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How Improv Can Bring Something Extra to Puppetry and Theatre?

So with Guide Dogs for the Death, BearDog have been working on creating a completely improvised drama, where a human actor performs with a puppet, the piece lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. When Joni and Tom first mentioned the idea to me, I was understandably excited.

Why? Because IMPROV!

Improv! It makes you think of people asking for suggestions, of Whose Line is it Anyway? And of guys in plaid shirts and converse being “wacky” on stage. It’s great! Don’t get me wrong, I love Improv, but I love Improv because I love improvising. I love being forced to create something new, unique and I love trying to make that as high quality and impressive as any pre-prepared piece of art.

I was part of the Improv community for years but always felt on the fringes of it. I still struggle to see why, with a few exceptions, it has to be so formulaic. Why does it have to be a comedic art form? Why can’t we look at expanding the set of skills and principles that it teaches to other areas?

I trained as a musician. I will always view myself as a musician first, but what’s my favourite part of making music? It’s improvising, jamming. Getting together with people and playing off of each other, grabbing other people’s ideas and expanding on them. Not just in a jazz sense, but if you’ve ever written music with people, it’s the same principle as well. You get given an idea, you accept it, you add to it somehow.  Applying what Improv teaches in music works.

The interesting thing to me was in approaching this piece with performers but who have no experience of the medium. Working with BearDog meant teaching Joni and Tom to improvise. Not because they can’t get up and instantly create believable characters, situations and ideas, but because the way Improv works ensures that you put something that an audience can understand on stage.

So let’s break that idea down a bit. In an Improv show let’s say you have a suggestion, an opening and then a series of scenes.

Although the idea of the opening and the transitions between the scenes may confuse an audience, most audiences can get passed them because what goes on in the scenes is so easy to invest in, it pulls you forward through the parts you don’t quite get. That’s true of thematic Improv. It’s even more true of narrative work. Audiences tend to love a story, so when you’ve got believable characters, a reality that can take some scrutiny and a plot pulling everything together, then you’ve got a show! Add the thrill of knowing that the people on stage are coming up with it all in front of you and you’ve got something quite special.

This can contrast quite strongly to written work.

When one person has sat down and written a piece they are working from a single point of view, sure someone might come in and give some advice, but that generally isn’t on an equal footing and so the creator will generally do things their way. That can lead to some incredible work (the value of an auteur isn’t to be sniffed at!) but more often than not it means that there are at least some sections that only the writer can truly understand and appreciate as intended. The piece can then be further moulded by actors and directors adding new meaning with their interpretation of the work. That’s the difference. With written work it is a matter of interpretation, not creation.

An improvised piece puts all performers on equal footing, allowing for a truly collaborative and creative environment where every idea is treated with equal regard. No longer can the director say “I don’t think that line was delivered quite right”. The line was delivered the way it was, and that is important as it informs what happens next. If an actor puts themselves in a situation that seems counter to the character we get to see them resolve it, and in doing so see a greater depth to the character than we may have seen before! An actor might step onto the stage with one idea in their head, but until that idea is made real on stage it is just an idea, to be changed and discarded at a moment’s notice, allowing for the other performers to shape not only their own character but all of the other characters. Beyond that even the reality that the piece takes place in is in the hands of the performers.

This means that at any point a performer can add a layer of detail, all based on what has happened, and vitally, all of relevance to the piece as a whole! Where a writer might be caught by their own personal interests when putting a piece together, the cast of an improvised show share their interests and have them checked by each other, meaning that you won’t get a 10 minute monologue about trains/the-environment/birth/etc unless it is actually important to the piece from everyone’s point of view.

There are drawbacks to this way of working.

You are generally forced to do something that everyone understands, which makes it hard for structural changes to the piece or hard shifts in tone. You are, in a sense, censored by your fellow performers so your ideas are constantly evaluated and if one person misses something you set up, it's gone, missed forever. Also let’s not forget that while anyone can make something up, to be able to put it all together at a high level does require work. Not everyone can instantly create a cohesive 30-90 min piece just because they’re in a group on stage.

Despite the drawbacks, the core concepts behind Improv benefit any style of performance, if you can shift your preconceptions enough to see it. What I’ve tried to do with BearDog is apply these principles to a medium where I’ve not seen it used. There have been Improv shows, there’ve been Puppet shows, there’ve been Drama’s. But has there been an improvised puppet drama? If there has please let me know so that we can steal their ideas because making your own ideas up every rehearsal can get pretty tricky!

- CALUM