letter to ben

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letter to ben

Postby beardedlamb » February 4th, 2006, 9:28 pm

Ben Sterling asked me to write him with some exercises that are good for working on narrative. I'm putting them here because it took me an hour to write and I don't want just one person to see it after all that.
So, here she is:

(over-gagging is your enemy)

-exercises for the betterment of storytelling in your prov-

ONCE UPON A TIME (simple and highly useful for story structure)
grab a group of improvisers any number from 4 to 8. Circle them up or line them up. They will be telling a new story one sentence at a time. They must follow a pattern of sentence beginnings and then fill in the rest of the line with improvy goodness. The first part of the sentences are as follows:

This is the basic structure for a contemporary story. We meet the hero, we see his normal life. Then we see his life gets turned upside down and how that leads to a string of difficulties. In the end there is a change in something, hopefully the hero, and the denoument is covered in the final line.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

STRING OF PEARLS (feel free to rename this as I think the name is stupid and not applicable)
All players, hopefully five or over stand in a line. One at a time they come out and give one line of an improvised story. Each time a new line is said, the story is repeated beginning to end even though there will be holes in the narrative. It is not necessary to do the lines in order in fact it's more fun to go to an empty spot with no linkage to another part of the story and say something totally random. This challenges the other improvisers to make sense out of new elements and justify another's offers.
Typically, the game is played with the first and last line being said before any of the others but this is not crucial.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

WORD AT A TIME STORY (a classic game to F-up)
In a circle all players say one word at a time in the sequence of a story. It is important to go fast as telling a story is more like word association than most people think. If at any point during the story someone is confused they should be instructed ahead of time to put their hand in the middle of the circle and pull the imaginary tissue out of the box, throwing the tissue over their shoulder and erasing the story. This signals that they prefer to start another story because the current one is confusing or too off track. This is important and should meet any animosity in the group. Everyone should accept the fact that a member of the ensemble is not on the same page and move on to the next attempt together.
hints: Avoid first person narratives.
Avoid dialogue whenever possible.
Don't be afraid to end a sentence simply by starting another.
Avoid saying "and" as a way of not taking on the responsibility of ending a sentence.
Follow a skeleton structure similar to ONCE UPON A TIME without actually saying those very words.
Actually do it using the ONCE UPON A TIME skeleton structure.
Think back to the beginning and use elements already introduced.
It's also fun to do a couple of these in smaller groups and then perform the story for the other group as if it were a scene or mini-longform.
Rating: 2 out of 3 stars

Write this where everyone can see it:

What makes a strong protagonist (hero)?
Has something to lose
Has a clear obstacle ahead of him
Is proactive (in other words, he is active about his story, he doesn't simply let things happen TO him.)
Typically downtrodden
Typically the underdog
Has the more dynamic story arc (the obstacles will take him places)
In the end, he overcomes the obstacles and changes something about himself (seeing a character change is the purpose of drama. With no change you're merely watching people walk around aimlessly for an hour.)
These are examples but there are more possibilities and not every protagonist needs all of these.

The actual game: Two players improvise a scene and as soon as someone in the audience is aware of who the protagonist is, they shout freeze and point them out. Then some discussion occurs. Ask everyone who they think the protagonist is. Rinse and repeat. If a scene is having trouble freeze it and ask one of the actors to make the other person the protagonist in the next line.
Rating: 5 out of 4 stars

THE CHASE (obscure but sweet, just like flan.)
Split into two person groups and find your own space in the space [NO F-ING SITTING DOWN OR LEANING ON FURNITURE. KEEP YOU BRAIN AWAKE BY STAYING ON YOUR FEET] Person A will begin a story. Person 1's job is to insert questions about what is going on in the story. More difficult questions should be reserved for the second or third try. For example: "What did the penguin have to do with everything?" is a good question to make Person A justify a new element but it should be saved for once everyone gets their footing with the game. "Why did he do that?" or "What color was her hat?" are good to interject early on. Obviously you want to switch who tells a new story as you go along, Person A or Person 1.
Rating: 3 out of 5 melons

COLOR AND ADVANCE (also obscure. like Beowulf)
Sort of a variation on the Chase this requires pairs as well. This time while telling the story, Person 1's job is to state color or advance. Color means they require more description about a story element while Advance means they wish the story to continue forward narratively. Again, the person watching the story acts as the audience and has the power to solve whatever mysteries an audience might have. They should be vocal and forthright about which they want to be happening (color or advance) until they are satisfied.
Rating: 1 out of 1 stars

In groups of 3 or more one person attempts to tell an improvised story to the others in exactly one minute. Someone should keep time giving 30 second and 15 second warnings to the storyteller. After some success is achieved, ask the storyteller to try to tell the story in an unconventional way. Have them tell it backwards, or only as a series of descriptive images, or even with mime. Leave room after each story to discuss everyone's take on things.
A variation that could be important is to instruct the watching players to act extremely positive as if it is the best story they've ever heard. Maintain eye contact with the storyteller, smile and nod often. This kind of positivity, false though it may be, is important in close-up storytelling and will improve everyone's work.
Rating: 173 out of 204 stars

