In advance of her 'Advanced Narrative' weekend intensive, BIT instructor Imogen Palmer discusses her experiences of improvised narrative shows and how they can be approached.
I love stories. Listening to them, watching them, sharing them, reading them, absorbing them. I read voraciously as a child, spent hours playing imaginary games with myself and others, studied English Literature at Uni and now find myself in the glorious position of getting to figure out different ways of how to tell them for a living.
Why do we tell stories? Is a great question…one of my pretentious (and quite frankly nihilistic) undergraduate essays will tell you that we tell stories in an attempt to process and understand what is ultimately a chaotic and senseless world. There are numerous texts out there ('The Hero's Journey' by Joseph Campbell, 'Women Who Run with Wolves' by Clarissa Pinkola Estes) which explore in depth, the psychoanalytic side of how we use stories to give ourselves meaning, develop our identities and relate with others and the world around us. Stories can be used to inspire, to help us through challenges or difficult times. They can be used to manipulate a society, to change someone's mind, to help people understand a different perspective.
I believe stories are one of the world's greatest gifts and most dangerous weapons, depending on how they are used.
So why improvise these scintillating beasts?
I have been lucky enough to train and perform with a variety of improvised narrative shows over the years, shows which aim to create what seems like a scripted theatre show with satisfying story elements. Attempting to improvise a narrative with a group of many different brains and reference points is very challenging. One of the most common tools for the ease of this process is the use of genre.
During nearly a decade of improv, I have performed in improvised film noir, murder mystery, shakespeare, horror, fairytale, rom com, soap opera, ballet and musical…Genre helps give a company a collective base of understanding, a set of expectations and a focus to help them create a satisfying performance.
It's also much easier to sell! It helps package improv in an accessible way (and by gum we need the audiences).
I love how diverse improvised performance can be- beyond narrative, there's also improvised games, long form sketch comedy, commedia dell'arte, jazz, poetry, dance…the list goes on! We're in a really exciting time at the moment to see what else can be done with this beautiful art form: what can we learn from what has been done before and what can be done next?
My musical pop concert project 'IMOGENÉ' intersperses devised monologues with improvised audience interaction and songs, which I've started calling 'interactive theatre'. This is theatre which aims to make performances with the audience rather than at them, allowing each performance to be utterly unique. As theatre-makers, I believe we need to be imaginative in our approach when trying to drag the population away from the seductive lure of Netflix for a night out at the theatre…
So, how can one tell a satisfying improvised narrative show? I've experienced many different approaches. Some with a lot of reliance on a strict format in order to be able to honour the rhythm and tropes of a genre. This is really important for something like murder mystery which is a bitch to improvise becasue it requires a lot of set-up, a murder always has to happen, and, well, mystery!
In the Shakespeare company I performed with in Melbourne, we used the skeleton of Del Close's format 'the Harold' to begin the show, with an opening prologue, three scenes set in separate locations with distinct characters and then a group scene with the whole cast. The second half would then be used in whatever way was needed in order to bring the threads together. Hopefully this would be for a group marriage (comedy), group death (tragedy) or the ascension/ descension of a royal leader (history)…
Formats can be incredibly useful as 'stabilisers' for a company who are training a new show and learning the beats of a genre.
However, I believe they can become unhelpful when companies become slaves to the format, forget to listen to each other and feel organic narrative beats of the show. Sometimes, things will occur which would mean sticking to the format would make no sense at all for the show you have created. Flexibility and being able to adapt in the moment to what is occurring on stage is a wonderful skill to develop and work on.
I was incredibly fortunate to train with the amazing Impro Melbourne for a year and a half, who specialised in Keith Johnstone formats and approaches. The sense I got from working with them was the idea of developing narrative instincts rather than sticking to a formulae. Developing the ability to sense when to platform, create a change, give a revelation or advance the plot. Character and relationship focused storytelling which (for me) seemed to develop a more satisfying show overall. These instincts may take longer to train than writing a format and delivering it, but, in my opinion, they lead to more rounded actors and performers who play the show that is in front of them rather than trying to deliver a pre-decided script.
Interested? Come along to the 'Advanced Narrative' weekend this weekend at the Bristol Improv Theatre. https://improvtheatre.co.uk/events/improvised-narrative-scenework-with-imogen-palmer-weekend-intensive/
Imogen's pop concert project 'IMOGENÉ' returns to The Bristol Improv Theatre on the 16th August, with live musical performance from Jack Orcozo Morrison and local long-form improv sketch comedy group 'Waiting for Becky'. https://improvtheatre.co.uk/events/improv-double-bill-imogene-waiting-for-becky/