Martha Stewart Improv

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Introduction

I have warned the readers of this blog that I’m a pretty opinionated guy when it comes to improv. Here’s a topic I feel strongly about.

In workshops  with established groups (that is, not with absolute beginners), I’ll often ask the participants to name the stories, books, plays, movies & TV-shows they like best. Typical answers are things like the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino movies, thrillers like Silence of the Lambs or Seven, series like Orange is the New Black, Californication, Bruce Willis action movies like the Die Hard series, Titanic , or books/stories in the styles above, or other thinks like perhaps A Hundred Years of Solitude. Others might mention Shakespeare as the greatest writer of stories.

Then I would ask players to do some solo initiations of scenes: I ask them to start a scene solo (i.e. a monologue) but other players may join if they wish. I do not explain why, and as soon as they have established who they are and where they are, and perhaps the relationship between protagonist and antagonist, I interrupt the work. I always encourage the group to reward them with an applause.

In most cases, I end up asking the group why they do not play the kind of stories they actually like. Without a fail, most of what they set up is ordinary, 21st century situations, with ordinary 21st century characters. I call this Martha Stewart Improv, and I strongly dislike the fact that I see too much of it. Here’s my thinking behind this. Feel free to disagree.

Definition

Martha Stewart Improv is improv about perfectly ordinary, proper characters, in perfectly normal proper here-and-now situations. By normal I mean “might take place in the early 21st Century, in a Western cultural setting”. And by “Western” I refer to most of Europe, US, Canada, Australia & New Zealand.

Mainstream “Hit” Stories are not Martha Stewart

Going over the kinds of stories my students prefer, I always note that all these story setups have one thing in common: they are not about ordinary 21st century folks, in ordinary 21st century situations.

Think about it:

  • The (currently) most watched TV show takes place in a medieval-like fantasy world, with dragons and strange creatures (White Walkers & Dragons in Game of Thrones).
  • In Orange is the New Black a fairly ordinary girl is set to prison: a not so ordinary situation for her. As it turns out later she happens to have lead a not-so-ordinary life; she was involved in drug trafficking.
  • Californication is about a once-successful writer with a substance abuse problem, and an addiction to sex.
  • Titanic is about 2 rather ordinary characters who get caught in an extraordinary maritime disaster ever. And it’s not set in early 21st century here & now.
  • Some of the most watched/loved movies and movie franchises take place in a high-tech future (Star Trek, Star Wars).
  • Cult movies like Tarantino’s feature characters that murder, deal drugs, or are otherwise involved in crime & violence. Ditto for action movies like the Die Hard franchise.
  • Forget about the story backdrop in Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Star Wars , Lord of the Ring and you name it, the stories themselves are about high-powered characters involved in struggles for power, or struggles between Good or Bad, and stakes are always high: the future of whole kingdoms and galaxies are on the line. Ordinary folks may end up as antagonist or protagonist  in these stories, but when they are, they face out of the ordinary challenges. Think Samwell in Game of Thrones or Frodo Baggins in LOTR.
  • We see lots of characters – both protagonists and antagonists – that intrigue, lie, cheat, lie, fornicate, kill, connive and whatnot in order to achieve their dreams, aspirations, ambitions.
  • If we shift our gaze to back to the West’s archetypical story writer, William Shakespeare, we see the same: quite often the characters are high risers: Kings/Princes/Queens involved in situation where they kill,lie, steal, connive, charm, you name it. We might encounter a more ordinary protagonist, like Antonio in the Merchant of Venice, but the situation he finds himself is out of the ordinary: if he cannot pay back his loan to Shylock he has to repay with a pound of his own flesh. Furthermore, to Shakespeare’s British audience, Venice was apretty exotic and far-from-16th-century-England (his here & now) location.
  • I mentioned 100 Years of Solitude: we see a plethora of – at first sight – ordinary characters, but set in a world drenched in magic realism. Protagonists seem to live forever, you get an incestual marriage resulting in kids with pig tails (real curly ones, not the hair due), and a character – Mauricio – who is always followed by a swarm of butterflies. Bonus points because the story is set in Columbia, at the turn of the 19th century, away from the here & now.

