené’s work came from?
I saw Brené’s now super famous TED talk years ago followed by her series on Netflix. I was thrilled to come across this incredible body of evidence and work around vulnerability and I’d like to enjoy some of her modes of communication and exploration in an improv space.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from these events?
From Play Like Brené I hope people leave with a positive, applicable way of using and spreading Brené’s work.
After Ghostwatch, I hope no one can sleep.
Q: Within such a fab career, what has been your favourite part of teaching improv?
I love so much about teaching improv. I’m a theatre-maker, so I love how quickly conversations, concepts, themes and characters can just appear in our art form. I love improv festivals where people from all over the world and from different cultures and backgrounds can create work together, instantly. Online has given us a similar experience and I’m grateful for the hard lessons we are learning by exploring a totally different medium.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who might be new to improv and looking to find out more?
Give it a go. It’s nothing like stand-up, you don’t have to be a ‘funny’ or extroverted person. It’s all about support, creativity and fun and you might just find your new family there…
Imogen Palmer talks about her immensely popular course for womxn.
What makes someone a ‘Difficult Woman’?
According to some of the views this question drew up on my news feed, it can be anything from ‘not smiling’ to ‘asking for money as a freelancer’ to ‘existing in any way which upsets the patriarchy’.
The term ‘Difficult Woman’ came to my head recently when I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special ‘Douglas’ on Netflix. I am a long term fan of Hannah and this was my favourite show I’ve seen her do yet. In between laughing my head off, I kept shouting ‘yes! Oh my God, yes!’ much to the amusement of my partner. I finished it feeling high on life. Why? I’d just watched a queer woman take up space and confidently ‘bait her haters’ and own the fact that they hated her. She was proud that arseholes hated her. And why shouldn’t we be?
I have spent most of my life trying to be brave and sticking up for my values. The truth is (like loads of people) conflict makes me really anxious and scared but as a kid I decided I would rather stick up for myself and for other people when I thought things were unfair than keep quiet because that made you just as bad as the bullies.
This can be really hard. It can be particularly hard to do this when you look like a woman because of how we have been socialised. We have been taught to smooth over difficult situations and ‘get on with everyone’. Society LOVES prickly, rude white men (just look at how we glorify any one of the characters Benedict Cumberbach is typically cast in) but a woman? Being rude? Having an opinion different to others in the room? Negotiating for a fair wage? What a B****.
Some of the reasons we can struggle with speaking up is because:
1. We like to be liked
2. We are people pleasers
3. We were raised to be ‘polite’
4. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘difficult’.
I have had really weird experiences over the years when I expressed discomfort over sexist, racist or homophobic choices in the rehearsal room, challenged inconsiderate behaviour or when I expressed artistic opinions. In companies where everyone ‘talked the talk’ of being a friendly, liberal supportive place, their reactions baffled me.
When I questioned moments (in as light and friendly a way as possible, being the sweet little woman I was), both men and women became defensive and sometimes angry in response. I now understand more about DARVO (which is worth looking up if something similar has happened to you) but at the time, these reactions made me believe I was wrong and I wasted way too much time feeling ashamed for having spoken up, worrying I was ‘rude’ for having done so and sometimes even (now embarrassingly) apologising for having ‘rocked the boat’.
I know the treatment I received would have been different if I was a man. We praise men for being assertive. We’re used to men having opinions and views which deserved to be heard. We stop, listen and don’t interrupt them.
One of the many things movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter has shown me is, if you want to live in a more liberated world, we need to practice being ok with people finding you difficult when you challenge offensive or problematic behaviors which support a system of oppression.
We also need to practice being self-aware when we become defensive or prickly in response to a woman or member of another oppressed group speaks up.It is not enough to expect women and POC to do all the work. An improvisation class or rehearsal room can be a great place to practice this because in improv, we practice listening and also over-riding our self-censor which means a whole heap of subconscious biascan come to the surface. Great- a chance to learn from each other about this bias and how being aware of it is the first step to helping us unpick and override it.
Queer, black feminist Audre Lorde was on this 40 years agowhen she wrote:
‘Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.And the speaking will get easier and easier. ‘
Thanks to a lot of practice, inner work and queens like Audre and Hannah, I have officially given up on being liked.
I am proud of the people I’ve annoyed because if they want to live in a world where art forms like improvisation continue to be only accessible to white men then why would I want them to like me? F*** that.
I would rather work with people who believe in trying to make the world and the art we make as empowering and inclusive as possible by listening and learning as best we can, and creating spaces where feedback and difficult conversations can be practised in a sensitive way. This is an ongoing process but we can start by speaking up and listening when others speak up.
The workshop I have made includes some tools I have found useful to help me practice navigating some internalised misogynistic blocks around owning being difficult and supporting and championing women and oppressed groups. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have the energy to fight all the fights all the time but what I do know is this: difficult women get shit done and being difficult is an art that can be practised.
