Stephen Brown’s Blog:

The Secret (there is no secret)


So last night I went to see Cartoon de Salvo again, and I have verified that the whole show was COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.


Last night the title was ‘Mollusc and Patch’ (heaven knows who put that one forward) and the story was of rival oceanographers (one with a comedy German accent), a previously undiscovered coral and – best of all – a romance between two molluscs (on a patch of coral), aided by a surprisingly public spirited tiger shark.


They really are improvising.


So today I cornered Alex Alex (Murdoch) and Neil (Haigh) from Cartoon de Salvo and I asked them: just how do you make up a play, on the spot, in front of an audience?


They agreed to reveal all.


We begin with THE GOLDEN RULE –



Yes and . . .

This is the basic rule of impro. What it means is: whatever one of your fellow improvisers does, you have to accept it and then add to it.


Over time, adds Neil, you learn to not have plans in your head. ‘If you start trying to tell the story you want to tell, you’re f***ed.’


Keith Johnstone (the godfather of improvisation, apparently – I’m learning) said: ‘We say no to stay in control. People who say yes are rewarded with adventures. People who say no are rewarded with security.’ (Roughly. This is Alex quoting from memory.)


As you might imagine, it’s more difficult to achieve this than it seems, because it’s scary, and because the instinct to say no is very deep. When people are training, says Neil, they often think they’re not blocking and they are. There’s so much conflict taught in drama training. But in improvisation, it’s not very helpful.



No new trouble in the first scene

What this means is: don’t do too much in the first scene. Take time to establish who are you, where are you, what are the relationships, in as much detail as you can.


We want to see characters happy and healthy in their natural environment doing their thing – so we can start to care about them, before anything happens.


You don’t have to worry about creating the drama. Trouble arrives anyway. Because human beings are like that. They make trouble.


The first two scenes are really the ones you can learn techniques for. We did a four-day workshop in San Francisco (they’ve been doing long-form impro there for 20 years apparently. San Francisco is the mothership for long-form improvisation). By the end of the four days, we’d only worked on scenes one and two. We thought: this is a bit of a rip-off. But then, as they said to us, there really are no rules for the rest of the scenes.


We have spent a lot of time learning how to spot genre (American gothic, historical melodrama etc) as early as possible and using that to help us build.


In these early moments, the performers must make big instant decisions about the world, the characters and their relationships. A big decision (for example of the genre of the whole show) is a ‘call’; a smaller one is an ‘offer’.



Make names a something

Use character names loudly and clearly and repeatedly. You really need to remember the names, so that you can call someone on two scenes later.


A small tip, but a useful one, apparently, and something I notice The Factory did in their sort-of-improvised Seagull. (Of which more in another post.)



Stay calm: Oxygen is your friend

Good improvisers have the confidence to breathe, to be silent, to pause.


Central to achieving this is knowing that you can’t do anything wrong. There’s no such thing as a wrong turn. Mistakes are often the best bits of a show – things coming out of a mistake will often transform the story.


We were in one show all American women in a knitting circle. I used the wrong name for my husband and Brian picked up on it and said – did you mean my husband and then suddenly there was a frisson – was I being unfaithful?





Generate each scene from what has happened in the previous scenes. That’s how you get satisfying story. By using things that have already happened.


Phelim McDermott said a great thing – an improviser is just a man looking backwards.


We’ve several times had the experience of a big, climactic scene and we can’t work out how to resolve it and then suddenly someone will remember something planted in the first scene.


Reincorporation is the difference between a story and a list of events. Or as Homer Simpson once put it at the end of a particularly self-referential episode: ‘That’s not a story, that’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.’



Train as an ensemble

Like a sports team. We played loads and loads of games, to enable us to really understand how the others think and feel. And to build trust so that you know you will be rewarded for being brave.



Jump and justify

If the story is flagging – hell, even if it isn’t – make a leap of faith, without thinking it out at all. And then you figure out why later. (This is the antidote to the ‘hesitancy’ which CdeS felt caused them problems in the middle of ‘The Black Toe’.)


We’ve all had amazing moments of flashes of insight, when something completely unexpected occurs to you.


In Plymouth we had a 1970s Cold War spy world – and it was a dual narrative. Alex and I were enemies throughout the story. I was travelling to Russia to get her out of prison. And then towards the end I suddenly rushed over and snogged Alex and it became clear that she was a double agent and we’d been in it together all along. The audience were convinced that we must have planned it, but we hadn’t.


Neil: ‘It’s having the faith that any decision can be made into the right decision. Which is sort of not true. But it is true. If you manage to persuade yourself that any decision is the right decision, then you will make the right decision.



On which suitably paradoxical note – true and not true – we will close the toolbox and thank Alex and Neil for showing us its contents.


As they said, one of the great things about this kind of show is it makes everyone in the audience into a writer: because we share in the process of story creation, every audience member begins to think like a writer.


For myself, I wonder what thinking about improvisation, or, indeed, actually improvising, would do to my own writing.


What is the relationship between Jump and Justify and Writer’s Block for example?


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