Thursday 31 May 2012

The Improvised Wizard of Oz – Story versus Plot

There's a lot of fun to be had asking members of the audience up on to the stage to improvise a play with us. Of course, this has to be done with care. It works best in a chummy environment where the audience already know each other well. It often helps if we can win their trust by playing a shortform game like Pillars or Puppets in the first half, to demonstrate that we're in the business of making them look good. Volunteers with no stage experience at all tend to get more out of it, and are easier to play with, than those who think they're going to be brilliant. We choose stories that everyone is familiar with, so that no one has to worry about what happens next. A Christmas pantomime is ideal. The show is guided every step of the way by a narrator.

In the past, we have held on-stage auditions for the role of protagonist, hoping that the audience will vote for their friends to play the lead. For the most part so far, this hasn't worked: the audience plays it safe and votes for an improviser to play the main character.

At the weekend, The Inflatables did shortform games in front of a village hall crowd of about 125, and persuaded eight volunteers to join us on stage for the second half. Backstage during the interval, we played a quick warmup game of Zip Zap Boing, then went straight into improvising The Wizard of Oz. Abandoning the audition process, we reassigned the role of Dorothy on a scene-by-scene basis. She was denoted by a blue gingham apron that was quick and easy to swap between actors. The remaining volunteers played scenery, Munchkins, flying monkeys, etc.

Dorothy is almost the perfect passive protagonist. She barely does anything and hardly changes over the course of the story. She is the perfect role for someone without improvising experience. She can be pimped and prodded along and made to look good, while the seasoned improvisers take the more difficult supporting roles.

It was great, energetic fun: fantastic to see the shyest of the volunteers start to come out of their shells on stage, and heartwarming to watch them being congratulated by their friends afterwards.

Dorothy serves as a good illustration of the distinction to be drawn between "story" and "plot", two words that are commonly used interchangeably. What is Dorothy's story? If we define her story has governed by the choices she makes, it could hardly be simpler. 1. She is unhappy at home. 2. She runs away. 3. She misses her family. 4. She goes home again. The two main decisions she takes (there are a couple of subtle other ones along the way) are marked by memorable lines: "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "There's no place like home". Almost everything else that she experiences consists of people telling her what to do, explaining what's going on and reacting to her. She kills two witches, both of them by accident. She even needs to be told to make the decision to go home.

By contrast, the plot of The Wizard of Oz is remarkably complex. It involves a twister, a pair of ruby slippers, flying monkeys, an egg timer and a hot air balloon. It is colourful and arbitrary, very much like the absurd nonsense that improvised comedy often creates. We can play around with it – embellish it using audience suggestions, send it panging off in random directions, do scenes in different genres – without ruining Dorothy's story. In our version, Dorothy won over the Wizard by growing a Ferrero Rocher tree from a magic bean. What the Scarecrow lacked was not a brain, but a sex drive. The plot was different, but the story was the same. She returned to Kansas at the end.

I don't wish to imply that plot is so insignificant it can be dispensed with. We cannot simply fast-forward to the emotional heart of a story without allowing the action to unfold in a colourful and coherent way. We included enough of the plot of The Wizard of Oz for the story to be recognizable, but lots of details – most notably the Tin Man and the Lion – were omitted, only for reasons of limited time.

In summary, the story belongs to the protagonist and is fixed. The plot belongs to the story and is arbitrary. The story is "what happened". The plot is "how it happened".

Improvisers who don't engage emotionally in the characters they play can easily get bogged down in plot. Without empathy for the characters and an understanding of how the decisions they make create the story, it is necessary to fall back on clever reincorporation of material in order to create a satisfying conclusion. And while some improvisers are amazingly good at this, and have fantastic skills of listening, memory and reincorporation, most improvisers struggle to tie everything together in this way. They could make their lives easier if they focused less on the plot and more on the story.

Curiously, when you allow a character to follow the story that is laid out for them, the plot often seems to look after itself. The mountain of miscellaneous stuff that you created through free-association in the first few scenes will uncannily include exactly what you need in terms of plot to allow the story to make sense, rather than be a burden that needs somehow to be accounted for. I cannot explain this phenomenon, but it happens with practice.

I'd be lying if I claimed that our Dorothies were three-dimensional and emotionally well drawn, or that The Improvised Wizard of Oz engaged the audience in deep empathy for her. Our show was little more than an affectionate (and occasionally bawdy) romp. But I wonder . . . Would we would have created such a delightful atmosphere in that village hall – with the audience singing joyfully along with our improvised choruses – had we not been faithful to her story?

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Holiday Reading

I don't read as much as you think I do. Although I usually have several books on the go, this often amounts to little more than carrying them around until I get tired. I do read for work, often quickly (or too quickly), but being paid to do it removes a chunk of the pure pleasure.

