Internationally there is a Format explosion! Everyone is creating one and festivals now seem to be more focused on format presentation and format workshops, then collaboration between groups and skills development. Many festivals are beginning to feel more like group format showcases. I love seeing a diversity of formats; I also love seeing people have the creative experience of working with new people. I suppose it’s easier to market a show with title, company and country then a ‘hey come see people from all over the world do something made up.’ With improvisation audiences more aware of our work through various films, TV shows and local groups, the ‘we make it up’ holds less mystery and provides more of a challenge to our publicity personnel.
There is quite a wide range of formats being performed. As a result you might think with the abundance of styles I would be having an abundant range of experiences as an audience member. Sadly, I am not. Mostly I am feeling the same, time after time, show after show, format after format. Be it Shakespeare, Noir, Brecht, Austin, sci-fi or musical, mostly I feel the same as I do after an average night of short form. It leaves no lasting impression. Why is that happening?
Improvisation is not traditional text based theatre. So why are we copying playwrights and putting new words into their mouths? Let me be clear, I enjoy it when I see it done well and I have seen it done very well on occasion. However, most of what I am seeing is loose non-committal role-play without any emotional depth and the story is predictable within the first 10 minutes. So what is the point of doing this? If you are cast in a Shakespeare, Noir, Brecht, Austin, Sci-fi or musical production full commitment is expected, emotional depth challenged and rehearsed. The playwright labored hard on creating a narrative with a good platform and plot twists to keep the audience engaged. When these elements are not done well by the actors and director the show falls flat and is unrewarding. The same holds true in our improvised forays.
It is so easy to disguise mediocrity under costume, make up, lighting and music. Make it look pretty and the audience is distracted from noticing how the show lacks content and heart. Traditional text based theatre has been getting away with it for years. People leave the theatre and comment on how great the costumes were, not what happened between the characters or in the story. Bad films will manipulate your emotions through music instead of creating emotional connection through the story. Without the soundtrack many films would not have received the popularity they have. Bells, whistles and distraction, I fear we are becoming this. If we are aiming to capture the genres of literature, theatre and film, then let us not mimic the mediocrity that often accompanies it. What is the point of that for us, or our audiences?
I believe part of the reason we are falling into this trap is because people choose their formats based on
It’s the new impro trend
They saw it at another festival and enjoyed it
The format style is marketable
There is nothing wrong with the above points and consideration to marketability is simply good business. However, these points are all surface. None of the above have anything to do with the content or heart of the format. If your decision making model is only based on the above, then it makes sense the formats lack content and heart.
I believe we should be asking ourselves the following questions when choosing a format
What is this format about? ie: what does the genre / style say, explore, question?
What do you want the audience to experience?
Why does this genre / style intrigue you?
How will this genre / style challenge our improvisation work?
How do we keep our improvisation alive within the frame work of the genre/style?
I fear many groups are performing formats from the outside in, instead of the inside out. Meaning when they begin to approach a format they work on researching the locations, character names, costumes and style of language. This to me is the outside. These are the presentational elements or framework. They are important but often this is all a group works on.
I believe we should begin with the inside, which are the content and the story. What does the playwright / genre question? What are the emotional quandaries of the characters? How are they changed? What is the morality and social construct of the time? What are the important values? What are the stakes? What do the characters want, need, love, hate? Why is this relevant to an audience? What does the audience experience in this genre / style? How do we create that experience through our improvisation? Basically what story are we telling, how does it work and why should people watch it.
In essence we should not be approaching a format as the production team, we should be approaching it as the actors preparing to play the story. I’ve always found it so ironic that in traditional theatre so much work is done to teach the actor to be present and available in the moment so the play feels like it is life happening before our very eyes. They have the story to stand on, yet often miss being truly in the moment. As improvisers we have the training to do this, to be in the moment. Yet we frequently miss, avoid or deny, the potential of our narrative skills.
I began to look at the narrative content of the genre / styles as well as the approaches most common in performing them. Through my ponderings, I’ve categorized formats into the following groups. I don’t claim that this is a definitive scientifically proven complete list of every format on the planet. This is simply my personal way of categorizing and I share it with you in hopes it will help express my point of view clearly.
