What constitutes an improvised play?

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What constitutes an improvised play?

Postby TigerStripes » July 12th, 2011, 8:55 am

Hey y'all,

I've been ruminating on this topic since the Improvised Play Festival was announced.

Right now it seems to me that when people are talking about improvised plays they are referring to genre and/or narrative improv This is interesting on the genre side because the majority of influences come from television and movies--in fact, when I think of genres shows in Austin rooted in theatre I can think of Improvised Shakespeare, French Farce, Louder Than Words, and The Plagiarists.

Theatre seems like less of an inspiration to the current improv scene than comedy, film, and television. That speaks as much to the current state of theatre as it does to the current state of improv. We as a society are listening far less to the Sarah Vowells and Tracey Lettses of the world than we are the David Milches and David Simons and Stephanie Meyers and Wes Andersons etc.

Ultimately, I think, what this speaks to is improv's transformation into a stand-alone art form, whether people outside of the community recognize it at all. Do you ever see anyone in a scripted play end a scene by cutting off their speech with a raised arm? No, but it's accepted practice in capital I Improv, and that's fine.

I know with the last few shows I've been in we've put a lot of effort into Viewpoints, stage picture, and tablework. With Showdown I had every scene ended by the lighting tech, though I'm not sure if that's more theatrical, cinematic, both or neither.

Personally, I don't conceive of improv that tells a story as inherently a play, though I may be in the minority. Narrative improv does not necessarily a play make and oftentimes the performers awareness of what they look like/theatrical background will dictate how theatrical the show seems.

But I'm interested in what y'all think. Does an improvised play even need to be theatrical?
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 12th, 2011, 9:27 am

well, then we open up a whole can of worms there of "what is theatrical? what is a play?" we can talk about stage picture and applying modern theatre aesthetics to an improv show, and make fun of the stock "two players walk out to center stage and stand talking to each other." but isn't that how the Greeks did it? isn't that the opening of almost every Shakespearean play? we mock it as very "Vaudeville," but that's theatre too. a lot of modern theatrical tradition and convention comes out of that period.

to me, the words "improvised play" are almost a misnomer the other way...is a Harold not a play? is Maestro? is ComedySportz? i don't know where to draw that line. but i do think, to the mainstream, it's an easier shorthand to convey "we're improvising a story onstage" than getting into overt jargon "improvised longform narrative overlaid with certain genre elements", etc.

and in a time where we have plays based on Peanuts, Spider-Man, Legally Blonde, the Addams Family and a John Waters film...where Tom Stoppard wins an Oscar and Tony Kushner gets nominated but loses to Larry McMurtry, our lines of source material and which authors belong in which media are delightfully blurred. 8)
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Postby Brad Hawkins » July 12th, 2011, 9:39 am

Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell wrote:and in a time where we have plays based on Peanuts, Spider-Man, Legally Blonde, the Addams Family and a John Waters film...where Tom Stoppard wins an Oscar and Tony Kushner gets nominated but loses to Larry McMurtry, our lines of source material and which authors belong in which media are delightfully blurred. 8)

I don't think the source material is that relevant... I admit I've rolled my eyes at some of the sources for modern theater (Spider-Man? Really?) but there's nothing inherently invalid about it. In some cases (the Lion King, for example) I was way off base. I mean, why is Raphael Holinshed a better source than Stan Lee? I know who I'd rather have a drink with.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 12th, 2011, 9:58 am

Brad Hawkins wrote:
Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell wrote:and in a time where we have plays based on Peanuts, Spider-Man, Legally Blonde, the Addams Family and a John Waters film...where Tom Stoppard wins an Oscar and Tony Kushner gets nominated but loses to Larry McMurtry, our lines of source material and which authors belong in which media are delightfully blurred. 8)

I don't think the source material is that relevant... I admit I've rolled my eyes at some of the sources for modern theater (Spider-Man? Really?) but there's nothing inherently invalid about it. In some cases (the Lion King, for example) I was way off base. I mean, why is Raphael Holinshed a better source than Stan Lee? I know who I'd rather have a drink with.


exactly. just because THIS Spider-Man show is apparently bad doesn't mean that there could never be a GOOD Spider-Man show, or any comic book character for that matter (someone could probably do some cool stuff with Batman, for instance...;) ).
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Postby sara farr » July 12th, 2011, 10:16 am

Brad Hawkins wrote:I don't think the source material is that relevant


To me "Improvised Theater" has a LOT to do with anything put before a live audience. However, I get the idea of this festival being about narrative improv -- something with an evident Beginning, Middle and End.

This past weekend the Pixar story lead, Matthew Luhn, talked about "Classical Story Structure" -- stories with a Beginning > Middle > End (birth, growth, death). Its in our psyche and it’s the same structure that we’ve used since the beginning of our time. Humans see the world and our place in it as in a series of events pieced together with a beginning, middle and end.

