Deus Ex Machina – a Long Form Improv Format

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Introduction

In this post I present an idea for a long form format. It’s an idea which I developed in 2011, but I never had an opportunity to actually perform or produce it. Just like my format Cloud Atlas, it is based upon a book, or rather a play called “God”, by Woody Allen, published in his 1975 book “Without Feathers”. Copies of Without Feathers can still be found, and the script of the play seems to be available on-line (not sure whether it’s legal but here is the link.)

I’ll discuss the original first, and then how I see this as an inspiration for an improvised play. Spoiler alert: I’ll need to discuss the plot of the play so you may want to read the script first.

The Play

I got to know the play when I started university. I attended my first 2 years @KULAK in Kortrijk, which is a small subsidiary of the big university of Leuven, where I finished my degree later. At the time, there were only about 1000 students @KULAK. I was surprised that nobody actually did drama at the campus, so in my second year, in 1985, I decided to mount a play. I found enough (potential) actors and 2 external directors, who suggested we did “God” by Woody Allen. I loved the text, said OK, and – bummer – I was subsequently judged unfit for any of the roles. I ended up producing the performance, which premiered on March 3, 1986.

Hereunder a picture of the poster we had made – I still have it framed in my study but it is 30 years old and a bit wrinkled and faded.

GOD_poster

Plot Summary

The play consists of 2 acts; the second act is a play within a play. The whole thing takes place in a Greek amphitheater, around 500 BC, and it’s that time of the year when the annual Theater Festival is about to take place. Most characters are named after diseases and the protagonist is called Hepatitis: a playwright struggling with writer’s block: he cannot find a decent ending to his submission for the festival. The characters often break the 4th wall and it turns out there are actors (playing characters, not themselves) in the audience, one character being a girl named Doris, and another one being Blanche Dubois out of Tennesee Wiliams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

Suddenly, a character called Trichinosis bursts onto the stage, claiming to have invented a machine to beat writer’s block: the machine creates thunder and lightning effects and lowers an actor from the roof – in a harness – in order to play God descending from the heavens to intervene at the conclusion of the play.

Doris points out that this is really a Deus Ex Machina and the characters end up discussing whether there is a God, and if so, whether we (the characters on stage, but also the audience) are nothing more than characters in His play. And if so, whether we have free will to make our own decisions – or is free will an illusion? Anyhow, Hepatitis decides to purchase and use the machine, and in the second act we see his play, his submission to the Athens Theatre Festival, in which Doris is the one of the main actors.

The story is about Doris’ boy friend, a slave who needs to deliver a message to a King.  He may or may not be rewarded for this by freedom. Worried that the King might kill him if the news is bad, he decides to read the message, which simply says “Yes”. Which sounds positive, but what if the question is whether the Queen has the clap? Still worried, the slave learns from the King that the question was: Is there a God? The affirmative answer enrages the King because it implies the King is not omnipotent, will go to hell for his sins, and even the King is a character playing the part that God wrote for him. This is unacceptable. At this point the Deus Ex Machina is unleashed, but it fails and crashes an in doing so it accidentally kills the actor playing God. Now God is dead, there is no more script to follow, and the slave takes matters into his own hands. Free from a script, he kills the King and frees himself.

The play ends more or less how it started, suggesting an endless loop.

Important for what follows: in the second act there is a Greek chorus, that comments on the proceedings, like an Greek Oracle.

Our Production

In 1986 we did a Dutch translation of the play which followed the original quite closely.

For the Deus Ex Machina, we had mounted scaffolding, dressed God up with bat-like wings and bomber jacket, leather cap and glasses, like a WW 1 pilot, and roller blades. We had him winched down from the scaffolding, strobe lights flashing, smoke machines and a thunderous sound track. That happened twice: once in the first act, when the machine was introduced, and once again in the second act, when God dies.

