okay, what kind of narrative?

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okay, what kind of narrative?

Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 2:50 pm

Serious semantic question. Not an attempt to stir up trouble.

Whenever I'm talking with my friends who do narrative, we inevitably run into a difference in definition, and it often comes up when we're talking about a Chicago-style show like TJ and Dave.

"That's narrative," they say.

"No it's effing not," I parry.

And so on. Obviously there's no one right answer, so the question isn't who's right. The problem is that this broad definition leaves an entire very large swath of improv without a name.

In the spirit of agreement, I'm willing to cede the definition of "narrative" (at least for the purposes of this discussion) to mean, I guess, any show in which things happen in sequence to the same group of people. By this definition, any monoscene is automatically a narrrative.

Okay, fine. So then what do we call a show in which:

a) there's a clear protagonist
b) there are plotlines that point to (and maybe demand) resolution
c) there are questions that the cast (and audience) feel must be answered, and/or
d) there is the definite sense of an ending?

Because none of these conditions apply to most TJ and Dave shows -- sorry, they're my go-to guys -- but obviously all or most of them apply to a good deal of genre and otherwise formatted improv that goes on in Austin.

A different way to ask the same question: What do you call a show whose success or failure can be profoundly affected by the timing of the light pull?

Sincere suggestions and opinions welcomed. I could come up with something, but if this term needs coining, it should probably come from the people who do this kind of work.
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Postby Pdyx » August 13th, 2012, 4:12 pm

I feel like on here people have suggested using the term 'improvised play' rather than narrative. I understand why. Of course plays don't have to be linear and can be avant garde, but still it does seem to imply that sense of story; a beginning, middle and end.

'Narrative' and 'Chicago-Style' aren't really helpful descriptors. And there seems to be shades of grey out there.

I might be more interested in what do we call that show that walks that line, such as TJ and Dave, where it can be claimed it's on either side of the fence.
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 4:20 pm

The problem with defining TJ & Dave as walking that line is that they don't see it that way at all. They're pretty definitive about not trying to make a story happen or wrap it up. As mentioned above, I feel like if they're "narrative" then pretty much any sequence of events that happens in order is narrative. That definition is too loose for me, but I'm willing to honor it as long as there's a way to make a distinction between what they're doing and what, say, 3 for All are doing. Because they're not the same thing.

"Improvised play" would be fine except that the vast majority of improvised narrative I see much more closely resembles a movie or a TV show than a play, even when it's not specifically based on one of those mediums. I assume this is because (a) people instinctively play what they know, and (b) most modern improvisers have seen exponentially more TV and movies than they have plays. But as you point out, what you're likely to see in a modern play doesn't really correspond to what you're likely to see in an improvised narrative.
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Postby happywaffle » August 13th, 2012, 4:24 pm

Not to underthink it or anything, but how about "strong narrative"? (Or "story-driven" or any other adjective that indicates the importance of the story-telling to the show)
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 4:25 pm

I like "story-driven." That seems descriptive without being restrictive.
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Postby LisaJackson » August 13th, 2012, 4:37 pm

Just to mess you guys up, as I understand the way narrative improv is taught at the Hideout, their stories are character-driven (like all good story should be in my opinion)
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Postby Pdyx » August 13th, 2012, 4:42 pm

ratliff wrote:The problem with defining TJ & Dave as walking that line is that they don't see it that way at all. They're pretty definitive about not trying to make a story happen or wrap it up. As mentioned above, I feel like if they're "narrative" then pretty much any sequence of events that happens in order is narrative. That definition is too loose for me, but I'm willing to honor it as long as there's a way to make a distinction between what they're doing and what, say, 3 for All are doing. Because they're not the same thing.


So can we start to create, simply for the purposes of fun and a mental exercise, multiple categories, or perhaps a spectrum? For example, we'd have one the far side, a format where scenes happen in disparate universes, where we don't follow characters, themes, or anything. A show where an edit means we're done with that world and it has no relation to the next scene. And then on the opposite side of this spectrum, we'd have something where everything happens all within the same world, and it all is purposeful and related. Would a spectrum be preferable to categories?
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 4:45 pm

"Character-driven" also describes TJ & Dave, and also pretty much any improv I'd want to see.