He compared it to"Minimalism" (shrinks the Classical Story Structure) and "Antistructure" (contradicts the Classical Story Structure; break all the rules but are still interesting). He pointed out 90% of the stories IN FILM use the Classical Story Structure.

When we daydream about the future, we do it in a Classical Story Structure, the same with our hopes and fantasies. It’s neither Western nor Eastern, but true for ALL of us. Subconscious may mix up the CSS in a Minimalist or Antistructure way – but then it “makes no sense at all” like a dream. He also commented that when film makers deviate from this, they are drastically reducing their audience. (SO DON’T BREAK IT!)

Stories with Classical Story Structure have an ARC PLOT with a Main Character that goes through a fundamental change or growth. He gave examples of each, and the audience brought up "Memento" which he then showed actually fits the Classical Story Structure.

Archplot (CSS) – Toy Story, Men in Black, Thelma & Louise (Memento = falls under Classic Story Structure)

Miniplot (Minimal SS) – Tender Mercies, A river runs though it, 5 easy pieces, Nanook of the North, Paris TX
-- You’re missing the whole beginning of his life and join the hero in the middle.

Antiplot (Antistructure) – 8.5 weeks, Wayne’s World, Chunking Express, Night & Fog, After Hours
-- Movies that break all the rules but are still interesting

Majority = follow the Archplot (Classic Story Structure)


So perhaps, unlike film & television which are displayed on a screen and rely heavily on VISUALS, Improvised Theater is something put up on stage with performers performing live in front of a live audience... and that uses Classical Story Structure.
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Postby Roy Janik » July 12th, 2011, 11:34 am

I'll tell you specifically what I was going for and why I named The Improvised Play Festival that.

Right now it seems to me that when people are talking about improvised plays they are referring to genre and/or narrative improv


Yeah, pretty much. My original name for the festival was The Narrative Improv Festival. But that means *nothing* to 99% of the world, and even I bore myself when I use that name. For what it's worth, I wasn't convinced the general public would care about the "Improvised Play" Festival, either, but we got lots of calls from folks who'd never been to see improv before who were interested in it.

My criteria for what fit into the festival was intentionally loose. Good candidates would have some, but not necessarily all of the following qualities:

  • be narrative (tell a single story)
  • have a specific, purposeful, possibly stylized look and feel (aka, be 'theatrical')
  • be improv in a certain genre


Let's break down what was in the Improvised Play Festival by sources of inspiration:

TV/Movies:
Holy 1960s Batman, Batman!
The Violet Underbelly
Two to Beam Up

History:
Code Duello
Fitzgeralds for Hire

Plays:
Confidence Men (though Mamet's movies are also a source)
PGraph Presents French Farce
The Plagiarists

Literature:
False Matters

Narrative without a specific source:
Get Up (though using film scores)
Furiously Missing
Happy Butter

So yeah, I was basically looking for narrative improv for the festival, with extra bonus points if it had a specific style and tone. I don't really care at all if it's a specific genre, but it seems harder to come up with a show that has a great sense of style and tone that isn't drawing inspiration from a genre.

Apart from the festival, I'm not sure what my thoughts are. I'm of the opinion that all improv is theatre. I'm not sure all improv shows are plays. But I'm going to use the term "improvised play" to mean "long-form narrative improv" because that phrase sucks less.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » July 12th, 2011, 11:54 am

i think you can tick Violet Underbelly in literature as much as movies...without Chandler, Spillane, Hammett and the rest laying the ground work in their pulps and novels, you wouldn't have most of that film material and noir would've been the sole province of pretentious Frenchmen. ;)

(...or something that's actually more on topic. ahem.)
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Postby Marc Majcher » July 13th, 2011, 2:06 am

Roy Janik wrote:I'm of the opinion that all improv is theatre. I'm not sure all improv shows are plays. But I'm going to use the term "improvised play" to mean "long-form narrative improv" because that phrase sucks less.


Yes, yes. I've been trying to force myself to say "improvised play" or something like it when describing narrative work (Violet Underbelly, Plagiarists, False Matters, most recently) to non-improv people, and it sure does save a lot of explaining.
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Postby Jastroch » July 13th, 2011, 9:22 am

It's all just jazz, man.
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Postby ejbrammer » July 13th, 2011, 9:58 am

It's all just jazz, man.


Yeah! Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, by Miles Davis - "I'm gonna play it for you now and tell you what it is later."

Commit to the moment. All of our brains working together make something larger than we foresaw alone. I like when I can look back and see what was there all along that bore out into a story or slice of life or theme or something, because I think we're all telling some kind of tale, regardless of the details.
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