The king in the second act was played by a girl, which gave it – in my eyes – an Ionesco-like absurdity.   She spoke with a frontal lisp (the character, not the actor) and it took quite some rehearsing to make that realistic, and not gimmicky.  She was only allowed to slightly overdo it at the end, when she had to say “Sssterf, gij ssslaaf” which translates to “Die, you ssslave” – in Dutch the 2 s’s  alliterated really well.  Her frontal lisp was so subtle that most of the audience only realized it was there at the very end, and that was hilarious.

The performance was a blast.  The Dean of the university – I believe he was clergy and taught ancient philosophy – seemed a bit shocked at the end and only managed to mumble that he liked the chorus.  Students & faculty absolutely loved it.

Inspiration for a Long Form Format

Here is how I envision a long form improv format based on the original play.   I do not believe in strict rules or structure, so feel free to modify some of the elements:

  • The format is a Greek play.  The story need not happen in ancient Greece though.
  • Actors wear white robes, or lightly colored tunics.
  • Characters are named after diseases.  Think Influenza, Meningitis, you get the idea.
  • The Latin disease names can inspire character traits.  A character named Tinnitus might be total blabbermouth.
  • There is a chorus on stage, dressed in white robes, and wearing white masks.  Those could be anonymous-type masks (Guy Fawkes masks) or simple white Venetian-style masks with a big nose, leaving the mouth unexposed.
  • The chorus can be a big group – preferable at least 4.  They speak out of one mouth.  I.e. the chorus behaves as 1 character, and all actors that make up the chorus speak simultaneously.  I guess most improvisers are familiar with this handle.
  • There is scaffolding, a winch, an actor playing god, with wings, bomber jacket, leather cap and glasses.  On rollerblades.  Smoke machine, strobe lights and thunder sounds effects are also available.  You don’t need a mechanical winch; a secure cable and 2 or 3 handlers to lower the God character are sufficient.  That is how we did it back in 1986.
  • Story structure is probably a straight story, i.e. one story line, told chronologically (no time jumps).
  • Feel free to use some of the elements of the original: plant actors in the audience, break the 4th wall, use anachronisms etc.  Certainly use the chorus: any character may ask advice, which the Chorus dispenses out of one mouth.  It will probably be weird/funny/absurd – just like a real Greek Oracle‘s advice.  The chorus should be considered wise and insightful.  Even if it does not make much sense.
  • The only thing set in stone is that the show ends with a hung situation.  When that happens a character – either protagonist or main antagonist – calls for a Deus Ex Machina.  Upon which we have thunder, lightning, smoke and God descending.  Whether He dies or not, and/or how/whether He manages to unhang the hung situation, is up to the improvisers.  But the God’s appearance does signal the end of the performance.

Variations

Just about anything is open to variation, except for the Deus Ex Machina and the chorus.

Use of winch is optional; you can use a big door or even a curtain.  Use smoke, thunder and lightning if you have the technical means.  Costume suggestions like tunics and masks are optional; white blankets will do for the chorus outfits.  Feel free to use a different narrative format – although you preferably want a rather narrative format, rather than a pattern-based one.

You may or may not use the concept of free will, of the existence of God as themes.

In terms of suggestions, anything goes.  Personally I am thinking of “a moral dilemma” as a great ask-for.  Personally I would steer away from overly dark stuff.  E.g. I would prefer a suggestion like “Is it OK to steal if you are hungry?” over “If you need to choose between life of a mother or that of her unborn baby, which choice is right?”.  But that’s just my personal preference.

Just Do It!

I have never been able to produce this format, but I would love to.  Some day, I am sure. I think this would be a super format for a festival – you can have a huge group of performers as part of the chorus – number of chorus members is unlimited really.  You probably need at least 3 main actors and a max of 6-8.

If you ever get to perform this format, let me know your experiences in the comments below.  If you want me to come out to your festival and help you produce it, you know how to find me!

Update July 25, 2017

A french speaking friend just informed me that there exists a french format by the same name.  I took a look at it but that format is totally unrelated.  If you don’t speak french,  google translate can give you a hand deciphering the above link, but what it boils down to is that in the french format “God” is basically a mix of a  master of ceremony and a director.  Interesting – but different!

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