Thoughts on Master Servant work

Lately I have started a series of workshops called Impro Quest which are aimed at intermediate to advanced improvisers and focused on a particular skill or area of exploration.  I’m quite enjoying these sessions as it allows me to also explore and develop as a teacher.

The last session was on Master Servant work.  I love Master Servant work.  It is something I remember happening a lot in our work at Loose Moose Theatre.  It would appear in Theatresports™, we’d do pecking orders in kids shows and it would often appear in Keith’s plays.  Master Servant work was always filled with a joy, passion, connection, release, play and focus.  They were always delightful, mischievous and filled with intense connection and interplay.

Yet it is an area that many impro teachers have difficulty teaching.  I have not always been happy with my past attempts either.  How is it that something that seems to let loose such great impro energy becomes difficult to teach and release that impro energy?  Something is missing.

I reflected on what were the common themes of this Master Servant work I dislike.  It would feel rigid, self aware, cold and boring.  There was no sense of play or surprise.  The Master Servant relationship seemed like a burden to the improvisers instead of a gift of play through connection.  Pecking orders would collapse into a confusion of shouting and pointing as they order each other about, or it would end up being four people standing paralysed unable to create a scene.  This is not how I remember it feeling in either watching or playing. 

I then thought of how I often see it taught, or approaches I have tried in the past.  Most often Master Servant work is started by looking at status work.  Then moving into status play setting each other into status by numbers or roles.  In essence the status should give us information on the relationship, however, I think what it is doing is giving each improviser a self objective.  You play high status, you play low status, you play 1,2,3 or 4.  This tells each improviser what to play separately, but not necessarily how to use what they are playing to interact and establish / create a connection. This connection is the relationship - which is what I believe Master Servant work is based on.  It is not the working dynamic we are interested in, it is the relationship between these two people.

Give improvisers an objective and most will shift into a goal focused mentality.  I am playing this.  Instead of - ‘how is what I’m playing a gift to other, will effect others, can inspire others.’  We need to get them out of the ME mentality.  High status - “I’m playing high status so I must be in control and order you about to show my superiority...’ or Low Status  ‘I’m playing low status so I will be submissive in the scene making me a impro passenger who suddenly asks a thousand questions or becomes ridiculous to be entertaining...’ and get them into playing off of each other, endowing each other and revealing the relationship between each other.  Inspire your partner.

The natural place to begin exploring would be by looking at the relationship and trying to stimulate the connection.  Forcing the players to connect and play off of each other, instead of being separate.  Many of the techniques Keith Johnstone would use with us would immediately put you into a interactive present relationship.  This is one of Keith’s many great gifts as a teacher, you feel and experience the lesson he is trying to teach. 

I then looked at things I remember from Loose Moose Theatre days like making faces, balloon work, staying lower than your master, etc.  All of these exercises make you very present and aware of who you are on stage with, and it creates an immediate intense connection between improvisers.

So, I tried this approach in the workshop and was entranced by what began to appear.  These physical games forced people to respond to the relationship at hand.  The status came out naturally as the game is played and as each character, through the action of what they are playing, endows the other with a status.  The sheer act of someone looks at you and you shrink your height to please themtells the audience the status and puts you into the act of serving or expecting to be served.  It also allows for a complexity of personal status and the relationship status being different, opening a wider range of status possibilities. 

Another important note was how these games were impacting the improvisation.  Instead of a room full of people thinking how to play status there was a room full of people intensely connected in the moment. The interplay between people resulted in scenes building organically.  Servants were getting into trouble because of a ‘mistake’ that arrived not because the Master had to tell manufacture what they did wrong.  Masters were becoming more aware of their Servants actions, as  the Servants were of their Masters.  The relationship and the play connected the players into a delicious pay attention to every detailstate of play.  Pecking orders suddenly seemed to make more sense.  It was wonderfully alive.  There was a simplicity and complexity that arrived.  An acknowledgement of calm to chaos, space and silence, and setting up of stakes to follow through.

My experiment of trying to get the improvisers into a state of play, based on physical actions that immediately endow the relationship did not disappoint.  The un-playful forced work of past experiences was completely transformed into a room full of happy people writhing on the floor screaming and being beaten by balloons.  This is what I remember.

I think I’m on to a little discovery with Master Servant work, and I’m keen to explore it more!


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