Group 1 – Literary / Theatrical Genre</font color=”white”>
This group contains works that were created for the written page or theatrical performance. Examples: Shakespeare, Austin, Mystery, Noir, Romance, Sci-Fi, & Musical, Western, Brecht, Chekov, Neil Simon, Noel Coward, Horror, Farce etc. Although many of these genres are also on film /TV they often move to these mediums based on a novel or play. Over the years there are now writers who write this style for film but the beginning of the genre, I believe, was written page or theatrical performance.
All of these would have been created with the audience and /or reader in mind. Written to draw on your emotions and capture your imagination.
This category is about re-creating a world. The task is to capture the world using elements of language, characters, location, and costume – the outside elements. The challenge is in the particular style of storytelling. The aim is to make it believable in the genre or of the playwright. We shouldn’t reduce Shakespeare to endless thee and thys and romantic triangles. He wrote of war, deception, betrayal, lust, greed, politics, family, honor, death, life, the supernatural and love. Oh the joy we rob ourselves of.
Note: I know this category can also be played in a parody style. Still one really needs to understand the story to parody it, so for me the initial questions I listed and approach of inside out still holds true.
Group 2 – TV / Movie Genre</font color=”white”>
This group contains works created for the screen big or small. Common ones are Star Trek, Dr. Who, game shows, soap opera, C.S.I, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Buffy etc.
These works were created with strong story elements but also taking into account the visual techniques they have at their disposal to tell the story. I believe we invest less of our imagination in this category, simply because the images are created for us. However our imaginations are stretched by what is created. The writers create strong stories through characters we have an emotional connection with.
This group is about replaying. It usually has a feeling or parody to it, even if a group is playing it truthfully. I believe this is a result of our limitation to create the fantastical images of film. Much can be done with blue screen, or a close up shot. We do not have this luxury onstage. Also, many of the examples I listed rely on repetition. You know and invest in the key characters or you know the show routine and invest in the win loss of the participants.
Instead of the improvisers creating new characters they are usually replaying existing characters and using improvisation to create new stories. The exception to this is Soap Opera, which is why I think there is the greater potential for more dynamic stories.
Often there is a lot of work put into the visuals and jokes linked to the source material. Little time is spent in fleshing out who the character is and what they want. Most people play Captain Kirk as a man with an unusual speech pattern who will sleep with anyone. We forget to look at his ethics and moral code. What does Kirk hold most precious, why is he in space, what are his fears? This is the information we need to make our hero’s story work. If we don’t look at these elements we are only playing outside in.
Group 3 – Stories & Legends</font color=”white”>
This group is about content or theme and has a natural curiosity element to it. In this group I put stories about people, history, culture, or relationships. Material such as WW1, letters, Japanese legends, secrets, wishes, quotes and true life stories. This category is about revealing. The inspiration is the material and the challenge is how to use it in performance. The material brings a natural human connection and the performance of that material is quite open to interpretation.
Even in a category where it is founded on stories and human connection improvisers can avoid telling the story and connecting. It is easy to get lost in the presentation or the elements of the theme, such as correct costuming, to the sacrifice of the story.
This category really shows up lack of commitment and emotional depth. The first two categories, if performed at surface level, can skate there and still make some sort of storyline. Within the promise of this category is reveal because the subject material is about being human with all of our hopes, fears, loves, and desires. If you don’t deliver that, then these shows really fall flat.
Group 4 – Character</font color=”white”>
This group is about shows based on character interactions. Examples would be Bass Prov or Scram. This category is about relating. It is usually modern day and does not have any theme or genre attached to it. The promise to the audience is they are going to discover something about these people, so we watch and wait, and hope. Like group 3 if you are not willing to commit and be emotionally available in this style then it falls flat. When you do, it is fun to watch the characters change and discover. The trap of this category is people think it is about clever word play and so all they do is talk but never really about anything of any importance.
Group 5 – Experimental / Intellectual</font color=”white”>
I created this group because there are shows out there that seem to be trying something but I’m not sure what. It feels like it is born from an intellectual concept. On paper these shows sound amazing especially on a grant application. On stage it can be exciting or excruciating or just plain weird. This category is about response. Not a preconceived idea of what response you’d like from the audience, it’s more a ‘here it is, what’s your response’. Therefore it can feel like it is all about the performers and not for the audience at all. Sadly that is sometimes true.
To sum up
Group #1 Is about re-creating.
Group #2 Is about replaying.
Group #3 Is about revealing.
Group #4 Is about relating.
Group #5 Is about response.