Long Form & Mortal Coil

Years ago I started playing with a long form idea which was eventually titled Mortal Coil. After a few facebook comments it was suggested I should write a blog about it.  After my last European tour where Mortal Coil was performed in Würzburg, Germany and workshopped in Oslo, Norway I thought now might be a good time to try and write something on it to share.  So here goes. 

So, what is Mortal Coil?

Any long form I create always comes from something that is bothering me in improvisation.  I try to find solutions to impro problems by creating a form that will put the improvisers in a place of being inspired, challenged or directed away from the problem.

The stimulus for Mortal Coil comes from my boredom with most long forms.  What I often see is improvisers using the length of the time they have as a diversion or device to avoid narrative work.

Here is a list of common problems I see in long form. 

  • I know by scene 2 what the plot is going to be and then have to wait the hour for the players to get on with it.

  • Most long form has lost the impro sense of adventure and jumping into the unknown.

  • Players become locked into their character and stop focusing on inspiring the other improvisers.

  • The 'hero' character spends most of their time being safe and the rest of the cast doesn't force that characters hand or put them into situations of moral dilemma or decision making.

  • All the improvisers want a central or important character or role.  This breeds competition for stage time and switches the focus from what does the story need to what does my character need.

  • Players spend time in the wings planning the next scene. They are not watching and listening to what is happening as they are too busy being in the future.

  • Scenes follow a predictable linear line that is monotonous.

  • The end result is it falls short of exciting improvisation and is the weakest form of theatre as it does not attack, reveal, debate, question anything.

I have seen some long forms that are exciting, interesting theatre.  There are a few forms that I love to play that awaken the improviser in me which is glorious feeling.  However the above list applies to about 90% of the long form work I see.

In essence the over enthusiastic desire to play is overriding the foundation of how we play. Long Forms seem to be breeding permission for not listening, playing safe, planning and bridging.  Yet the players would come off stage and not seem to know this.

So my aim with Mortal Coil is to

  • Stimulate and inspire the improvisers so there is no pre-planning before the show

  • Connect them back into the now of the scene they are playing and remove any script writing for the next scene.

  • Add back the danger and unknown of improvisation.

  • Remove their ability to plan and responsibility for the future.

  • Try to deliver to the audience what they have already imagined and what they haven't predicted.

  • Remove narrative stalling, bridging and avoidance.

The show at present is a directed format.  My aim is that with training improvisers will be able to play this without a director.  I see myself as training wheels right now.

To start I come in with some ideas to connect players in relationships.  The first round of scenes is to set platform and connection between people.  I might use status, pecking orders, attitudes, mantras, lists, secrets, obsessions, etc.  I give the improvisers something to play that stimulates offers for the other improvisers to pick up and respond to.  Usually what I give each player is secret to the other players so the discovery is happening in the moment.  Of course when there is a secret people watch and listen more - which builds connection.

I watch for what offers and connections are happening, these are my offers to build from.  I don't come in with any idea of plot that would defeat the purpose and remove the fun.

With the foundation of characters, relationships and connections established then I start playing with colliding them to see what would happen.  In doing so I try to remove the next logical step and go to the narrative interesting step.

For example if in one scene I see two characters flirting, the next scene would not be them flirting again, or one asking the other out.  I'm more likely to have the next scene them waking up in bed together.  The audience has seen the flirting.  They have that piece of the puzzle and know that something romantic is promised between those two characters, so why not cut to the chase and see what happens next.  For fun I might even prompt see the wedding ring, or you don't remember last night, or leave and lock them in your room.  For fun I might put one of the two possible lovers in bed with someone else as a one night stand, then have them discover the person they slept with is the roommate of the person they are in love with.  Obstacles and surprises are much more fun for improvisers because they are active, logical sequence tends to be processing information either rehashing or script writing.  Obstacles and surprises give the improviser something to be changed by and they will be inspired by the emotional hit. The audience sees someone change, they will understand the significance to the character and be delighted by the surprise and the risk.

Many long forms would take that offer of the flirt and avoid doing anything with it.  They will draw it out making will something happenthe point of the long form.  Usually played through endless gossip scenes.  ugh.   This is boring.  It prevents anything from happening.  Audiences don't come to theatre to watch nothing happen.  They want something to happen!  If you are going to make me sit for an hour waiting watching a possible romance, then the challenge to those lovers getting together needs to be what is happening. In essence the story is not about will they or won't they get together, but how will they and what do they need to DO. The lovers families are at war so the fake their deaths (Romeo and Juliet), two lovers who publicly profess they hate each other finally brought together as a result of a great wrong doing (Much Ado About Nothing) and so on.

I'll also watch for any script writing on behalf of the improvisers.

For example if this happens in a scene

Todd:  Well, I'll better go talk to Joe about that.

Anne: Be careful, you don't know what he is like.

The next logical is to have Todd and Joe talking.  The audience doesn't want to see two people talking, they want to know what Joe is like.  That is the real promise in the dialogue above.  So I might make a call.

'Anne is at home alone.  She has not heard from Todd for 24 hours.'

Then I might secretly signal to Joe to knock on the door.

This will be exciting for the audience.  It is also much more fun for Anne and Joe to play this scene, then for Todd and Joe to do a talking scene.  It is also fun for me as director, because I don't know what Joe will say or do.  What happened to Todd?  I don't know yet.  That is great because I am about to find out.

So there is a little insight into Mortal Coil.  Each time it has been performed I have been amazed by what comes out in the work and for the players.  I don't think it is perfect or flawless and it definitely doesn't always hit the mark for me. It is interesting, dangerous and each time it is done I learn a lot.  Who knows what it will grow into.

ps: I have to put in this little Star Trek ism, because I love Star Trek.  When I was writing the Obstacles and surprises are much more fun for improvisers because they are active, logical sequence tends to be processing information either rehashing or script writing.  Obstacles and surprises give the improviser something to be changed by and they will be inspired by the emotional hit.  It made me think we should improvise like Kirk, not Spock.  Do first let the audience endow you with the logic.

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