Scenes that matter

I’ve been teaching a workshop lately that I’ve called Scenes That Matter. I’ve been very excited by the work and the response from the participants. 

In general many of my workshop themes come from my reflecting on the time I trained with Keith Johnstone at the Loose Moose Theatre. What we learned and how we learned it. How that experience and training created a particular type of improviser and style of work. What is it and how can I share that with others.

One thing I’ve been pondering is that at Loose Moose Theatre improvisation wasn’t categorised into comedy or serious, it was about storytelling. What story presented itself and what was needed to tell that story. That is what you played. It was the obvious, it was what was there.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with a scene being introduced as ‘now we are going to play a serious scene.‘ Why do we need to qualify it? We don’t say ‘now we will play a funny scene.‘ ‘Now we will play a slightly amusing scene.‘ So why? Who needs to know before hand? Is that us telling other players to lay off the gag fest for a moment? If so, why can’t they feel what is needed in the show?

Do we need to tell the audience so we can have permission? Do we doubt they will understand it?

Perhaps the need to identify comes from Theatresports™ matches where the judges are not very skilled. Any scene with stillness, content, heart or complexity may be quickly horned. Unskilled judges can be dangerous. They can intensify the anxiety and fear of needing to deliver the funny. They misinterpret audience silence for boredom instead of engagement. Perhaps improvisers have learned they need to identify the scene as serious so the judges will give it time. If this is true, we need to train judges and teach people how to play Theatresports™.

At the Moose I do not recall having any divisions in the type of scenes we would do. I don’t remember workshops specifically on truth, or comedy. The focus was on what was the story not what type of story. A scene on a park bench can be hilarious, moving, terrifying, chilling or loving depending on the offers and how they are used. It is just as much fun to make an audience gasp as laugh.

Initially I think most improvisation training tends to focus on fun and playing games. The ridiculous is often celebrated, the hilarious becomes the goal. Right from the start we unknowingly begin to train people to make the funny. If right from the beginning that is all that they see, do, play, learn and are rewarded for, what do we expect?

Again as I reflect, the training with Keith wasn’t games based. Sure we might play games but it was just as likely to have a night that included a He Said / She Said as it was to have a night that included a scene about an angel wanting to know what an orgasm was like, a lover being chained to a bed, a real life near death experience, or a current story in the news. Sometimes the topics I mentioned would be used as the content of a game like He Said / She Said. Everything was available. We had no limitations.

Keith would often prompt and direct us into the insane, difficult, intense as well as the absurd, gentle, hilarious. Like a sculptor that looks at the wood and waits for the image to present itself before he makes the first cut, Keith would follow what presented and worked from that.

I do remember in Theatresports™ Keith giving us notes to encouraging us to have a point of view, to put something on stage that might reveal something. He would ask us questions like ‘What annoys you?’ ‘What is a moment that changed your life?’ He would prompt scenes on religion, sex, historical events, family relationships, rituals, politics and in doing so gave us permission to do the same. He helped develop our range of possible stories by making the taboo ok. After all he suggested it, it was his idea, if the audience thought it was weird it was Keith so we were still safe. Of course at the time I didn’t know that was what he was doing. I was just happy to play and trusted Keith, even if I thought the ideas were weird or the subject material a bit odd. 

He made the scenes, regardless of the material, safe. He made the taboo as fun as the games because we learned the effect it could have on the audience and each other. What a delight!

As a result there is no difference for me in playing one or the other in content or in regards to what skills are being used to perform that scene. I listen, accept, play the story, inspire my partner, give the audience what they want and play what is the reality of that scene. Be it playing a Gorilla or Joan of Arc, the same skills are called on.

However, I feel sad that with such a global focus on improvisation being only comedy we have lost so much of our potential.

Improvisers have a voice. We create theatre. Theatre questions, reveals, explores, asks and demands.
By being afraid of revealing or playing certain subject material we box ourselves in, limit ourselves, confine our possibilities.

  • Why not a scene on a spousal abuse?

  • Why not a scene on a HIV positive drug addicted S&M dancer?

  • Why not a scene on ruthless ambition and political pursuit?

I’ve had people say, ‘the audience doesn’t want to see that?’ Really?

  • Street Car Named Desire - spousal abuse

  • RENT (the musical) - a HIV positive drug addicted S&M dancer?

  • Richard the 3rd - ruthless ambition and political pursuit?

All of those shows are pretty popular. 

We have a voice and we can choose what to express and how. We are theatre artists working in the technique of improvisation. So what are you afraid of? It might make an interesting scene?

Our voice matters.

Our work matters.

Our Scenes should matter.


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