None of the above can be classified as stories about ordinary folks in an ordinary here-and-now situation. That is not to say that there are no examples of great stories of ordinary folks in ordinary 21st century Western situations – we will address some of these at the end of this post – but truth be told, the majority of stories we love, are not about ordinary 21st century western people in ordinary situations.

The above are random titles that student’s of my workshops have offered. For a more “scientific view” I suggest you take a look at e.g. the American Film Institute (AFI) list of 100 best movies ever and count how many are about ordinary folks in ordinary settings.

Humans read books, go to theatre and watch movies or television to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Emma in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – written way back in 1856! – is a great and tragic example of this:

This character has a highly romanticized view of the world and craves beauty, wealth, passion, as well as high society. It is the disparity between these romantic ideals and the realities of her country life that drive most of the novel, leading her into two affairs and to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt that eventually leads to her suicide.

(Quote above from the Wikipedia page about Madame Bovary)

Emma has gotten these ideals in her head from reading cheap novels. Escapism at its best. Ironically Flaubert was prosecuted for obscenity after publication of the novel – the ensuing scandal & the trial made the story a hit and the author famous. Emma was – in 1856 – a very un-ordinary and hence by that era’s standard a pretty scandalous – i.e. not ordinarly – character.

So why do we (or at least I) see so much Martha Stewart improv? We are improvisers; we can make up any reality we want. We are not limited by a script or by props, we are only limited by our own imagination. Why make Martha Stewart choices, if we can just as easily make more exciting choices? And why am I personally not very fond of Martha Stewart choices?

Example: The Ugly Rug

Several years ago we played a show with my ensemble RIOT, for which the suggestion (i.e. the title of the performance) was “The Ugly Rug”. This show was a 1 ½ hour long form without intermission. The first scene was about a guy complaining that he lost his favorite leather jacket in a bar named the ugly rug. It made me cringe; there were so many things I disliked about that choice:

  • We (other players and audience) had no idea who the character was, what the character was all about (what he found important or unimportant, what his drive and/or ambitions were etc). We knew nothing about the character, except that he lost his leather jacket.
  • Instant trouble: before we get to know anything about who we are and where we are, we start with a problem. IMHO it is far better to set up a foundation: insight into the character, her drive, and the world in which she functions. If we create trouble then at least we will understand why this particular kind of trouble is important to the character. In the Ugly Rug case, a character stating the her jacket is important does not make it so in the mind of the audience (and neither in the mind of the other players).
  • If the title of the performance is “The Ugly Rug” then the ugly rug better be important. There is nothing wrong with “The Ugly Rug” being a bar (I actually liked that idea – it’s a funny name for a bar). How can it be important if we know nothing about the bar? If we know nothing about it, the audience will instinctively know or decide it is “ordinary”. It does not become a 19th century opium den unless you (the player) makes that explicit. It does not become a Wild West Honky-Tonk unless you make that explicit. It does not become a Speakeasy in Chicago during Prohibition unless you make that explicit.

The show itself was OK, as a group we managed to work something out. But in the end the title did not really match the performance. Not that the audience might have cared – as long as we are able to somehow touch the audience, be it with laughter, surprise, awe, fear, sadness or whatever, we improvisers get away with it, and we did, but as artistic director I was not happy.

This was a missed opportunity, and we made our lives harder than we needed to. Good improv is hard enough; choices like these is like shooting ourselves in the foot. This is why I am not fond of Martha Stewart choices: it makes things harder than they need be.

Why?

I can think of several reasons why groups revert to Martha Stewart Improv. These are listed in the following sections.

Lack of bold choices

A possible reason might be lack of bold choices. Some examples:

  • Suggestion is father-son relationship. Why not a father-son relationship in feudal Japan? (that would take us away from the here-and-now). Why not a dysfunctional relationship, e.g. between a son in prison, father a preacher?
  • Suggestion of a library. Why not in the Great Library of Alexandria? (away from the here and now) Or the library of a satanic cult? (away from the ordinary)
  • For other examples see e.g.  the opium den/honky tonk/speakeasy examples in the section above about the Ugly Rug.