I normally have to wait until I take a holiday to get any proper reading done. But I haven't had a proper holiday in years (Edinburgh doesn't count as a holiday). I read David Bellos's biography of Georges Perec while lying on a beach in Thailand in 2009  (his account of Perec's reverse-syllable poetry gave me the idea for this), and I got through most of Finnegans Wake while relaxing in Crete the previous year. What I need for my forthcoming trip to Austria is something of similar weight.

Before you start suggesting stuff: save your breath. I always react badly to recommendations. It's an involuntary and irrational reaction, and I'm sorry. Tell me to read something, no matter how appropriate, and chances are I will never go near it. I've no shortage of books I need to read. Some of them have lurked on my shelves, gathering dust, for years. I've kept them like guilty secrets. It's about time I blasted my way through The Complete Books of Charles Fort, which so far I've only dipped into. I'm deeply ashamed to admit I've never read Moby Dick. When am I going to make a start on the Arsène Lupin novels? 2012 might be the year I finally tackle H.P. Lovecraft. Top of my must-read list is probably Michel Leiris' epic autobiography The Rules of the Game, but I own stacks of Gustave Le Rouge (untranslated) in cheap paperback editions that are also calling out to me. There are, in addition, books I feel I need to reread from time to time throughout my life in order to keep in touch with myself: Rabelais, Tristram Shandy, Life: A User's Manual, The Great Fire of London, etc. I just wish I had more time.

My Austrian reading dilemma will be resolved soon, however, since I recently heard that Daisy and Greg are finding new homes for Ken Campbell's magnificent library. They are using occultist methods to discover which books go to whom. This is completely generous and brilliant of them. And all I have had to do is to send them the postage. My own choices will have to wait for another year; it would be sheer folly of me to devote my holiday to anything other than what fate decrees. I'll let you know what turns up.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

The Human Loire (Repetition)

Do you sometimes notice things about yourself? I don't mean the big things – the mighty foundations of your personality that you discover and learn to build upon, and which form the architecture of your entire adult identity. I mean the little things, the character equivalents of a mole on your leg, a rogue eyebrow hair or a patch of dry, flaky skin – things about yourself that make you think "How long has that been there?"

One thing I've recently noticed about myself is that I don't like repeating myself. "But you do that, Michael," you will say. "You repeat yourself all the time. You tell the same stories again and again, sometimes within the space of a few hours. Even within a single utterance, you will say something you think is funny, laugh at it yourself, and, if no one else laughs along with you, tell exactly the same joke again with only slightly different intonation, in a desperate (and frankly unattractive) attempt to seem witty. While I think of it, you also persistently laugh at your own jokes. Stop doing that."

It's safe to say that the things I notice about myself are generally negative – the clumsy habits, lazy ways of speaking, poor manners, shoddy attitude. As with a bathroom mirror inspection, once you start consciously looking for things to notice about yourself, it's hard to stop. You could eventually decide that the combined effect of these petty flaws is too great to tackle them one by one. For most people, it's easier to reconstruct their whole persona based on the few bad habits that make them interesting.

My deep-seated aversion to self-repetition, however poorly realised, means that I could never become a standup comedian. Not, at least, a standup comedian of the conventional variety, success at which requires tireless, patient repetition, repetition, refinement and repetition. I also doubt I could write a novel. Not, that is, a novel of the conventional variety, which involves spinning out ideas as far as they will go.

(All of this is preamble to a plug. The extent and manner of my self-promotion is yet another thing I've noticed I do badly. I veer between star-struck mortification in the presence of my heroes and a graceless, churlish pushiness with people I'm trying to impress. I do hope that this soul-baring self-awareness makes this plug appealing, though – couched in such ironic language – that's highly unlikely.)

I first performed "The Human Loire" at Marbles' short-lived talkshow format The Yak, last year. It was intended to be a one-off so-bad-it's-good-no-wait-it's-actually-bad novelty gag act. As the other guests who performed on the show (Sarah-Louise Young and Alexis Dubus) are what I would describe as genuinely talented – unlike myself, who must pretend to be talented – I thought it best to present my contribution as modestly as possible. It went down surprisingly well, and people started to ask me when I would do it again. "Never!" I barked. But then in Edinburgh, I got asked if I'd perform "The Human Loire" at the late-night Music Box cabaret in front of an audience of about 100. I relented, a little reluctantly, thinking "Edinburgh audiences deserve nothing better". This time, the audience reaction was even more rapturous. I swore that would be the last time. Finally, Steve Roe asked if I'd do it for a Christmas cabaret. It was Christmas, so I said yes.

I have started on that dangerous road of repeating myself, of finding something that (inexplicably) works, and repeating/refining it. This feels odd and wrong. On Thursday, I will perform "The Human Loire" for the very last time, assuming it goes as badly as I expect. Additionally, I will be performing my "Homage to Sir Alexander Fleming", which has also been done before.

Thursday 17th May
Chicken Cabaret
Downstairs at The Harrison
28 Harrison Street
Doors 7.30pm £5

This is tried-and-tested material. After Thursday – I promise – I will do something new.