Postmodern Musical Improv Format



This post covers a musical (long form) improv format that I call a “Postmodern Musical”. Before we dive into the format, let me explain why I call it “postmodern”.

Postmodernism  is a pretty broad term, and as argued here @   it is by nature “difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist”.  None of that is relevant to this blog, except for one aspect of postmodernism: the tendency of mixing styles.  Another term for “mixing styles” is “eclecticism” (and postmodernism is often mentioned along with the term neo-eclecticism – but we are diverging) – so if you prefer you might call the format here an “eclectic musical”.

Anyhow, enough of all that, let’s talk musical improv format: it’s called “postmodern” because it mixes musical styles.

The Format

The format is very simple but you’ll need versatile musicians to pull it off:

  • Ask the audience for +/- 10 musical styles
  • Perform a long-form and work all these styles in

Since I do not particularly like strict rules & structures, there’s nothing more to it and anything goes.  Here is how I typically perform it, and some alternatives.

I usually memorize the suggestions – we do not write them down. But you can, of course. We do not censor the suggestions – so if we get e.g; “Japanese Noise” we accept it.  Since I memorize the suggestions I have the option of “censoring by forgetting” – though I have never consciously done this. It has happened that I forgot one of the suggestions, and it has also happened that we had more suggestions than needed.

From a narrative point of view we usually play a Straight Story: one story line, played linearly (no time jumps).  We typically ask for a title to inspire us. But nothing to stop you from using different formats.    But you might do a musical Deconstruction, musical Armando, whatever – all will work.

Update June 2017:  Another example would be doing a Musical Harold this way – you’ll need 11 song styles if you do a Musical Harold my way.

In terms of the songs, I usually combine it with Sounds Like a Song: we give the audience flowers of cuddly animals, and at any point in time, if and when they feel it is time for song, they throw flower/cuddly animal and yell “sounds like a song”.  The song is then based on whatever was happening when the flower/toy hits the stage; the lead singer will be the actor who was talking when the flower/animal was thrown – or that last actor to talk before the flower/animal hit.

But you can approach things differently.  One option is to have the musician lead in a song; i.e. start of the music indicates time to start singing.  Be careful here that the players do not mistake underscoring for cue to start singing!

Another option is to let the players decide when to sing. Some warnings and options here.  First off, in my experience it is very hard for a singer to start singing in a particular style: many styles are defined by the music, not by the melody line of the lyrics.  For that reason I prefer the musician to start and establish the style.

Secondly, if the musician is to lead in the song by establishing the style, you’ll need to agree (and rehearse!) a cue from the player so the musician(s) know the player wants to start a song.  One possibility is for the player to base herself on a phrase that is emotionally strong and sounds catchy. That will then be the title of the song, or the tagline. A player can simply cue the music by repeating this line 2 or 3 times.  I have a video where a player does this (be it that this video was not from a performance of a Postmodern Musical).


There is one major drawback to this format (be it that this is subject to the eye of the beholder): if you have to work in 10 song styles, you will inevitably get styles that do not particularly fit the mood of the scene. On the other hand this can be very funny.

Along the same gist: you might get huge anachronisms: suppose your story is set in medieval france, blues, hard rock, hip hop, house or trance styles may come across as weird. Again, this may turn out hilariously funny.

Frankly, I have never heard an audience complain about this drawback. YMMV of course.

How it came about

We developed the format sometime in 2014.  It came about almost by accident during a performance where I MD-ed for Quicksilver Productions. Since then I have done about 2 dozen of them, several of which with Swiep. To date I have not done this format in English, so no video (yet), sorry.  I do have pictures below.


A Postmodern Musical with Swiep, 2014 (Leuven, Belgium)
A Postmodern Musical with Quicksilver Productions, 2016 (Antwerp)

If you get to play this format, please let me know. I’d love to hear about your experience. And I am particularly interested to hear which format you combine it with (other than the Straight Story that I have used so far).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.