IMPROVISATION AS A PLAYWRITING TOOL
By Jeffrey Sweet
First, to clarify a common misconception: improvisation and ad-libbing are not the same thing. An ad-lib is analogous to static electricity. Static electricity can only be discharged as a single jolt of energy. A spark. It may be startling, it may get your attention, but it dispels its charge in an instant, and you can’t run anything on it.
True theatrical improvisation, on the other hand, is like the current you access when you plug into an electrical outlet. From the outlet you get a steady stream of power that can keep a light lit, sustain a motor, keep something running. If you keep faith with improvisational principles, it will keep a scene running. Despite the impression created by many so‑called improvisational comedy troupes (and the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?), it is not jokes. It is not bits or shtick. It is not one‑upmanship. It is a marriage of the logical and the intuitive. The experience of working improvisationally has changed my ideas about the stage and the way to write for it.
At first look, there appears to be a contradiction between the traditional view of the dramatist and the improviser. The usual image of playwrights is of lone figures in close proximity to cups of coffee, hunched over keyboards, trying to pull out of their internal stews characters and stories and the words with which to make them vivid. Playwriting would seem to be among the most private of endeavors. Improvisers, on the other hand, create in cooperation with and the company of other improvisers.
But improvisers and dramatists face the same challenge: how to sustain dramatic action that compels the attention of the audience. Improvisers have a number of techniques to address this task. I have been particularly interested in how these may be adapted to playwrights’ purposes.
A word or two on how this interest was stimulated. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. It is common now to think of Chicago as one of the garden spots of American theater, but in those days‑the mid‑sixties‑it was a pretty bleak landscape. Except for Second City. Second City was (and is) what Peter Brook calls a “poor” theater. Not “poor” qualitatively, but in the sense that it made a virtue out of its lack of material resources. Opening on an investment of $10,000 in a building that had formerly housed a Chinese laundry, it featured little by way of props and costumes. The basic elements were a stage, some lights, some chairs and a resourceful pianist to the side. In this Spartan setting, a cast of five or six actors usually in their twenties‑would perform for a sophisticated audience a couple of swift hours of scenes, mostly comic.
The gang at Second City were cultural heroes to me and many of my theater‑-obsessed friends. But I had no illusion that there was any place for me there. I wasn’t going to pursue a performing career, and it didn’t have any need for a playwright. Almost all of the material that graced that unprepossessing stage had its origins in late‑night improvisations the cast whipped up in response to audience suggestions after the formal show. The best of this material was polished and refined in rehearsal, but‑to overmake my point‑it was developed not from someone like me pounding away at a keyboard, but from the spontaneous but disciplined interaction of a cast trained in a common technique.
I came to New York to find a theater that might have use for what I wanted to do. During my college years, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the people whose work I most admired in theater, film, and television had clocked serious time at Second City or companies such as the Compass, the Committee and the Premise, which shared Second City’s methodology: Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Paul Sills, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Shelley Berman, Paul Mazursky, Alan Alda, Paul Sand, Gene Hackman, Buck Henry, Melinda Dillon, Robert Klein, and so on and on and on.
I was writing about a theater that had I had a hunch that there was something about the training for this kind of work that developed and encouraged these talents. I wanted an excuse to meet and learn from these people, so I decided to write an oral history. For more than three years, I ran around the country talking to Second City alumni. The focus of my interest was how they applied their improvisational techniques to what was going on the society around them and so produced a continuous theatrical chronicle of the postwar years. I was also interested in how they related their work at Second City to their later careers as actors, directors, writers and producers. Since no need for playwrights, I thought I was taking a vacation from playwriting. Sometime in the middle of the project, however, I realized that I was learning more that was concretely useful to me as a playwright than I had from anything else I had ever done.