If the players do not make a bold choice about who/what/where we are, the audience (and also the players) unconsciously decide, and that decision is by default “ordinary, here & now”.

Lack of training/rehearsal

I personally believe “making bold choices” is a muscle that needs training. I have a great workshop for that!

Lack of Permission

Strange as it may sound, I get the impression that players sometimes seem to need explicit permission that it is OK to deviate from Martha Stewart situations.

Some players I have workshopped with object that making such bold choices is a way of steamrolling and blocking other players’ ideas or inspiration. Others object that making bold choices is not improvisation and insist that such “choices” should not be made in one’s head, but should appear organically. I have the following replies to these objections:

  • Anything that has not been said or evoked in some way by other players, can hardly be blocked.  If you consider making a bold choice steamrolling, then you might just as well accuse a player who says “dad” to another player during an initiation, of steamrolling.  That would be absurd in my eyes.
  • I am by no means advocating one should step on stage with a preconceived idea of “No matter what the suggestion, I am going to do a setting in feudal Japan”. But if no-one is ever going to “decide” the scene is in feudal Japan, it will stay in undecided territory which will be perceived by the audience as “somewhere around here, around now”.
  • If players are going to always wait for another player to make a bold choice about who/what/where, nobody ever might decide.  All the time you spend on stage, being clueless about who/what/where we are, is basically lost time. My preference is to get that over with, so you can start improvising the scenes and the story.

Mick Napier preaches the concept of “taking care of yourself first” in his book “Improvise – Scene From the Inside Out”, and this concept is similar to what I’m advocating above. Players need to be given permission to “take care of themselves first” – and by doing that they are doing their fellow players and the audience a favor.

Lack/Fear of Patience

Let us return to the Ugly Rug example. We are playing a 1 ½ hour performance here. We have all the time in the world to establish the setting and the characters. Why create instant trouble rather than take the time to establish where we are, who we are and what matters to our characters?

I believe this has to do with fear: players being worried they will not know what to say or what to play. They freak out, panic … and create instant trouble. There is no need for this – certainly not in a long form setting like the one for The Ugly Rug.

The basics behind this idea are not mine: this basically goes back to Keith Johnstone’s writings in the 1970. Keith extensively covers fear in his book “Impro for Storytellers”.

Lack of background

This is a dangerous one, but I’ll state it anyway. It is hard for a player to play a setting in feudal Japan if she has no idea what feudal Japan was all about. I strongly believe that it is important for improvisers to have as wide a cultural baggage as possible.

Objections

I referred to a couple of objections I frequently hear in the subsection about permission. But there’s another one which goes like this: “Great idea, Tom, but basically then every scene is going to be either in the middle ages, feudal Japan etc – we will quickly run out of choices and we’ll always do the same”.

I have two answers to this. Firstly if you make that statement you underestimate your own imagination. There are almost infinite possibilities in settings away from the here & now.

Secondly, I am not claiming that a bold choice should be location and/or era specific. It can equally be character-specific. You play a scene in a library, early 21st century, in a Western setting. Examples of bold character-specific choices might be:

  • You are a spy, a drug dealer, a terrorist, human trafficker, murderer, money launderer
  • You are a book thief
  • You are looking for love. And you must find it in a library (you’ll figure out later why that is so – or not)
  • You cannot get a job. Any job. Ever.
  • You are angry at the world
  • You need a kidney
  • You fall in love with any guy/girl kind/crazy enough to sleep with you
  • You are a book fetishist

I just spat these out while typing. I can think of 100s more, I do not even have to think about thinking about this. I do not have to preconceive these (and neither do you) – Anything – a cough by an audience member – can inspire me (and you): “I have ebola”. There are no good or bad choices – except for not making any choice. Being “just a girl in a library” is not a choice in my book.

