Improv in Stage Plays

Discussion of the art and craft of improvisation.

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Improv in Stage Plays

Postby warren » May 15th, 2011, 6:46 pm

Just got back to Austin and tuned into the index to get caught up. The 1st thing that caught my eye was the post (and replies) in the Casting Forum about Kafka experimental improv; aha, I thought, perhaps this is an avenue to somehow applying improv to a more structured piece of theater which contains the (often-denied-by-authors) thing I'll call "authorial intent". Although the original post turned out not to be a serious casting notice, there were one or two interesting remarks in the replies which led me to other posts in other forums, the chief one being "Improv Theory and Practice" (at the prompting of Mr. Maxwell).

Before going any further and waxing perhaps too philosophical, I'll tell you where I'm coming from in discussion of these matters. It's not academia though I have a master's in theater (directing), nor is it the acting profession though I've been an AEA member for many years and still take the occasional class with a "method" oriented teacher in Boston, nor is it the entertainment industry (theater division) though I managed a one-week stock summer outfit for some years (resident company doing 8 plays in 9 weeks, 8 rehearsals per play), nor do I insist that only the written form contains all the structural elements which define "a play", though I've written several full-lengths myself and many short pieces, sketches, etc. and was once a member of the Dramatist's Guild. And when I tell you that my 1st exposure to improv was in Chicago in the 60's (obviously the Spolin influenced "given circumstances" approach) and that my appreciation of the form's capacity to amaze and captivate an audience was then reinforced by an NYC troupe the pianist for which was the then 17 year old Bill Charlap (now a somewhat major jazz recording artist) and then that my thinking of improv as merely a form of entertainment biased towards the comedic was turned upside down when I literally stumbled across Johnstone's "Impro" in the late 80's, you may begin to understand how someone like me is thrown into a tailspin when he attempts to answer (for himself) the question, "What is theater?"

Because I think that this, though perhaps it enters through a side door, is what is also bothering those who were intrigued by the suggestion of Kafka themed improv, and I share the evident disappointment of some that the casting notice was made in jest. I wonder how would they feel if someone were to suggest improv a la Artaud (Mr. "no-more-masterpieces!" himself). I can feel my brain exploding already at the very nihilistic thought. Maybe this is why the Kafka suggestion was not serious - fear of brain explosion.

It is true that the history of any kind of relationship of true improvisation (in the sense of starting a performance with next to nothing) to what we think of as scripted stage plays shows how the limitations --- that is to say, the inherent contradictions --- of each have prevented true compatibility in performance. At the risk of saying some things that all you improv experts out there already know, I'd like to briefly survey this relationship from the Greeks to the present. On the one hand, you've got Aristotle's Poetics laying out the "unities" (action, place and time) and the elements of drama [plot, character, thought (or theme), language, music, spectacle], things which writers more or less take into consideration when creating a play. On the other hand, commedia all'improviso (later called commedia dell'arte) is thought to have sprung from Old and Middle Greek Comedy by dint of its use of stock plots, situations and characters, and of themes of ridicule and slander originally created by Aristophanes and others. But the only "element" of drama improvised here is lanquage; everything else was pretty much planned out. And that sums up the "relationship" until we get to Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936).

What follows is quoted from Robert Brustein in his The Theatre Of Revolt --- The contradictions multiply, and so do the Pirandellian paradoxes; only the basic conflict remains constant. Life and form are irretrievably at odds, and man suffers from his failure to reconcile them. Pirandello's desire to reconcile them explains, I think, his attraction to the theatre, because of all the literary forms, only theatrical art combines the spontaneous and accidental with the ordered and predetermined. In the interplay between actors, audience, and script, life and form merge. If anything written is fixed and dead, and literary characters are doomed . . . to eternal repetition of their torments, then anything staged is subject to accident, whim, and change, the actor insuring that it will always be new. In Pirandello's view, in fact, dramatic characters are not alive at all until they have been bodied forth by actors; the action waits to burst into life, and passion to receive its cue. This passion for life in art explains Pirandello's fondness for the idea of improvisation. In contrast with the author's writing, the actor's improvisation is vital, immediate, and spontaneous. And theatre, theoretically, reaches its ideal consummation when it springs, unprepared, from the imagination of the performer.