I was told the story of a TV producer who had heard that a couple of the guys at the New York branch of Second City were funny. He was putting together a broadcast. Would they like to do one of their sketches? They said sure. He asked for a copy of the script. They said to him, “You don I t understand. There is no script. This is something we built on our feet. Every night it changes a little.” The producer said that for TV he needed a script so that camera shots could be called. So the guys recorded the scene with a tape recorder, transcribed it and sent the transcription in script form to the producer. The producer read it and said, “I see maybe one laugh here.” They didn’t do the broadcast. What was funny about the scene did not translate to the page.
And that’s when I realized that material that can work brilliantly on the stage indeed may not look like much on the page. What works on the page I call literature. So here we had an example of a piece of material that succeeded in performance and failed as literature, Conclusion: dramatic material is not necessarily literature. It doesn’t have to play by the same rules as literature or be measured by literary standards. It is not primarily about words that will look good on the page; it is about creating the opportunity for actors to create compelling behavior on stage.
This simple idea required me to completely rethink how I approached writing for actors. And it made me understand better how great literary artists‑Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and so forth could stumble so badly in shifting their focus from the page to the stage.
The person most responsible for the flowering of improvisational theater in America was Viola Spolin. In trying to direct young people in the thirties, she was determined not to treat them as marionettes, but to solve staging problems through what she called theater games. These aren’t games in the competitive sense‑they aren’t won or lost, and no points are awarded. Rather, they are structures designed to stimulate play.
For instance, at one point she was dealing with a teenage girl and boy who were supposed to be rehearsing a romantic scene. Being shy, they were playing the lines with their arms wrapped around themselves. So Viola invented a game called Contact. The rule of Contact: for every line you say to someone on stage, you have to make physical contact with that person in a way consistent with the intent of the line. The two young performers began the scene again, now putting all of their concentration and ingenuity into addressing the challenge of the game. They were distracted from their self‑consciousness by the challenge of the problem, and the scene suddenly came to physical life. Much of what they found was retained for the final performance.
So the essence of improvisation is solving problems in the moment. And solving them so that the by‑product is theater.
Viola ultimately wrote and, in 1963, published a book called Improvisation for the Theater (Northwestern University Press) in which she articulated her theatrical philosophy and presented rules to the scores of games she invented. It has gone through dozens of printings and Viola lived to see it commonly accepted as the bible of improv (she died in 1994). Since she published it, others have invented more games. In London, for example, the Royal Court’s Keith Johnstone created games that involve people who negotiated over status (a logical emphasis given the institutionalized British class system). His very valuable book is called Impro. But then I find most people can.
While working on my book (Something Wonderful Right Away, published by Limelight Editions and worth every penny), I took some improvisational workshops with one of the Second City directors, Sheldon Patinkin (yes, he’s Mandy’s cousin). Sheldon disabused me of the idea that improvisation is necessarily comic or that it requires fast wits. What it requires is the determination to make active rather than passive choices, to not deny realities established by other players, and to pursue objectives as truthfully as possible from within the logic of the character you’re playing. I was relieved to find that I could do this.
. After all, we all improvise everyday. We are constantly improvising. coping, adjusting our behavior‑in the pursuit of our real‑life objectives. If I get on a bus and discover I don’t have the proper change, I may improvise by asking if anyone on the bus can break a bill. If I run into a friend on the street, we certainly don’t have our conversation pre‑written. We open our months confident that words ‑will spring to our lips to convey whatever information or ideas we wish to exchange. We are‑all of us‑coming up with spontaneous strategies to deal with the unforeseen obstacles that arise as we pursue our goals, large and small
The difference between this and improvising theatrically is that when you do it on stage, you assume the identity of a character outside yourself and are in pursuit of objectives organic to that identity in the face of obstacles presented by the other p layers’ characters. All this requires is the imagination and empathy to put yourself inside the logic of a character and behave accordingly.
