How The West Was Improvised

At the beginning of July all hell breaks loose in glorious spontaneity at Improvention; a Impro Festival in Canberra produced by the amazing folk at Impro Theatre ACT. This year I taught a workshop and directed a condensed version of my long form Western, How The West Was Improvised.

When I approach creating a long form I do so with either a problem I want to solve or a creative need I am feeling. For the Western it was both. The problem? In my experience it is difficult to train improvisers to be slow, calm, and silent on stage. The pressure to be interesting and clever takes over and they don't trust. It is almost impossible to get improvisers to die and stay dead. Players want to play, and view death as loosing stage time instead of it's an offer to their partners and the story. They also avoid emotional change, and upping the stakes in a narrative. Both of these come from a fear of what comes next and a fear of letting the story take you, instead of you push the story. All of these 'problems' are essential in playing Western. Think of the great Western actors, they played slow, calm and silent, using a steely gaze instead of endless words. Death is a very real part of a Western and when you are down, you are down and gone. As for stakes and emotional change, that is obvious.

My creative need was the challenge of playing past the schtick and getting to the heart of the Story of Westerns, Survival! It has long bewildered and annoyed me that we play great genres on stage and distill them into the simplest gimmicks. Genres are formed on a style of storytelling created with the intention of having the reader / viewer feel and respond in a particular way. Yet we put it on stage, a arena that should be all about feeling and responding and we lessen things to a few swinging doors, a tumbleweed and polishing whiskey glasses. Look, I'm as much to blame as the next! Many a scene I've polishing a glass or tumbling across the stage. Let's face it the go to of most impro Western scenes is the Saloon. What about the graveyard, the stream panning for gold, the chuck wagon, the train, the church, the school house, the saddlery, the Doctors surgery etc.

Western also feel big. The expanse of land and the endless days of travel with not knowing what or who lay ahead. Time moves at a different pace. Nothing nothing nothing then SOMETHING! Which is something Keith Johnstone teaches in creating impro scenes. The challenge is how to create all of this.

I prefer to put improvisers into a place of feeling what I want them to create instead of trying to intellectually create it, which tends to be a mimic of. I like them to be in the active place of an improviser having something to play that will inspire and stimulate other players, instead of the passive place of being locked into their own agenda.

In the Canberra workshop I shared some of the exercises I use to help the cast getting into this active playing instead of the passive thinking. One of the exercises simply involves counting to five before you speak. It is amazing what the audience reads into that silence, what the other players will feel in the waiting. Waiting is active.

{side note, I just released that waiting can be more active than talking because the waiting can inspire the story, interaction and connection where talking could be avoidance and stalling. Interesting waiting is active. hmm...... of course the opposite is true if the improviser is waiting because they are afraid or the talking is actually moving the story. I just found it funny to write waiting is active.}

Back to the point....

Dan, from Impro Mafia in Brisbane, was in the workshop and took that exercise back to his company. Here is an email he sent me (shared with consent).

Hi Patti

I thought I'd share a fun moment from the show last night.

I was inspired by that exercise in your Western workshop where you had people waiting for five seconds before they responded.

I had one player leave and the other player was told they couldn't speak until five seconds had elapsed since the other player had spoken. The scene rapidly devolved into the other player begging the first to say something and then waiting three seconds before begging them again. It was an interesting scene to show that we tend to panic to fill in the silence and at the same time hysterical for the audience as they watch this guy become his own undoing.

Thought that might amuse you.:)

It did. I was delighted he felt inspired to try it. Dan was not only in the workshop but guested in the show as well, along with Candice from South Africa and Eric from Texas.

There are many things I am enjoying about this format. The most interesting for me is the look in the eyes of the players when they come off stage. They have expressed to me to be feeling quite primal emotions of anger, lust, fear, protecting their young, survival, revenge. They didn't need to fake it or generate it, it was there AND I've been told that although they feel intense fear in a scene, they have never felt safer as an improviser on stage.

Something is happening. I'm not sure quite what yet. Might still be the blush of something new. If it is perhaps what we learn will take us to the next exploration. For now however it does seem to be producing work in which improvisers are trusting being silent, calm and still. We can have a stage of 14 players and people are not talking on top of each other. They die and stay dead. There is great emotional investment and the stakes are high. And I'm starting to figure with light angles and rear projected images how to get the big cinematic feeling.

I'm looking forward to playing with it more, I reckon.


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