KING GAME (my favorite improv game in the whole world)
One person is named king and asked to sit in a chair facing the other players. They are instructed to be a silent ruler looking for entertainment. One at a time, players will approach the king and attempt to keep in his good graces. If at any point the king is either not entertained, uncomfortable, or feels any negative feelings about the situation he should snap his fingers. When the King snaps, the entertainer is dead and must exit immediately. This goes on for a while until the facilitator stops the action. At this point it is important to go through each of the entertainer's actions and ask the king why he killed them. You'll find his reasons for killing are akin to why an audience would not like a show. They'll say things like, "He just repeated himself," or "I don't like my feet to be touched," or "She seemed nervous and rushed."
The king is acting as your audience's collective unconscious. Their input is important to know because it clues you in to how an audience would feel and one of the main goals of story improv is to satisfy their urges about the story.
hints: make sure there is never an empty stage. someone must be out there entertaining the king at all times.
tell them it doesn't have to be funny. just engaging.
instruct them to try new tactics, ie slow down, tell a story, do something we haven't seen yet, or even tell a joke (watch as they get killed right after the punchline. haha)
try to equate every killing to an improv principle. sometimes this is impossible, in which case it's always nice to lean on the zen mysticism of improv and just say that it's wierd, huh?
Rating: 7 out of 10 doubloons

SCENES (remember those?)
Just doing scenes is a great second half to all the above chicanery. Apply these principles in the actual action of improv. It cannot be understated how important it is to debrief the room after each scene. Say things like, "How was that for you guys?" to the actors. This should spark discussion. Take comments and, depending on the group, notes for other actors on how it could have been different. People should feel free to say whatever they want. The non-acting players act as the audience and what an audience is thinking about a scene is highly important in order to understand what it is they want.
So much so, that I often stop a scene breifly to check in with the audience. Say freeze and ask a question of the audience. "Who has high status here?" or "What do we want to know?"(hint: it's usually what's in the f-ing box already?) or ask, "Who needs to make a change and cave into the other character's objectives?" Just open up the dialogue between audience and player.
-Not Yet Rated-

- If ever you're stuck, do a story in one of these exercises that everyone knows like The 3 Little Pigs or Hansel and Gretel or Grendel. Just do the story and the structures will become more apparent.

- Generally speaking, think back toward the beginning of your story. New elements and characters should be a last resort as everything you need is really in the first 30 seconds of a scene.

- Look up Joseph Campbell's Myth or Hero Cycle. Print it out and bring in copies for everyone. It provides a good structure for contemporary narratives. Use the cycle and adapt it to a modern story that everyone knows. Like Beowulf.

- Get away from contemporary narrative. Do avant garde scenes in the park in your underwear. Do silent scenes on the subway in women's clothing. Do an entire rehearsal as costumed characters. Sometimes stepping away from straight narrative can lead you to really gay places which is great! But seriously, you'll end understanding narrative and how to convey it with improv by exploring what it IS and what it ISN'T.

- As the director, you are the end all filter for the audience. Always be asking yourself what the scene needs. Maybe it doesn't have a location yet or names, or needs an entrance. You must be proactive and present, and you must appear as though everything is going great, just like when YOU'RE improvising.

- Jeremy's new Maxim for improv:
In improv there is no right or wrong, there are only stronger choices.

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Postby Wesley » February 4th, 2006, 10:27 pm

Thanks for the list! This is awesome.
Color Advance has to be one of my all-time favorite exercises that I always forget exists.
I'm also curious about The Chase, if for no other reason than to once again ask about penguins. I've never played that I don't think, but it sounds fun, interesting, and helpful.

My goal for Austin improv is to make penguins, the obscure African nation of Lethoso, and some third, yet undetermined element, the new pirate, monkey, and robot trio of comedy.
"I do."
--Christina de Roos . . . Bain . . . Christina Bain

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Postby Evilpandabear » February 5th, 2006, 2:59 pm

i ta'd a longform class in the long long ago, and i had a class all to myself once. one of the exercises we did i came with on the spot and it seemed to work well in getting the class to start thinking about "story arcs." we did three scenes unrelated to each other. then we stopped. i told everyone to think to themselves where the story would go and resolve. then we went around the room and each improviser said what they thought to be progression of the story. to see if everyone was one the same page and to get a better sense of how to balance individual thought versus the mythical group mentality. everyone seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.
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Postby beardedlamb » February 5th, 2006, 3:29 pm

that does sound cool and good for longform. i'm going to steal it and call it The Bernardo Principle.
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