How to improvise in a genre without being trapped by it.
Ahead of his upcoming intensive on ‘Improvising Film Noir’, our fantastic improviser and instructor Stephen Clements shares some pearls of wisdom on this fascinating topic.
I have a deep and abiding love for genre fiction, mostly thanks to my father. My childhood was filled with stories, games, and comicbooks that he read, played, and enjoyed with me – sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, horror, pulp adventure, superheros, etc. These larger-than-life characters, plots, and settings left a huge impact on my creative identity to this day – the stories I tell and characters I play will very often draw upon the familiar tropes of the genres that I loved earliest and best.
Returning to childhood favourites is a risky business, however. It’s easy to forget how rose-tinted the eyes of nostalgia can be, and stumble into unpleasant or off-putting themes or elements in a work (or more broadly across a genre) that you missed or misunderstood as a child. I recently reread The Big Sleep (featuring the definitive hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe) and was unpleasantly surprised by the novel’s problematic treatment of women and gay characters. It’s hardly atypical for its genre in this regard – most Noir works came from or were heavily influenced by the 1930s and 40s and could forgivingly be described as ‘products of their time’ (unlike, say, the works of HP Lovecraft).
Problematic or troublesome elements of the genre you’re working with can be a huge hurdle to clear for improvisers. More than once, groups I’ve worked with have avoided a particular genre or shot down a particular show idea because of some element or other that they anticipated would be trouble, such as a lack of female character archetypes that aren’t fairly sexist (in Noir and Westerns) or an expectation of combat/action sequences that would be difficult to improvise safely (in action-heavy genres).
The issue seems to arise from a feeling that genre is a big deal, not to be taken lightly: you have to include the proper parts of the thing, to honour the genre that you’ve chosen to work with, or else it isn’t a real genre show. This idea, that something has to be ‘done right’ or not at all, is a fairly familiar pitfall that new improvisers experience in beginner’s classes – it’s one of the ways that the notorious ‘inner critic’ shoots down our ideas before they make it out into the world. If we ignore the inner critic’s urge to ‘not do the thing’, as is received wisdom in improv, it leaves us with the question of how we ought to approach a genre that has some elements we don’t enjoy or find problematic.
A genre is a big thing, often very vaguely defined if defined at all
The answer is simple, if not necessarily easy: leave them out! A genre is a big thing, often very vaguely defined if defined at all (there’s legitimate academic debate about exactly what counts as Film Noir, for example), built up over years of cultural output into a towering metropolis of trope and cliche. A genre show however, is much smaller and quite specific – it fits inside its genre, not the other way around. Trying to include all the possible elements of your chosen genre in one show will invariably leave it bursting at the seams, like trying to cram a whole city into one theatre. If a fantasy novelist doesn’t like dragons, for example, they simply don’t write about dragons in their novels. The novels are still fantasy without the dragons, and your genre show is still a genre show if you aren’t encompassing the whole of the genre.
Once we give ourselves permission to leave out the bits we don’t love, we can focus instead on including what we do. Take everything you love about your genre, shove it in a big cauldron and make yourself a delicious genre soup. Maybe you can even find space to explore better versions of the elements that gave you pause – swap your Noir show’s Femme Fatale for an Homme Homicide, or have deadly disputes in your Western be resolved by a tense highnoon duel of Rock-Paper-Scissors – there’s no limit to where your imagination can take you.
When you come to improvise within a genre, remember the importance of self-expression. It’s your show, after all. Cherish the things that you love about your chosen genre, and if there’s something about it you don’t love? Forget it.
Can you relate to the struggle of improvising around troublesome elements in a genre you love? Or is this a skill you’d like to add to your improvisers toolkit? If this blog has piqued your interest, Stephen’s intensive ‘Genre Study: Improvising Film Noir’, is taking place on the 23rd and 24th January.