Engineering and Improv


I think this study is great. It shows that innovative engineering breakthroughs tend to come in small steps, rather than in large leaps.

By recording conversations and analysing them they found that brainstorming sessions work on the principle of ‘Yes and’. One person proposes something, which sparks off the next step from somebody else, and it continues until they reach a completely new idea. An idea they could not have come up with on their own.

That’s group creativity and I think it’s fascinating to see proof of it in technical fields. It is something that I already believed, that ‘creative’ and ‘scientific’ fields are just overlapping parts of the same human endeavour- an enquiry into how the Universe works and what we can do with it.

Talking to God

Luke & Michael were drilling dramatic monologues and soliloquies last night. (Peter More breaks down the different kinds of dramatic monologue here, here and here.) By experimenting with varying attitudes, we made an interesting discovery: a character shouldn’t talk to him/herself. Even when they are alone, or the other on-stage characters cannot hear (as in an ‘aside’), when characters talk to themselves, the words do not ‘land’. When directed inwardly, the speech becomes weak. Like improvisers, soliloquizers should stay out of their own heads. It works better to think of the character as talking to God. In a performance, the audience is God.

It is then possible to introduce God into a dialogue scene. Usually, two characters will have conflicting needs, and drama can stem from these needs being unacknowledged. When one character opens up their feelings and addresses the other as though delivering a monologue to God, it is practically a divine revelation. The audience is instantly brought into the heart of the scene.

There’s loads  more experimentation to be done. We’ll be looking further into this in the future.

Learning Improv Backwards

I appear to be learning improv backwards.

When I started in improv, the very first thing I did was an extemporized musical, directed by Dylan Emery under the creative guidance of Ken Campbell: arc-form narrative, archetypes, stagecraft and choreography, song structures and harmonies. I blustered through that without the faintest idea what I was doing. (Perhaps I’ve never done anything as good.)

After that I spent a lot of time rehearsing and performing complex and clever shortform games. I attended workshops on every topic out there, both improv- and non-improv-related, picking up a portfolio of skills. It was a lot of fun, and incredibly silly, but oddly unfulfilling, because I’d never really learned how to do scenes. Good shortform games must be spined by good scenework. I’ve also explored countless ingenious show formats devised to tie games and scenes together, discovering in the process that a great format can do wonders at disguising bad improv. For an entire year, I was frustrated by improv and by myself. I wanted to give up.

In the last year or two, I’ve begun learning how two-person scenes work, about relationships, and about heightening and exploring. It’s reinvigorated my love of improv, and it will be an ongoing process, but mastering scenework is itself dependent on mastering an even more basic set of skills first.

Only now, six years after I started, am I beginning to learn the foundations of improv: listening, accepting and committing. I have known about these principles from my very first class, but only as concepts. I am only just unwrapping these basics now – and discovering what a rich and deep source of magic they are. It’s an exciting time. Of course, in a year or two’s time, I’ll be looking back at the author of this blog and wondering about how arrogant and naïve he was. I hope so.

I wonder if other improvisers have had the same experience as I’m having? Did you learn improv backwards, starting with the complex, clever stuff and working back towards the basics? I’d be keen to find out…

Behind the Scenes: Luke & Michael

Luke & Michael are keen to share all the fruits of their creative process with you. Not just some of them. Here is some unedited footage of one of their rehearsals:

PS Only joking. This is by Peter Kremidas.

An Audience Who Go ‘Oh!’

Last night, Luke & Michael did 15 minutes at Hoopla’s Crash Pad. Rather than do a miniature story, we did what we have sometimes done at The Wilmington Arms, which is to perform the first 15 minutes of a longer show. We establish some characters and relationships, and then dig down to see where they might be headed. After exactly 15 minutes of this, the lights are pulled, often tantalizingly mid-line.

As a mischievous teaser-trailer for our full-length show, it works a treat; but as a coherent performance piece, it’s not entirely satisfactory. Nonetheless, it is at least gratifying for us, in that split second when the lights go out, to hear an audible gasp – an ‘Oh!’ – from the audience. It proves that we did, at least in some small measure, create characters that people cared about and were sorry not to see more of. That is one of our principal aims.

Many thanks to our audience, and to Steve Roe and Hoopla for hosting us.

How Many Different Ways Can You Improvise A Scene?

Exercises de style, written by the French polymath and oulipian Raymond Queneau in 1947, tells the same story ninety-nine times in a variety of different linguistic and rhetorical styles. Luke & Michael were interested to see whether we could improvise the same scene ninety-nine different ways.

Queneau’s material was a feeble anecdote about seeing the same annoying stranger twice in once day. Our tale turned out to be about a man who is disabled and unable to work following an industrial accident. His wife is frustrated by having to look after him. He vows to rebuild his self-respect by renewing his former hobby of kite flying.

We were keen to distinguish style from genre. Here are some of the styles we used:

• as many unnecessary additional characters as possible
• one improviser plays both parts; the other narrates the stage direction
• the improvisers swap characters every third line
• over-the-top emotions
• monosyllables
• both characters are dogs
• as slowly as possible
• as loudly as possible
• mime
• in the style of another improviser
• constantly in motion
• Old Norse kennings
• aphorism and allegory
• gibberish
• obscene
• excessive detailed description
• as a three-beat Harold
• only in questions
• rhythmic delivery
• version for children
• epic

We didn’t have enough time in the available rehearsal time to run the scene ninety-nine times.* We only managed about thirty, but it was a worthwhile attempt. We learned how liberating style can be, how you can have more fun playing when you don’t stop to worry about creating the content of the scene. It was also useful for us to stretch ourselves, to try out ways of performing that we unconsciously shy away from, and to appreciate that the number of approaches to a scene is infinite.

* That reminds me. One day, I’d like to put together a show called ‘100 Scenes’. Two or three improvisers create 100 different scenes in quickfire succession, none of them longer than 30 seconds, some of them significantly shorter, while a tally is kept by an assistant on a blackboard at the side of the stage. The show ends at the end of the 100th scene. It would be interesting to see what themes or motifs emerge from this pointillist structure.