In fact, my first experimentation in this area resulted in a short play. Some years ago, I wrote an outline about a man named Frank whose best friend, Marty, tries to enlist him in a lie to his wife Diane to cover his (Marty’s) infidelity. I turned on a tape recorder. Two friends and I improvised our way through the scene three times. I typed up a transcript of this session, edited together the sections I liked most and interwove them with new material that occurred to me in revision. The result, a piece called Cover, was published in Samuel French’s
Plays from Actors Theatre of Louisville and has been produced dozens of times. In 1979, 1 was one of the founding members of a group of playwrights, actors, and directors called the Writers Bloc who met regularly to investigate new material. At one of the meetings, I mentioned my belief that improvisational training would help some of the writers understand better how to write for actors. Members of the group suggested we form a subgroup to explore this kind of work. So, for several weeks, we spent Sunday afternoons playing many of Viola Spolin’s theater games.
At one of these sessions, someone suggested that we improvise to music. My instant thought was that this was an idea that could quickly lapse into pretentiousness, but I remembered Second City director Del Close’s opinion that in such situations the most constructive response is not, “No,” but “Yes, and‑.” So I said, “Yes, and‑this is how we’ll do it: we’ll sit in a circle and, as the music plays, any one person in the circle may initiate a scene with any other person in the circle. Only no scene may go longer than six lines.” My thought was that if we limited scenes to six lines, there was less likelihood that we would nose‑dive into tedium and self‑indulgence.
And so we played. And we quickly discovered the power of six lines three pairs of exchanges between two characters. In our first go at it, as something by Claude Bolling played on the hi‑fi (remember hi‑fis? remember Claude Bolling?), we spun out several dozen short scenes, each a little dramatic haiku. It quickly became apparent that this tiny form stimulated an economy of dramatic action that could be powerful in its concentration.
Excited by our first foray, we turned the record over and took another pass. The second time through, there was another development: instead of each six‑line scene being contained unto itself, members of the group began building off of each other’s little scenes. For instance, if two players in one corner of the room decided to play parents, two other players could choose to play their children. A whole community of characters swiftly emerged‑story lines were sustained, secrets were created, hidden and dramatically revealed, ironies bloomed. Out of our cooperative imagination, ingenuity and energies we created a soap opera that none of us individually would have dreamed up.
Six Lines has become a staple of my workshops. Here’s a sample from one from a session in Miami. This group started off with the understanding that all of the scenes would take place on a ship that had been chartered for a private cruise by a fairly conservative group. One actor began by saying to another
ALAN: Roger, I think you should get Liz back to your cabin.
ROGER: Oh come on, Alan, she’s just having fun.
ALAN: We’ve all seen Liz have this kind of fun before, and we know where it can lead.
ROGER: You’ve got yourself worked up for no good reason Relax, have a drink.
ALAN: It’s what Liz is drinking I’m concerned about.
ROGER: I appreciate your concern, but nobody elected you cop. So back off.
Then the second six began with one of the actresses addressing the actor who played Roger:
LIZ: I don’t know what the fuss is about. I just thought the gang would be interested in seeing my scar.
And very swiftly we were into a series of scenes that unraveled this tight little society.
The members of the Writers Bloc did indeed find that improvisational work helped them write more vivid scenes. In the meantime, having seen Cover flourish, I decided to see whether I could generate a full‑length play from an improvisational base.
A couple years back, Susann Brinkley, the producer of Alice’s Fourth Floor on New York’s 42nd Street, was kind enough to offer me space and time on her stage to work with interested actors, writers and directors. We played the classic theater games, and then we began lending the skills we had developed to each other. There was no single procedure. Sometimes one of the gang would bring in the first draft of a scene. After we read it, we might discuss it and then, by setting up an improv based on its central action, add elements‑characters, props, activities‑to heighten what was already there. The writer was encouraged to take as a gift any or all of what he found useful. Frequently he brought a new, richer draft of the scene to the next session.