Stephen Clements shows us how these two popular pastimes are more similar than you might first think and what you might learn from this…
It’s easy to think that Dungeons & Dragons and improv have little to do with each other outside of having risen to popularity at around the same time in the late 20th century thanks to the efforts of their respective gurus (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for D&D; Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, and many others for improv). According to stereotype, improv is for quirky extroverts rattling off gags in a student or backroom of a pub, D&D for nerdy introverts rolling dice and moving miniatures around a map in someone’s basement. Stereotypes are often inaccurate. D&D and improv are fundamentally about the same thing: telling a story together.
Stories! We’ve loved them ever since we learned to communicate with each other. As two modern expressions of this ancient art, improv and D&D can learn a lot from each other. Given that you’re reading this on an improv website I’m going to assume that you’re an improviser, so here are five things you can learn from Dungeons & Dragons to improve your improv.
1. Focus on the characters
Dungeons & Dragons was not originally about stories. To begin with, it was a spinoff of the wargaming system Chainmail. Where traditional wargames had the players control units of soldiers or whole armies in contests of strategy and tactics, D&D had the players take control of a single character each. Instead of battling against each other, players would see who could best overcome the traps and monsters within a dungeon and loot its many treasures. Despite its narrower, less military focus, early D&D was still very much a strategy game: it emphasised a player’s skill in a battle of wits against the devious Dungeon Master (DM). Your looted gold acted as a high score, and there came even official D&D tournaments.
It wasn’t until later that they realised people were finding joy in playing the roles of their characters and exploring their stories, rather than treating them as disposable game pieces. In the words of RPG designer John Wick, D&D was a “sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game” which was “like giving your rook a motive” in a game of chess.
Players’ attachment to their characters is what made D&D a success – it was wildly more popular than the wargames that had spawned it and was followed by dozens of other games in what quickly became the RPG genre. Every successive update to D&D has been more focused on your character and their story, and less on tactics (with the notable exception of the much-maligned 4th Edition [which remains an excellent way to start an argument on the internet]), and D&D is still the most popular pen-and-paper RPG today because of it.
Why should this matter to an improviser? Because D&D learned early on that people care about characters. It’s easy with improv to get caught up with the details of a narrative structure, expanding on throwaway details, or just a good gag, but audiences are always more interested in the characters and their stories. More than once I’ve realised mid-show that I’ve spent so much time thinking about other things that I haven’t spent any time just being the character I’m playing. Every time, my improv suffered. Focusing instead on being present and playing your character grounds you and your audience in the reality of your scene or story. Characters are, after all, the medium through which the audience experiences a story.
2. Be Interested and Be Interesting
Creating characters in improv and D&D are very different processes. In improv it’s a gradual process of growth throughout the scene as more details are added by your own offers or by endowment from a scene partner. In D&D you create your character in advance with a fairly involved process using lots of numbers, tables, and invention of backstory. This is all to the good – different processes for different purposes. What’s really interesting are two of the requirements for a really good D&D character: Hooks and Knives. Not literal hooks and knives, of course (though most D&D characters will carry daggers).
A hook is a detail that attaches the character to the story – the reason that the quest is personal for you. It’s fine to want to slay the evil archwizard because they’re a threat to civilisation, but if they murdered your parents and you’ve burned with the desire for revenge your whole life, even better! A character who cares about what is going on is more compelling than one who doesn’t. As an improviser, the easiest thing you can do to make your characters more compelling is to give them a hook that attaches them to the scene – to give them a reason to care about what’s going on. If your character is interested in and affected by what’s going on, the scene will be better.
A knife, conversely, is an established detail about your character or backstory that can be used later on by someone else to engage with you. Say your character never knew their father (a classic knife) – when the villain has them cornered and dramatically reveals that he was their father all along, the knife is used and the stakes have become higher (and intensely personal). Knives make it easy for the story to develop in a satisfying way. As an improviser, every established detail about your character can be used this way by your scene partner. A few interesting details that could be picked up later can make the difference between a good character and a great one. Give your scene partner the gift of a few knives that they could use!
3. Don’t be afraid of failure
Fear of failure is something every improviser has to contend with. Whenever you set out to do something without knowing exactly what will happen, there will always be that little voice that asks, “What if everything goes wrong?”. Overcoming that fear, ignoring the little voice, and doing the thing anyway are some of the first hurdles you face in improv and they never really go away completely.
D&D has an intimate relationship with failure – that’s what all the dice are for. Whenever your character does almost anything in D&D, from swinging your sword at a foe to making a good impression on a potential ally, rolling the dice ensures that there is a risk of failure. Embracing the potential for failure has several advantages. Risking failure makes success more exciting – a narrow victory against the forces of evil that sorely challenged your abilities is far more interesting than coasting to victory with ease. It teaches you resilience – coming up with a new plan after the first one fails spectacularly is a classic part of the D&D experience. It also shows you that failure can be a good thing in itself – if your character dies in battle with the villain, simply make your new character a family member on a quest for revenge and you’ve got a great hook ready to go!
