Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Improve through Improv

When casting a play, film, or a pilot for a potential series on TV, a director will arrange to have groups of actors improvising scenes or situations as a means of detecting potential chemistry among the actors.

Improv(ization) is a valuable tool for writers as well, far more serviceable than the so-called prompts so popular among the more dillettantish of writer's groups and classes.  This is so because improv helps clear the writer's head of the writer's traits and quirks, opening it for potential discovery of traits resident within the character.

For the longest time, without acknowledgment in so many words, you used yourself as a source for all your characters.  Part of the reason was the hubristic one of thinking you had enough insight and ability to recall things to preclude any other resources.  Another cause for thinking yourself such a rich resource was your acknowledged eccentricities and quirks.  

Not only that, you were edgy, introspective, and unpredictable in the bargain, at times telling yourself you might not have learned much at the university beyond the awareness of the depth of your difference.  What eccentricities and foibles you lacked, you could pick up on an as-needed basis, all thanks to one of the most important instructions you got from the university--the ability to use the library to research needed material.

As proof you were not so precocious as you'd thought yourself to be, you needed some time to see the essential flaw in logic here:  what you lacked, you could research.  This was in effect you telling yourself you got information about the human condition from beyond the borders of your own psyche.  Callow, confused, and constricted as it might have been, your psyche was by no means enough a resource.  You were the equivalent of a small duchy, say Luxembourg, in comparison to something as wide, diverse, and far reaching as Brazil or Russia.  There was (and still quite is) a world out there to be observed and stored away, where it could be recalled when needed in the act of creating a character.

You'd by then developed a revision technique of rewriting a scene from the point-of-view of a character other than the one you'd originally used to filter the dramatic information.  You'd given this a name, borrowed from basic physical behavior--refraction.  Ned and Fred are in a scene you write from the POV of Ned.  After a few shots at it, you realize you've got most of the information you'd hoped to introduce hanging out there in some tangible form.  

Alas, often the form was dull for all it was tangible.  Instead of reflecting, you reasoned, why not refract?  Thus you switch POV, a useful exercise that opens the door for tension, excitement, edge to slither onto the landscape, stirring up mischief by taking the dialogue in directions you'd not expected, often with a force or attitude you'd not expected.  Yet another presence emerges from all this.  After working through the exchanges of dialogue, then removing the clutter of needless words, excuses, circumlocutions, and plain old explanation, you were thinking you had the scene nailed cold, except that there was still a missing presence.  Have you seen this child?  Have you seen this dog?  

The missing presence was excitement, for which you could as well substitute tension, suspense, the tingle of intrigue.

Now, you have no problem naming the missing guest as the kind of focus that comes when characters are in true chemical terms, causing a stir.

Often in improv scenes, actors will "discover" a particular gesture or piece of business, a wave of the hand, a stop to drain the contents of a highball glass, a final sip of coffee, tossing a pillow or some object with which they'd been playing at another character.  Take real, close, fucking notice of this; characters in stories who do such things are tossing not a pillow but a trait at the reader, a tangible bit of evidentiary material that relates directly to establishing in the reader's mind the chemistry and relationship in general between characters.

You bring the characters on stage, get them in an improv mode, then turn them loose.  Ned tosses a pillow at Fred.

"Hey!"  Fred says.  "What you do that for?"

"Felt like it,"  Ned says.  Then, after a moment, "  Returning the compliment."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Didn't want to leave you being the only one throwing stuff around.  Stuff like the truth."

"Are you saying I'm--"

Ned interrupts him, tossing an apple at him.  "Here,"  he says.  "Catch."


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