Sometimes, someone would simply have the idea of a dynamic she wished to explore. Perhaps it was a relationship that she thought had particular potential. For instance, if the scene were about a brother and sister, she would cast the two from the group and establish the location and time of the scene. And then, privately with each actor, she might tell each what he or she wanted out of the other character. The wrinkle was that the characters were supposed to go for what they wanted without explicitly asking for it. (Very interesting what people will resort to when barred from asking for what they want.) Again, whatever promising emerged was a gift to the person who generated the scene to use as she wished.
At one session, I realized that we only had a half hour left. Including me, there were three men and two women present. Trying to figure out a Situation that would support this configuration, I proposed we play a scene about three couples who are in the habit of vacationing together, only this particular vacation, one of the wives doesn’t show up. No, our improv on this premise was by no means a finished product, but there was enough 7 Promise in what resulted that I thought there was a play to be developed out of it.
For purposes of economy, I decided to make the piece about two couples instead of three, and I decided to make the abandoned spouse a wife rather than a husband. Two actresses‑Beth Lincks and Kristine Niven‑improvised with me for a few sessions, exploring aspects of the characters. I taped these sessions and transcribed passages I thought could be the basis of something.
Ultimately, maybe five of the resulting pages of the script were drawn from these transcripts. The rest I wrote at my keyboard. But what I wrote was with Beth and Kristine’s voices in my ear, or at any rate the voices of the characters as they played them. (They eventually played these parts in a production in Lake Placid, and, yes, they do have program credit and participate in the royalties.) The result, a play called With and Without is a particularly colloquial, actor‑friendly script. It was produced this season at the Victory Gardens Theatre of Chicago and the Main Street Theatre of Houston. The reviews were enthusiastic and it was nominated for the 1995 American Theater Critics Association’s playwriting award
Ordinarily, the task of the actor is to create behavior to support the text supplied by the playwright. This is what rehearsals are for. The director is there to help in the exploration of compelling behavior and to make certain that there is a consistency of style and approach. When the process is working at its best, the illusion is created that the dialogue is the spontaneous byproduct of the characters pursuing their goals. Sometimes, of course, the actors have difficulty figuring out how to justify passages as written. Sometimes the writer has assembled words that cannot be spoken naturally. Sometimes the logic of the actions of the characters isn’t clear.
Material that is developed from improvisation tends to be different by virtue of the difference in the way it was generated. Because in improvisation the behavior comes first, the dialogue is always an extension of behavior. So dialogue that has emerged out of improvisational sessions is by definition speakable (it originated in people speaking), and actors don’t have to create the logic of the behavior (as they do with normal written material) so much as rediscover it. The feedback I get from performers confirms this. Michael Tucker, who appeared in a radio broadcast of With and Without, told me that it was one of the rare scripts in which he didn’t feel the urge to rephrase anything to make it more playable.
I’m not claiming to be alone in working this way or making these discoveries. For years, Mike Leigh has similarly been building his work (such as the well‑received films Life is Sweet, High Hopes, and Naked) out of sessions with a regular stable of actors. I recently saw an Off Broadway production of his play Ecstasy. It offers little by way of memorable language or great speeches, but it features frequently riveting behavior and some of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in New York lately (and incidentally, the production won a 1995 Obie Award).
When I interviewed him, Mike Nichols said of working improvisationally at the Compass, “There was no way to be on stage like that and not learn about the structure of scenes, about the connections with an audience. And what it finally gave us, and something I felt with Elaine [May] always when we were in front of an audience, was almost arrogance. A feeling that,’ I can handle you guys.”‘
I make no claims of being an improviser in Nichols’s league, but I know what he means. The confidence gained from being able to generate a scene out of thin air with another player is transferable to facing a blank page. And that, ultimately, I’ve found to be one of improvisation’s greatest gifts I haven’t suffered from writer’s block in years…
Jeffrey Sweet is the author of The Dramatist’s Toolkit. His e‑mail address isDGSweet@aol.com.