Be The Ghost

One night in my hotel room in Canberra, where I was teaching a weekend of Theatresports™ workshops,  I came across a TV show called Theatreland.  An eight-part documentary series about London's Theatre Royal Haymarket.  It includes information regarding the production of 'Waiting for Godot', starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart.  As a fan of both Sirs I was drawn in instantly.  The episode I saw was intriguing so I sought out the DVD to watch the series.  It has been mostly what I had expected and hoped.  Behind the scenes of the Haymarket and the Godot production, which I would have loved to have seen live.

Out of the 6 episodes I’ve seen one episode clearly stood out as a bit of a dud for me.  It was focused on a ghost of the Haymarket Theatre, the history of the ghost and a sighting of the ghost.  You would think a story about ghosts would be gripping.  Ghosts and their history are interesting.  Having a star like Sir Patrick see a ghost during a performance is fascinating.  So why was this episode boring?  This is where this all connects to impro for me. 

The episode is all gossip.  We don’t see the moment that Sir Patrick sees the ghost.  We don’t hear him describe the moment.  We don’t see the ghost do anything to anyone.  So, we never see anyone changed or affected.  The whole episode is about this ghost.  The interesting thing about ghosts is how we react and what we do, how we are changed when we see one.  To see an accomplished highly respected stage actor like Sir Patrick see a ghost during a performance, to see that moment when he sees the ghost and to see how it affects his performance that interests me..  We know, in the documentary, Sir Ian asks Sir Patrick what threw him so there was an obvious change that change interests me.  Instead of the glorious moment, we get stage crew telling us they overheard Sir Ian ask Sir Patrick this is not interesting.

Link this to improvisation.  There are many scenes that are all gossip.  Improvisers / characters talking about someone else somewhere else.  This allows the improvisers on stage to feel safe.  As long as they talk about someone else nothing will happen to them, there is no risk.  This is filler and you are wasting the audiences time. 

More experienced improvisers may still do this but cover it by setting up the next scene or plot driving,   Script writing & plot driving can still be gossip and filler.  It can also lead to destructive behaviour of controlling plot driving.  Pushing a linear track  forward and missing the fact that inspiring narrative is created by experiencing the moment and allowing / embracing change.  If we live the moment fearlessly narrative arrives.  If we drive the next scene in a previous scene then we are setting up replay situations.

Of course in notes someone could argue the narrative benefit of setting up the next scene.  Of course there is benefit in setting up the next scene but there is a great deal of difference between the following set ups

  • we go to the castle

  • we go to the castle as the Queen receives news

  • we go to the castle as the Queen weeps as she has just heard of her husbands death

The last set up drives the narrative forward and is script writing.  It tells us where, who, what has happened and the response.  It removes the moment of change and discovery.  The stronger choice is always for the audience to see change the reveal.  Perhaps the Queen is delighted?  By telling us everything the improvisers will be uninspired in replay of script instead of playing in the delight of the unknown.  Poorly skilled directors fall into this.

[Note: of course if you have improvisers who are avoiding narrative advancement that is a whole other deal]

There is a style of impro that have characters / improvisers on stage talking.  Talking about things, life, stuff and their talking has a level of interest in it’s rhythm or playful banter, clever use of words and word play.  After 10 mins of this I am bored.  I know everything is under control.  This style is crafted in safety and they have a consistent success rate.  It is amusing and there is an entertainment value but like the Theatreland ghost episode I am left unsatisfied because I never see the moment I crave the most.  It’s clear I’m not going to see anyone suddenly be changed, I’m not going to see the moment of fly or fail risk, I’m not going to see the ghost and I know this.

If the characters onstage are really improvising and they are being surprised by each other and changed by each other then I am interested.  If they will allow themselves to be at risk and for anything to happen.  I am happy to wait and see if the ghost appears.

The first example the improvisers are trying to be interesting.  They do this in their word play and banter.

The second example the improvisers are interesting.  The characters are relating and changing.  Relating, changing and revealing IS interesting. 

When you walk out on stage don’t think ‘this will be interesting’ it probably isn’t.

It’s better to walk out being open to being changed or changing others.

See the ghost or be the ghost.

Don’t just talk about the ghost.


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