Cloud Atlas – a Long Form Improv Format

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Introduction

Here is a fun long form improv format I developed in 2013.  It’s based upon the book “Cloud Atlas”  by David Mitchell.   The book has a very peculiar structure, upon which this format is based.  I’ll describe the basic format first, and then provide some variations.  This post ends with a BIG SPOILER: I’ll explain the structure of the original book, upon which the format is based.  Skip that if you plan to read the book.  (You should, it’s excellent!)

Basic Format

Here is how the format works: it is a long form show with an intermission. Before the break, a number of stories (6 stories in the original book, but any number above 2 will work) are half told; these stories take place in history, time running forward, and each story is played in a particular, different style. (makes the format steer away from Martha Stewart improv)After the break, the stories are finished, one after the other, but in inverse order. By the end of the show, the stories should have connections between them.

An example to clarify. Ask 4 suggestions of historical periods & locations, in historical order. The (near & far) future are allowed. Suppose we get:

  • French revolution (late 18th century)
  • First world war Britain,
  • Today (2013-ish) USA
  • 2030 China.

This will lead to 4 story lines, and 8 parts, 4 before the break and 4 after. Each story line is played as a Straight Story . For example:

  • Story 1/part 1: Dramatic story in France during revolution
  • Story 2/part 1: Love story during WW1
  • Story 3/part 1: Thriller in USA, current time
  • Story 4/part 1: Musical in post-communist China
  • Break
  • Second half of story 4
  • Second part of story 3
  • Second half of story 2
  • Second part of story 1

There should be a link from story 1 to story 2, one from story 2 to story 3 and one from story 3 to story 4. All the links should be different in kind and not be purely thematic, e.g.

  • a book written by a character in story 1 may be important in story 2;
  • an invention done in story 2 may be linked to a character’s profession in story 3
  • and so forth.

If one link is a character the other links should not be characters. Ideally, not all links are established before the break.

The links may be very important, or rather irrelevant (see the last section of this post on how this was done in Mitchell’s book).  But some links should be important and others less so – variation is the spice of life.

Variations

I often state I am not a big fan of rigid structures, so by all means muck about with the above format outline.  Here’s some options:

  • Of course you can do this without an intermission
  • Feel free to take more or less story lines
  • You might not only ask for the period/location for each story line; you can also ask the audience for the style.  Or only ask for the style and let the players establish the where/when
  • If “finishing the stories backwards” is too much improv acrobatics for you, by all means don’t.  In it’s naked form the format is simply “connected stories’.

Spoiler Alert – Original Cloud Atlas Plot Lines

The 2004 book by David Mitchell was a hit.  It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, and Arthur C. Clarke Award, among others.   Wikipedia has a nice and long page about it.  The summary below is largely based on the Wikipedia article, but the Wikipedia page contains far more detail.

So if you have nor read the book (or seen the movie), here are the locations/styles and connections between the story lines.  Don’t proceed if you plan to read the book.

Still here?

OK, you asked for it.

Story Line 1:  The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

The first story line plays in the Chatham Islands in 1850 during the Californian Gold Rush.  Adam Ewing, a  American notary from San Francisco, awaits repairs to his ship.  The format is Ewing’s journal, written in eloquent 19th Century English.  Ewing rescues and becomes friends with a Moriori slave who he saw being flogged by a Maori overseer.  The slave rescues his life at several occasions during the trip.

Story Line 2: Letters from Zedelghem

The second story line is set in Zedelghem, near Bruges, Belgium, in 1931. It is told in the form of letters from a Robert Frobisher to his lover, after Frobisher journeys to Zedelghem to become an servant to a reclusive once-great composer names Ayrs.  Frobisher secretly sells rare books from Ayrs’ collection to a fence, including half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

Story Line 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The third story line is a mystery/thriller novel, set in  California in 1975.  Luisa Rey is a young journalist, investigating an unsafe nuclear power plant.   She acquires some of Frobisher’s letters in the hotel room of one of her informants who got killed as he tried to provide Luisa evidence of the troubles with the power plant.  Near the end we also learn that Frobisher actually published his letters in an obscure book titled “Cloud Atlas Sextet”.

Story Line 4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

The fourth story line is like a comic gangster movie and is set in Britain in the present day, wherein Cavendish,  65-year-old publisher tries to escape the brothers of his gangster client, whose book is experiencing high sales after the murder of a book critic. As a publisher, the protagonist has read a manuscript titled “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” but was not all that impressed with it.

Story Line 5:  An Orison of Sonmi~451

The fifth story line is set in a dystopian futuristic state in Korea, derived from corporate culture. It is told in the form of an interview between Sonmi~451 and an “archivist” recording her story after her arrest and trial.  Sonmi is not strictly human, but one of a mass produced army of clones.  She is taken by revolutionaries who want the clones to become self-aware, or “ascended”.  Sonmi describes watching The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a film made before “The Skirmishes” – some major global disaster or war that destroyed most of the world except East Asia.

Story Line 6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

This story takes place in a post-apocalyptic society on Hawai’s Big Island.   The protagonist’s folk worship a goddess called Sonmi, and the story features an ‘Orison’ through which Sonmi’s story in Line 5 is revealed.   There is a second link as The Skirmishes in Line 5 preshadow the (even larger) apocalyptic event that happened prior to Line 6.

The tone of this one is a story, verbally told by the protagonist, in a fictitious English “slang of the future”.

Structure

As in the format I outlined, the 5 first story lines are narrated until half way.  Line 6 is told completely, and then story lines 5 to 1 are completed.

I mentioned earlier that the importance of the links between stories varies.  The Sonmi link between 5 and 6 is very important, but the Timothy Cavendish link between 4 and 5 is much less important.

So there you have it: Could Atlas.  If you perform this format, please share your experiences in the comments below!

Update August 24, 2017

I just heard that Vance Willis @ Montreal Improv ran a 7 week workshop series on the format, starting July 3, 2017.  That is so cool!

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