Monday, February 9, 2009


As a community, we’re playing with long-form like a shiny new toy. Troupes are experimenting with forms—from montages and Harolds to more linear pieces. We’re getting a lot right—but I think we’re tripping over a lot of the same things, too. 

As a writer (like a lot of improvisers) I find it incredibly difficult to avoid scripting lines and sometimes scenes in my head. There’s a sort of comfort in figuring out where a piece could go: knowing what the options are, putting some a few story ideas in your back pocket, recognizing a pattern that inevitably will lead to a specific conclusion.

So of COURSE that turns out to be death in a long-form—especially the narrative-driven ones. (By “narrative,” I mean any single form or series of scenes where you’re making an effort to create and follow a story to its conclusion.)

Two of my favorite improv quotes:
Improvisation is the art of being completely OK with not knowing what the fuck you're doing. (Mick Napier)
Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down. (Del Close)
To make narrative long-form work, some of us have to ignore the part of our brains that tell stories. At least for a while.

You know those free-writing exercises? The ones where you just write whatever comes to mind for five minutes or five pages or whatever? And those free-association drills, where you connect one word to others and then others? That’s the way to play the first half of a narrative piece.

Think of it as jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord—you free-fall as far out as you can, and trust that you’ll end up where you need to be.

What’s the fun in bungee jumping with a short rope? If we don’t trust—if we start tying ideas together too quickly or deciding where things should go too early—we take the horrible risk of creating something ordinary. If we choose the story too soon, we’ll spend the whole piece defending that story, and we’ll miss the smarter, better, more creative, more extraordinary story that wants to be told.

It’ll be better because it's the bungee jump off the high cliff. Because it comes from the group. Improv may be the one place where we work smarter by committee. Everyone throws something out there: ideas, characters, reactions, mistakes. The magic happens somewhere in the middle, at that moment when you realize you know exactly what you’re doing—without having any idea where you’re going.

In the end, our writer brains will naturally pull everything together and we’ll end up in a place we couldn’t have imagined. Treat your brain like a bungee-cord, and it’ll take care of you.

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