What it doesn't convey is the idea of plot, and what I'm talking about is improv in which the plot is at least important enough that you feel a sense of dissatisfaction if it gets cut short.
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 4:51 pm

Sure, a spectrum works as a template. On one end you have a montage where the scenes are inspired by anything and not tied to together in the slightest (no callbacks, even) and on the other end you have, I don't know, a very plot-driven show in which certain questions must be answered, preferably with great panache in the next-to-last scene.

But that still doesn't tell me what to call a show like that latter one if I'm trying to distinguish it from one toward the middle of the spectrum.

Just for the record, I'm not trying to segregate them from each other. I just want to be able to discuss this stuff without constantly haggling over the term "narrative."
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Postby kbadr » August 13th, 2012, 5:13 pm

(I am one who delights in picking things apart and analyzing why it is I like one thing over another, so prepare yourself for an abbreviated brain dump...)

I've said this before.

This isn't going to clarify things for you or make it easier for you to describe to someone else, but here goes...

First of all, being a "narrative improviser", I very much consider TJ & Dave to be performing narrative (improvised plays)

I like to think of a show like TJ & Dave on one side of the narrative (improvised play) spectrum and something like, say, Start Trekkin on the other end of the spectrum.

Both clearly have a plot or story. Both have a beginning, a middle, and end.

One side concerns itself more with individual character change, and the other more with Event A, causing Event B, causing Event C, etc. It's a depth versus breadth consideration, in my opinion. Note I said they concern themselves *more* with. Not that either lacks elements of the other.

I've often compared it to the difference between an "Independent film" and a "Hollywood Film". Thinking about the numbers of locations or cuts can give you a good idea of the depth of the characters and relationships. Fewer locations (less money in film talk) means more time spent with individual characters, which will hopefully result in deeper connections and relationships. More locations (and wider scope of story) will probably mean broader strokes with the characters and relationships.

I think there's a sweet spot that melds them both, of course. But one isn't better than the other. They're just different. Both are equally challenging to do in a satisfying way. TJ & Dave (depth-style) gives you more leeway as far as the plot is concerned, because you can get away with a more ambiguous ending. However, it requires finesse and the ability to know when to push things forward, or you run the risk of, quite frankly, being boring. Start Trekkin' (Breadth Style) has greater emphasis and importants on tying plot points together and ending in a satisfying way, which also requires a different kind of finesse.

PGraph and The Hideout have gravitated towards the phrase "Improvised Play" because no one who's not a storyteller or performer (ie, most of our paying customers) knows or cares about the word "narrative". Say "improvised play" and you can take the phrase apart and it describes precisely what we're doing.

EDIT: I just read this sentence and I must reply.
As mentioned above, I feel like if they're "narrative" then pretty much any sequence of events that happens in order is narrative.

I must disagree.
You're missing a very important piece.
Any sequence of events that represents a causal relationship between the events is narrative (a story). Without cause and effect, it's just a sequence of events or scenes.

So maybe that's another way to distinguish between the Depth and Breadth narrative style. Depth deals more with causal effects on the individual characters. Breadth deals more with the causal effects on the world.

That's a very broad statement, but I think it helps clarify what makes an improvised play on either side of the spectrum most satisfying. If you strike a balance between the two (like internal conflict resolving parallel to external conflict), the story (whether it's a book, play, improv show, or movie) is intensely satisfying.


I believe it is a spectrum, though. But trying to label the sides of the spectrum is not going to clarify things for the layman.

Internal Conflict-Driven vs External Conflict-Driven?

Maybe it's that something like TJ&Dave (and modern theatre/drama) doesn't have a definite answer to the questions posed at the beginning of the show. And the other side of the spectrum does? We're getting into modern story theory here, I think. But clearly TJ&Dave takes its cues from modern theatre, which is mired in existential ennui. There are no clear answers in life, which is kind of the tone, in my opinion.

For some reason, the simplest way to think about it for me has been to picture a circle. TJ&Dave style is a very small circle, where the literal plot points and locations are much narrower in a given show. A big sprawling narrative like Start Trekkin' is a bigger circle.
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 5:28 pm

kbadr wrote:I like to think of a show like TJ & Dave on one side of the narrative (improvised play) spectrum and something like, say, Start Trekkin on the other end of the spectrum.

Both clearly have a plot or story. Both have a beginning, a middle, and end.


I think this is the source of the confusion. I disagree with this completely. I feel like you can pull lights anywhere in most TJ & Dave shows after 30 minutes or so and have a pretty great show. A lot of the time I'll be watching them and think, "There's the button," and the show goes for another 10 minutes (and three more buttons), and other times I'm completely surprised by where the out comes. Doesn't matter.