As an improviser you should strive to embrace failure in the same way as a good D&D player, because taking risks is a key part of improvising.
4. Remember it’s a team effort
D&D and improv both occasionally suffer from the misconception that it’s a game you can “win”. In improv it might be someone trying hard to be the funniest or most interesting character in every scene, or simply unwilling to have their character not get what they want (one of the main reasons why arguments don’t usually make a good scene). In D&D it’s often the old-fashioned idea of the game as a contest against a DM who’s out to get you.
In both cases the answer is to simply remember that you’re all on the same team. In D&D the DM is not your enemy, they’re your ally in the goal of telling a great story and they’ve usually put in a heck of a lot of work preparing story details and supporting your choices as a player. There’s no DM in improv, but the lesson is the same: everyone improvising with you is your ally in the shared goal of a great scene or story, and you all have the responsibility of supporting each other’s choices. Remember that you’re all on the same team – whether it’s your improv team or your D&D group – and you’ll make success that much easier.
5. Give people what they want
I think it’s fair to say that there’s a tendency amongst improvisers to want to make choices that are clever and unexpected, to turn the situation on its head, to dazzle the audience with your skill and intellect. We’ve all known the pain of a performance that tries too hard to shake things up (to say nothing of being ‘random’ or ‘wacky’).
D&D has a lesson to teach here, and it’s to keep it simple and give people what they want. For almost 50 years D&D has been about the same kinds of story with the same tropes and clichés – the heroes fight monsters, overcome adversity, and challenge the villain in a climactic battle (probably acquiring loads of treasure along the way) – and people love it! Fulfilling your audience’s expectations is the easiest way to give them a good time. It’s less enjoyable to be completely blindsided by a twist than to have the satisfying moment of “I knew it!” when what you expected comes true. Fulfilling expectations is so important to D&D (and RPGs generally) that it’s a common practice to spend an entire session before the story begins just discussing everyone’s expectations about the story you’re about to tell and making sure everyone will get an experience they’ll be happy with. This ‘Session 0’ sets the group’s goal for the kind of story that they’ll be working together to create and is a fantastic tool for giving everyone a good time.
As an improviser you usually won’t have a whole evening to find out what your audience expects, but you’ll often have a sense of what they want anyway – how else could you try to be unexpected? The trick is to resist the temptation to always be more clever and more complicated. Keep it simple, give people what they want, and you’ll have an easier time telling a story that pleases you and your audience
Stephen Clements is running an online taster course of ‘Dungeons & Dragons & Improv’ on Tuesday 8th December. Find out more about the upcoming 6-week online course, starting 5th Jan here.
Challenge toxicity and be more yourself
The toxic effects of the patriarchy on women are well known. I grew up dripping with internalised misogyny and self-loathing. But what about the effect on my brothers?
Since I posted about developing this course- a class using improv, discussion & reflection to help men dismantle some of the invisible effects of the patriarchy – a number of men in my life have said to me: ‘ah that’s great, but the men who really need the course won’t sign up.’
Who are the men that really need the course? I ask. ‘You know, the sexist ones, the arseholes.’
This makes me curious.
Everyone who is alive right now has been raised in a patriarchy, unless you’re in one of those matriarchal tribes. This means we’ve all absorbed via media, culture, societal pressure, the belief that men and women need to act and behave in a certain ways in order to be ‘proper’ or fit in.
I developed the course ‘Being a Difficult Woman’ to help women, like myself, who want to speak up & challenge oppression, but struggle because of how we’ve been socialised.
I want to do this for men too. Patriarchy sucks for everyone. It means that boys grow up thinking it’s wrong to be emotional and in touch with themselves. As a result, they are massively cut off from a huge part of the human experience. It imposes certain forms of masculinity and rewards toxic behaviour. This can make it hard for men to be themselves.
Barack Obama speaks about the pressure of ‘masculinity’ and how society made him feel like there was a ‘right way and a wrong way to be a man’. As he got older, he says, ‘Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.’
So where do we begin? Once we’ve recognised this big ol’ power structure and the ways in which we’ve been socialised, how can we get out?
Recognition is the first step, then it’s about stepping up and doing the work.
In this course we’ll use improv exercises, discussion and reflection in a non-judgemental way to explore some of the limiting beliefs that have been instilled in us by the patriarchy. We’ll learn about, and practice, challenging language or behaviour which is contributing to oppression.
This is not a course for toxic men. This is for men who are curious about how the patriarchy has influenced them and who want to find out more in a creative & collaborative environment. Men who want to practice challenging toxic behaviour and show up for themselves and for members of oppressed groups.
As Jackson Katz, the researcher writes:
‘We need men to speak out. We need to raise the bar a little higher.’ – Jackson Katz
Imogen Palmer is running an online taster session of ‘Dismantling the Patriarchy’ on Tuesday 1st December. Find out more about the 8-week online course, starting 7th Jan, here.