Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On making it up as you go along

As NaNo draws to a close, I realize I haven't done nearly as much writing this month as I'd like to have done. But I did get to have a great conversation with improv actor and storyteller Dave Morris, from Paper Street Theatre, on Literary Landscapes, about the stuff that goes on when, as during November, people stare at a blank page and then force themselves to write things on it. Because Dave (and the rest of Paper Street Theatre) goes one better than that - he makes it all up on stage, in front of an audience, when blanking on what comes next doesn't involve getting up for another cup of tea, or checking Twitter. . .  it means silence while a room full of people wait for you to come up with the next thing.

It started when I went to see Paper Street's The Horror Within, put on in Ottawa by the (un)told storytelling series: three members of the troupe improvising stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. As a fan of the Great Elder Gods and the literature around them, I just had to go.

For the first half of the show, the three of them got suggestions from the audience - a place, an object, a job, something that might work in a Lovecraftian setting (they were handed a haberdasher, an ocean liner, and a magnifying glass) - and each of them took one of those things and started telling a story that would incorporate it. The three stories were essentially independent, but when the first speaker looked like the line of his first idea might have guttered out, the next would jump in with their story, and so on. Occasionally one person would interact with someone else's story - add a sound effect, or a voice, or act out a part - but the three stories stayed distinct. They also all picked up pace more or less simultaneously, and the segments each person told got shorter and shorter, until they all got to their climactic scenes.

When someone had talked themselves into a corner, the others would step in: when someone had made an error that had struck the audience as particularly funny, they'd work it in as a running gag, and when the actor couldn't think of yet another ornate, flowery synonym (man, does Lovecraft love his synonyms), the audience was with them when they finally gave up and said, ". . . thingy." The audience, I realized, was a part of the performance even more so, maybe, than scripted theatre, because the audience was with the performers. The audience knew they were making it up. The audience was okay with a couple of failed descriptions or moments of awkwardness.

For the second half, they got a suggestion for a title from the audience - my friend Jessica, who had never read any Lovecraft before and knew very little about his work, suggested the one they eventually went with, and won a Cthulhu plushie for it! - and then they created a more interactive, theatrical story, though still with a narrator figure (Dave, in our conversation on the radio, said that they'd found a narrator figure was essential to a Lovecraftian feel).

Anyway, coming out of that I realized I wanted to talk to them about a couple of things: how do they pick out the specific elements that characterize a writer and recreate them in improv? How do they prepare and deal with the moments when the ideas blank out, up there in front of an audience? What kinds of things can writers, who also have to just keep making stuff up if they want to get anything done, learn from the practice of improv?

So I got in touch with Dave Morris, and he agreed to come on the show, and this is what happened.

(Click to listen to the show, on CKCU On Demand.)

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