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In 2010 I started a monthly improv show called A Night at the Improv, consisting of two troupes per show, each doing a 45 minute Chicago style improv set. The first show was to include the return of our 8 player “Backstreet Stories” troupe after a six month break, with our format of the same name, but only two of us were available to rehearse, so we pulled in a guest player and did three rehearsals as a trio in order to come up with a new format we could use for the show. Trios are fun because they lend themselves to having three protagonists, one for each player, which leads to those classic A/B, B/C, A/C, and A/B/C scene combinations. We ended up devising three trio formats throughout the year, and each with a different trio of players. Because we only played them a few times, the audience typically didn’t realise that we were playing a format, which is a shame because each of us have great memories of the rehearsals and the formats.
So here they are. Feel free to use and adapt them without requiring permission or royalties, but I’d love an email from you describing how it went if you end up using any of them. Note that these were designed for Chicago style scenic long form, and may not work exactly as described if played in Keith Johnstone style.
Most character narrative formats use one of three forms: inside out, where we meet the protagonists who know each other at the beginning and we keep meeting new characters through outward connections; outside in, where we meet seemingly unconnected protagonists in various scenes and by the end the connections have been discovered; or linear, where we meet the protagonists who know each other at the beginning, other characters may come and go, but the main protagonists are still there at the end. Outside in is the most difficult, as the structure can negatively affect the show if the players are actively looking for the connections, yet it can be the most rewarding for the audience if done right. The first two formats ahere to outside in and inside out respectively, and the third is open to interpretation.
Jonathan, my wife Louise, and myself devised a trio format called “Psyched” or “Spotlight”, depending on who you ask, which we played several times before Louise had to stop playing because our toddler wouldn’t let us go out of the house together.
The format is an outside in form, mostly with open play and involves the interactions of three protagonists who are each gradually introduced via a therapy session with a psychologist.
The show opens with each player accepting a different type of ask-for from the audience. The first scene then begins with a character (protagonist #1) in an actual spotlight if you have the lighting option available, preferably sitting on a stool or chair, speaking with an invisible psychologist in the audience. We only hear the character’s responses, and silence is left for the psychologist’s voice, during which the character can be seen to be listening and reacting. The second scene is a typical open scene with protagonist #1 and a bit player, using some of the information which came out about them in the first scene. The third scene is a new protagonist (protagonist #2) (not in either of the first two scenes) with a psychologist, much the same as the first scene, followed by two open scenes which can be between any of the characters introduced so far, or a new character, but each scene must contain one of the two protagonists introduced so far. Scene six is a third psychologist scene, introducing the final protagonist (protagonist #3). At this point the audience should be familiar with most of the characters, and each of the three protagonists have been introduced via a psychologist scene and the first two also in an open scene. Play is then open for the rest of the show.
The structure of the first six scenes doesn’t have to be fixed as PSYCH1, OPEN1, PSYCH2, OPEN2, OPEN1, PSYCH3, you can play around with it, but if you do follow that initial structure then you should reach a good balance between two many opening psychologist scenes in a row, and the audience forgetting the early protagonists because they haven’t returned in open scenes for a while. Protagonists should come back to the psychologist every so often to get additional information about their character, and to summarise events from the open scenes, or whatever you think the audience wants. At least 2-3 psychologist scenes per character throughout the show seems about right.
As play progresses, connections between the three seemingly disconnected protagonists may appear, or they may not. It is common to have two protagonists eventually know each other and the third to have an isolated narrative, perhaps with connections between bit players, but there doesn’t need to be any. What comes out, will come out.
Every scene in the show must contain at least one protagonist, as the show is about them and their journey of self discovery. You can play with time as well if you wish, through flashbacks or flashforwards as entire scenes, but the psychologist scenes must be in the now, as they’re a reflection of what happens to the protagonists. Tagouts etc. aren’t used, but at least try them and see if they work for you. Scene transitions are simple jump in replacements, which may feel clunky at first if you’re new to smaller troupes, but works better than sweeps or other transitions as they don’t pull focus.
Each of the three protagonists is played by one of the three players. For newer players it’s recommended that each player looks after their own protagonist’s character development, else they could flounder in the solo psychologist scenes.
The show can end at any time the players feel is right. Perhaps some of the protagonists have addressed their problems discovered with the psychologist, perhaps others are destined to simply repeat their mistakes. It’s up to you and the audience on the night.
The format sounds a little too structured, but once you play with it a little, it’s not really. Think of it as an open format, but with the psychologist scenes as an additional tool for developing characters.
The key skills are solo monologue like scenes with missing two character dialog; an understanding of therapy question and answer (do your research on how therapy works); and the ability to find or at least identify narrative and character connections.
When Louise left the trio, Backstreet Stories player Emily joined Jonathan and I, and we devised a format which was never named, but we kept calling it “that format with Duncan in it”, so let’s call it “Duncan”. We played it a half dozen times (and maybe 20-40 times in rehearsal). It’s a lot of fun and you spend a lot of time on stage, especially in a trio.
The format is an inside out form where the show leads up to scenes of increasing numbers of returning characters at or near the end of the show. Typically we follow one of two protagonists who finds themself meeting friends and family of the other protagonist, and shows the interactions and personal discoveries of each as that person is potentially integrated into that social circle. An example would be where a girl brings her new boyfriend home to the family farm, and he meets the mother and father, brothers and sisters, ex-boy and girl friends, and anything else that could be thrown into the mix, and then the girl meets her old town boyfriend and tentions form between the two protagonists. You can probably think of other examples where various acquaintances are forced together in an uncomfortable environment.