Antithesis: Genre-based Improv

I stated that I see too much Martha Stewart improv (and I stand by that statement). But there are exceptions. The main exception is genre-based improv. Some examples of excellent performances I have had the pleasure to see:

  • The Maydays (UK) perform a Tim Burton style long-form
  • The National Theatre of the World (Canada) perform both Woody Allen-style and Tjechov style shows
  • Dramatiska (Sweden) perform in the style of Roy Anderson
  • Rauwe Vitrage (Holland) perform in the style of Alex Warmerdam
  • I had the honor of performing in a Tarantino-style show at an international festival

Genre based improv automatically steers away from the ordinary, because it will play with the idiosyncrasies of the genre itself. When you play Tarantino style you will probably end up with crime & violence. The groups that perform genre-based improv, work at it. It takes study and rehearsal. They have studied and acquired the intellectual/cultural baggage of the genre. This feeds back to my comment about lack of rehearsal and lack of background: groups that play genre-based, they work & study to remedy such lack.

There are other examples:

  • A format played fairly often – at least in my neck of the woods – is Super Scene or Director’s Cut. In this format typically 3-5 different story lines, each in a clear genre, are played. Director’s cut does not require as much rehearsal as a full blown long form genre performance.  And typically the genres that are chosen are widely known to the players, i.e. not as exotic/obscure as the Roy Anderson example above.
  • My own group RIOT, for which I do both artistic direction and musical direction, also explicitly steers away from Martha Stewart Improv, be it that we do not do genre-based improv. But again, we actively rehearse Making Bold Choices to get away from the mundane here & now.

Bottom Line

We do ourselves, our fellow players and above all our audience a disservice by sticking to Martha Stewart improv. Cultivating the reflex to steer away from Martha Stewart improv takes effort & rehearsal.

If your group finds itself stuck in too many Martha Stewart setups, hire me. I have a great workshop material to remedy this!

Bootnote

I like to provoke, so I may have phrased things a bit more black and white than the way things are in my mind, just to get the point across.

I am not arguing here that there is anything wrong with an improv setup (be it short form or long form) about ordinary folks in ordinary situations. What bothers me is that I see too many players and groups only performing ordinary setups.

Some non-improv examples of – at first sight – “ordinary folks in ordinary situations” that do seem to work:

  • The comedy series Seinfeld notoriously was a show about nothing. These are fairly “ordinary” people, living in late 20th century New York, and the story lines were about ‘ordinary’ things. But, IMHO in the Seinfeld case, the quirkiness of the characters accounts for the attraction of the show. The fact that there characters get worked up about nothing is a pretty interesting, strong choice, IMHO.
  • The comedy series Friends is really about fairly normal people living in late 20th century New York. There are a few quirks (Phoebe can hardly be considered as an average young woman; Joey is more than average stupid) but by and large it is an example of a successful series about normal folks in a normal setting.
  • That Seventies Show (or even Happy Days, years ago) are also great examples.
  • Most romantic comedy is fairly normal. The first Bridget Jones is about a normal girl that just wants to find love. (The second one is less ordinary – Bridget gets thrown in a Thai jail!). Sex and the City is fairly ordinary. But not all RomCom is like that: Miss Congeniality is about an FBI agent!
  • The 1970 movie “Love Story” is a great example of a romantic movie about ordinary folks with an ordinary life, who simply love each other. And then one dies. As happens every day, all over the world. It was a box office hit but reviews were rather mixed. I personally liked it because “the pain felt real”. YMMV.

I spent about 2 hours writing this post, during which I could think of literally hundreds of stories that are distinctly not Martha Stewart; way too many to mention here. But I could only think of these 5 examples of successful Martha Stories. I am sure I can think of several more, but I am also sure that the ratio of successful MS vs. successful non-MS stories is fairly low. See my earlier comment about the AFI list of 100 best movies ever. Perhaps a topic for academic research?

I love to hear your opinions in the Comments section!

August 2016: PS

A format that automatically steers away from Martha Stewart improv would be my Cloud Atlas Long Form Improv Format!

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