Some of their shows wind up having what you might call a plot -- the one shown in "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up" comes to mind -- but just as many of them don't. I have one on DVD that's basically a bunch of people at an all-you-can-eat Greek buffet. Nothing gets developed, because almost nothing happens: it's just pure character study.

My point is that even in the shows that are plottier, they only have a "beginning, middle, and end" because they *have* to end at some point. They themselves say that they feel like they're dropping in on a scene that's already happening, and I think the same applies to the out: just because we're leaving doesn't mean it's over. Any show that starts with people coming out onstage and ends with a blackout will feel like it has a beginning and end, but I think my earlier point holds: you can pull lights on them at any point without destroying the show. You can't do that with a show that's moving toward a climax.
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Postby kbadr » August 13th, 2012, 5:32 pm

I would respectfully disagree with you. Just because you *can* pull the lights at any time that doesn't necessarily mean that the story they're telling doesn't have a natural end that would feel more satisfying than another. The effect ending at a different point will have on the satisfaction of the audience might be less noticeable than on the other side of the spectrum, though.

But yeah, I concede that those type of stories feel different. So maybe "slice of life" improvised play is what something like TJ & Dave is? An improvised play where the beginning and end kind of is rather arbitrary or fluid?

But, you know, my favorite improvised plays on the other side of the spectrum leave a little wiggle room. They blow out the stage, because they start with the energy of peaking in on a world in progress, and end with enough loose ends that you feel the story will keep going on some level.

Though, I still think causality is necessary for something to be "narrative", so if you're saying TJ & Dave doesn't have that...mmm...it ain't narrative. Might still be an "improvised play", though.

Dammit, why aren't we sitting in a pub having this conversation?

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Postby jillybee72 » August 13th, 2012, 6:39 pm

What a lovely analysis, Kareem!

"People inhabiting a world" is what TJ & Dave seem like to me. The focus is much more on emotional action than physical action.
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Re: okay, what kind of narrative?

Postby Roy Janik » August 13th, 2012, 7:11 pm

ratliff wrote:What do you call a show whose success or failure can be profoundly affected by the timing of the light pull?


An improv show.

Warning: I've only read Ratliff's initial post so far, so this may already be covered. But I wanted to respond with my gut without reading the other responses so far.

Back to my answer. I've seen plenty of montages/monoscenes/armandos that went on a little too long, and that would have been dramatically more successful if the lights had been pulled earlier. Even if it's just one scene earlier, because the final scene was a drag, or got cut off in the middle, or whatever.

Now, I've also seen way more shows where there was more wiggle room with regards to when the lights were pulled, but that includes narratives, as well. The very act of pulling the lights forces the audience member to draw some conclusions with regards to the plot.

This is one reason why I try to preach simplicity when teaching narrative improv. The last thing I want is for the end of the show to be some impossible magic trick where you feel the need to wrap up 5 separate plot threads. Hell, even if there are 5 separate plot threads, resolving or definitively *not* resolving the core question/conflict is enough.

Now to read the rest and see if I need to delete this response for redundancy.
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Postby ratliff » August 13th, 2012, 10:32 pm

Roy, I knew someone was going to make that point, and it's a good one. As Patrick pointed out early on, this is not a binary question; it's a spectrum. Of course the blackout affects any show. But you also got to the heart of it: the tying things together. That may not be the ideal narrative show in your view, but it's common enough to deserve a place in the taxonomy.

Kareem, a lot of my teachers used the phrase "slice of life" to describe a certain kind of scene, usually in contrast with "the day the shit hits the fan." There's a school of thought that says that all scenes should be the latter, or leading to it. Whether you agree with that probably depends on your tolerance for Bassprov-type conversation scenes.

My current theory is that improvisers in general resist exploring character, though I'm not at all sure why. I say they resist it because almost inevitably they'd rather find the game of the scene (if they trained at ColdTowne or the New Movement) or make plot happen (if they trained at the Hideout or MerlinWorks). (Still figuring out what the default Institution move is; possibly name-dropping Ricki Lake.)

But one theory is that they just don't think it's interesting enough, and this is the great irony to me, since good characters can actually SAVE a game or plot that might be thin soup otherwise.

Also, everyone has made excellent points but only Kevin has actually proposed an answer to my question.
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