The fun begins when the characters are mixed into varying scenes where they discover new things about each other and their relationships, and usually ends with a situation where most of the characters are present, like family dinner, a meeting, an exhibition, or a community group etc. This involves the three players switching characters throughout the scene, even providing back and forth dialog between two characters they’re playing, or dialog with invisible characters, depending on what you’re trying to get out of the dialog and the emotional reactions to it. It’s fast paced and fun to play, and teaches you interesting skills for normal improv such as being able to quickly see and respond to different character perspectives.
Like most small cast shows, the differences between the character voices and mannerisms are important so the audience can tell the difference between them. The largest group scene is usually played near the end, so there’s a build up to it and the audience and players are very familiar with all the characters being played. You can also do a few half-cast scenes in the middle of the show to give the audience some ooh ahh moments before raising the stakes in the larger scene. Alternatively, the large scene can be in the middle of the show, and the second half is about the fall out from it, with possibly another one at the end if you feel you need.
The end of the show tends to leave the first protagonist stuck in the middle of all these other characters with their issues, with only some kind of radical way out, if indeed there is a resolution. If the large scene is in the middle of the show, then the second half can be like a runaway train, as the players will be reacting faster than normal, having just done lot’s of character switching in the larger scene.
Players can switch to any character they wish at any time, there’s no character ownership by the players. If two character that one player started meet each other, then another player should jump in as one of them, taking on the voice and mannerisms of the character. You can also get an ask for at the top of the show if you need one.
The key skills are the ability to play multiple characters at once, including dialog for each, or solo dialog with an invisible player; and to be able create notably different characters and impersonate those created by other players.
In late 2010, Emily went overseas, so Peter joined Jonathan and I, and we devised a format called “What If”.
The format follows no particular structure, you can either set that beforehand, or just play the show and see what comes out organically. We usually introduce the show with the line “What if… something wasn’t quite right with the world…”, and the key is to be strict on believability (not reality) and then introduce a single off the wall “reality tilt” mid-way through the first scene. Play continues believably, but there are real world consequences based on the reality tilt being acceptable and believable fact. The audience goes through an “ah ha” moment as it tilts, with some catching on early, and others a little later. For audiences used to the Johnstone style with its absurdity curve and parody, they tend to find in it a fascinating realism, but with some of the weirdness they’re used to. Some examples might help…
A boy and his father are fixing his bicycle in the garage, with talk about when the father was a boy and he did the same with his father. After a few minutes, the father drops a short yet obvious reality tilt into the scene, for example “Yeah, my dad was pretty angry whenever I crashed my bike. It took me ages before I got my flying bicycle license.” From then on the reality is that bicycles can fly, you need a license and you can potentially get them when you’re fairly young. The play continues believably, and is about the father/son relationship, but anything the reality tilt affects also becomes reality, such as what clothes you wear while riding, whether the boy’s friends have licenses, whether you need to be a qualified bicycle technician and the boy and father are breaking the law, whether other vehicles fly, and how did bicycles first start to fly were they endowed by other beings or is there a scientific explanation. Another example from one of our rehearsals…
A scene in a bar between two people, and several minutes in another player enters saying “OK that’s enough, shutdown the simulation please Ted.” Turns out they’re in a virtual reality and didn’t know it, at which point the scene dissolves to a black boxed room. The supervisor and technician enter, and something out of the ordinary has happened. The show is about how any scene could be virtual reality, and most times when the on stage scenes change, we eventually find that the scene is in virtual reality. When the scene dissolves, the story of the real world continues. There’s effectively two story lines, one inside and one outside of the virtual reality.
It’s important that the reality tilt and consequences aren’t the focus, they’re just the background in which the characters interact as they would in a normal show. It’s also important that the play has believability, and that the characters respond and act believably, not realistically, but believably, something key to the Chicago style, but not in the Sydney (where we’re based) variation of the Keith Johnstone style. So this needs to be drilled into the players.
Once the reality tilt has been given, the other player identifies it, accepts it and responds to it, which makes it more significant in the scene, and let’s the first player know that they’ve recognised the tilt. In the flying bicycle example, the boy might then respond “Well times have changed dad, flight licenses are pretty easy to get these days. You can even get them on the black market.” Once the reality tilt is given, that’s it, there’s no further attempt if you don’t like what’s offered, and no further tilts are given in the show, it’s just the one offer and its consequences.
Reality tilts tend to be one of three types, something special about the person (e.g. can see the future, can breath underwater, came from a parallel reality), something special about the world (e.g. there’s no gravity, there’s a big brother hierarchy amongst humans, only men can have children), or in rare cases the audience’s perception of reality or structure is changed (e.g. time travels backwards but the characters don’t know it, scenes repeat themselves, one character is really two characters in different time periods). Note that the reality tilt is discovered in the opening scene, it’s not preplanned or taken from an ask-for.
What If is the most difficult of the three above forms to get right, and involves a lot of rehearsal of opening scenes. You can also get an ask-for to begin the show if you wish, but it must be mundane and simply used to generate an idea for the first few seconds of the opening scene.
All of the rehearsals and shows we’ve done for “What If” have turned out as what is commonly known as classic science fiction. Not the parody and film cliches used in Theatresports or most “science fiction” shows, but real science fiction as you would read in science fiction novels. There may well be exceptions, but we’ve done 20-30 runs of this format and they could all be classified as science fiction to varying degrees, if they were a novel. See if you can do otherwise. But also a warning, once you’ve seen this work, you’ll begin to look condescendingly at those traditional Theatresports sci-fi genre parodies.
The first “What If” we did in front of an audience, which was about an unemployed youth trying to emulate his father and do him proud, with the backdrop of it only ever raining on certain days because we’ve engineered it to in order to deal with how badly we’ve looked after the planet, is still one of my favourites shows.
Enjoy, and have fun!