Thus, in Tonight We Improvise, the director . . . is pleased to announce that he has eliminated the author entirely. Borrowing from Pirandello only a brief and sketchy scenario, his actors will improvise their parts in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, substituting for the old stock masks the masks of their own creation. (He) . . . goes on to declare that "only on this condition . . . can that which art has fixed in the immutability of form be brought to life, and turn, and move . . . . Art it is indeed --- but life as well. A statue that moves." On the basis of this theory, the living actors proceed to improvise a drama, pulling in and out of character, commenting on their roles, expressing dissatisfaction with the director . . . until they are caught up entirely in their parts and play them to an unexpected conclusion.

In the theatre, anything can happen, and the pattern of art is disturbed by the accidents of life. Thus in Each In His Own Way, the play is not even completed, because among the spectators are the real-life counterparts of the characters on the stage: and angered by being represented in this commedia a chiave, they attack the author and the actors, and bring the curtain down. For Pirandello, plot and character are now totally subordinated to the theatrical process itself, for that process is life itself. The theory is courageous --- but Pirandello is not courageous enough to put it into practice. In Pirandello's theatre, the playwright still exists. The "improvisations" of the actors are all composed beforehand, and the spectators are planted, their lines written too. Only through the disappearance of the author can the conflict between life and art be resolved, but Pirandello is unable to relinquish control over his work.

(Note --- The most famous of Pirandello's "trilogy of the theatre in the theatre" is, of course, Six Characters In Search Of An Author, in which a theatre company is asked by the characters of an unfinished novel to act out their lives, to "complete" them.)

In the contemporary theatre, there have been plays with alternate endings selected by various methods (one by Alan Ayckbourn, Sisterly Feelings, has 2 alternate middle scenes, one determined by a coin flip and the other by actor choice) and, of course, in a few cities some long running audience participation plays which I suppose would include the dinner theater murder mystery category. I gather that advanced improvisors are capable of "long form" improvisations which, if a story is somehow told, might qualify such a piece as a kind of stage play. If a long form improv were to be done on a Kafka theme, at least a more or less complex controlling idea would become evident, not to say that such a piece would necessarily have a "message". Also, Kafka and improv (of the Johnstone variety) have both absurdism and a type of fantastic realism in common.

Which brings me to N. F. Simpson.

What follows is quoted from Martin Esslin in his The Theare of the Absurd --- . . . the work of Norman Frederick Simpson . . . is philosophical fantasy strongly based on reality. (His plays) . . . are spontaneous creations that often rely on free association and a purely verbal logic ('The small of my back is too big, Doctor") and lack the formal discipline of Beckett. (From a Simpson program note) --- 'From time to time parts of the play may seem about to become detached from the main body. No attempt, well intentioned or not, should be made from the audience to nudge these back into position while the play is in motion. They will eventually drop off and are quite harmless.' But for all this looseness of construction and spontaneity, . . . Simpson is a more more powerful social critic than any of the social realists.

If improv, or more accurately a like-minded group of its purveyors, is searching for an avenue to social relevance, something like Kafka themed improv is definitely worth exploring, AND I personally think people would pay to see it. In the same vein, I would like to involve real improvisation (i.e., not written out) in a play I'm adapting by Simpson called Was He Anyone? (see "Cold Reading N. F. Simpson" in the Casting Forum) the content of which speaks to our times, but not the form.

Unlike Pirandello's day, I think that the fact that improv has now become somewhat of a DISCIPLINE, involving training, different approaches to (as Johnstone put it) "freeing the petrified imagination", etc., opens up new ways of incorporating it into a play that has some or all of the structural elements that history suggests are best determined by a single mind; i.e., an author trained or experienced in playwriting. Just as an example, most plays begin with a scene or scenes of character exposition (plot exposition too); I've noticed, though I'm a real beginner in the DISCIPLINE, that some elementary improv exercises provide hints of how players may behave in improvised scenes. For instance, the exercise "5 Things" may reveal some personality traits both in the naming of things in a suggested category and the naming of the next category of things. I'd like to explore this type of thing.

Sorry to be so long-winded. Yours in experiment

Warren Steele
Posts: 16
Joined: March 10th, 2011, 6:26 pm

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