Last summer, I attended the first-ever Dramatists’ Guild National Conference. I rocked up a bit earlier than intended (honest, Officer, I wasn’t speeding!) and availed myself of a lecture/workshop that wasn’t originally on my go-to list, Improvising Your Play, given by Jeffrey Sweet (of Second City, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Victory Gardens, stuff like that).
“I’m a playwright,” I thought, “what the heck do I care about improv?” and “Isn’t improv what obviates the need for playwrights?” (Yes, even when talking to myself, I use the toniest words possible.) But there I was, the other offerings didn’t interest me, and heigh-ho, there I went.
And was astonished.
Sweet’s modus, at least the one he was teaching that day, is to improv to an outline. In other words, outline your play, nab some good actors with improv chops, give them the characters, relationships, and situation, and have at it! (I’ve since refined this technique as point-to-point, giving the actors specific situations at two points and asking them to improv from one to the next. I, of course, spend the improv time scribbling like mad.)
He had a few other dicta that really hit home, and which I used in my recent first-ever playwrighting workshop (How to Write a 10-minute Play), to wit:
The power of the unspoken word. If you explain everything, if you cross every i, dot every t, and leap every synapse, why is the audience there anyway? They came to the theater to be involved, to be an active part of the production – had they wanted to sit like spoon-fed toddlers, they’d have gone to the movies (my opinion, tho one which I suspect he may share).
Re-experience the present. If exposition is needed, have a character set up a story in past tense, but tell it in present tense, what Thornton Wilder called the ever-renewable present.
Play games! One that we played was, think of a noun, improvise a speech about the noun, but never use the noun. Another, more intricate one used a Mark Twain line about a dead person as a model: “I bear him no malice. If I could, I would send him a fan.” Make the inference, laugh, marvel at Twain’s skill, then try like the Dickens to emulate it. Tie these back to the power of the unspoken word – we humans are pattern-completers (and if you don’t believe me, check out V.S. Ramachandran) – if you leave the signal word(s) out, the audience will come up with them and, therefore, be invested.
Prune adverbs/adjectives from the script. Your dialogue should be strong enough to convey characters’ thoughts, feelings, intents without description or explanation. Plus, show some respect, let the audience evaluate your script, rather than your telling them what they’re supposed to think.
For more games of many ilk, read Viola Spolin.
I’ve left a heckuva lot out, you should take Sweet’s workshops to learn more. And as I’m getting a bit long-winded – the session was not only fun-filled, but also jam-packed – I’ll write a second post on his business-of-the-business advice, which was easily as sound – and often as amusing – as his craft words of wisdom.
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