“Exposition” in improv theatre is nothing more than the establishment of the Who, Where and – depending on who does the definition – the What. I had kind of an aha-erlebnis last week: most of the general improv articles here on this site focuses on exposition. In this post I will try and elaborate.
Exploration vs Invention
Randomly surfing around I stumbled upon an interesting little blog post by Jesterz Improv in which more or less the following point is made:
- At the start of a scene (or a performance) we do not know the characters or where the scene story takes place. We need to invent that. That is exposition.
- But once we have a basic understand of Who and Where, all we really need to do as improvisers, is explore that reality.
- “Invention” post-exposition, then, is adding (seemingly) random stuff on top of the exposition, stuff that does not come from exploration.
The original article lists 4 reasons why this invention might happen, and suggest you’d want to avoid such invention:
- Panic – You aren’t getting the laugh you thought you should be getting and so you invent a dinosaur dancing across the stage.
- The Joke – You think you are funny and you want to display your humor at the expense of the scene.
- Weak Exposition – You don’t know who, what or where you are in a scene, therefore you invent something because you have to start somewhere.
- Lack of Listening – You aren’t listening to what is going on in a scene, so you don’t even know what you are suppose to be exploring.
I really like this article. It made me realize that most of the general improv work I describe in this blog deals with strong exposition. Before we get into that, a quick comment on the 4 reasons above: in my mind reasons 1,2 and 4 really boil down to reason 2: weak exposition:
- Panic: If your exposition is strong there should be no reason for panic: a strongly expositioned scene is like a train on a track: the scene *will* run a logical course, and you will get your laughs – and tears, and plenty of other emotions. Unless your goal is “laughs” – which it should not be and that brings us to reason 2
- The Joke: Your goal should be to evoke emotion in the audience; laughter is merely a (perhaps welcome) side effect. Strong exposition should make the rest of the scene or performance effortless, implying your humor will come about effortless, or at least without the need for “random inventions”.
- Lack of Listening: I would argue that is your exposition is sufficiently strong, is should be next to impossible for other players not to get it. That is not to say that inattentive players might not have missed something, but if that happens it would be rather minor. Or phrased inversely: if a player manages to miss the exposition then it was probably not strong or clear enough.
I have argued before that I see too much improv in non-descript, settings. I call that Martha Stewart Improv: scenes about ordinary characters in ordinary settings. Establishing a clear Where away from the mundane here & now can make for more interesting improv. That is not to say that a scene in early 21st century North America cannot be a good scene: it certainly can be – but then the Characters (the Who) and/or the dynamics between those characters will need to be strong enough. Which brings us to The Who (not the band of course).
I have argued before that establishing clear characters, with clear wants, needs, opinions suffice for interesting stories to emerge effortlessly: I call that Character-Driven Narrative and that’s basically exploration. On to the meat of this article: the What.
I mentioned in the introduction that there seems to be no consensus as to whether The What is part of exposition. The article by JesterzImprov includes The What in exposition, but if you google around you’ll equally find folks arguing against The What. I believe it depends on what one considers to be The What.
If exposition reveals e.g. a nutty genius evil villain who has developed a Doomsday Machine to control the world, one might consider the Machine as a What. I have no problem with this being part of exposition. What I tend to dislike is exposition of narrative. Here an example I used in my post on Character-Driven Narrative:
A: “My King, here is your new sword. The elves forged it out of Synthenian steel and enchanted it with their blessings. With such a sword you must be looking forward to the upcoming battle.
B: Thank you my dear Snodrick, and yes I look forward to slaying Glurb, that foul-smelling orc monster. Be sure Elfenking Loïc hears of my gratitude; for victory in this battle will bring our people together once more.
The exposition in the above example covers (part of the upcoming) story, whereas I prefer stories to emerge from exploration of the exposition. Furthermore, I consider the example above as an example of overexposition. I absolutely love and encourage exposition with respect to Where & Who, but not with respect to (narrative) What.
There is a quote attributed to Mick Napier: “Exposure takes away from improvisation” (more on Napier later in this post). I agree with the quote to the extent that narrative has little place in exposition; I prefer narrative to emerge from exploration of the Where & Who. I do not mind exposure of Where & Who – quite to the contrary. But hot stuff tastes best in small doses. So even when it comes to Where & Who, overexposure is still possible: clumsy over-exposition is, erm, well, just plain clumsy. Consider this example:
Ah, here’s John, my dear, blonde, blue-eyed, 20-year-old son, with his limpy leg.
Apart from the awkwardness of hearing such explicit exposition, I would argue that in the above example, the information that is expositioned hardly helps: This merely establishes that John is the character’s son, 20 years old, and has a limp. But frankly that is rather empty information: it does not establish anything about the relationship dynamics between father & John, and neither about what drives Father or John.
Much as I like exposition of Where and Who, I would still argue that exposition is best kept minimal: you only need exposition to kickstart the scene. But that is a thin line to walk, and degustibus et coloribus non est disputandum.
Here is an example from a discussion on the Improv Reddit: Phil and Jane are sitting together. Phil wraps his arm around Jane’s neck.
P: I love that you still come over here to watch “walking dead” with me, every Sunday, even though we are divorced already. It makes me feel like you still care deep down.
J: I’m here because I don’t got cable dammit.
The first line is – to me – borderline overexposition. But in my book I would accept it: It clearly establishes who the characters are, where they are, and part of the dynamics: they are divorced man and wife. However: if that was all there was to it I would call it overexposure. What makes this example “special” is that if defines a weird aspect of the dynamics between the two: why on earth would ex-lovers watch a TV show together every Sunday? This implied question creates instant tension, and I love it.
I also love the reply, which at first sight seems like a negation of the offer, or a form of instant trouble. But that need not be the case: Jane’s reply makes me wonder whether she really means what she is saying – and that brings us to Antifactual Storytelling. Why, even if she does not have cable, would Jane choose to spend her evening with her ex, accepting his arms around her shoulders – surely she can find another friend with cable who she can watch the show with? So Jane’s reply – in my mind – adds to the instant tension, more than it creates instant conflict. (And I am not implying that Jane’s reply must be untruthful – just the fact that it might be makes it interesting to me).
But this is me, YMMV and I’m pretty sure that plenty of improv teachers would disagree and cringe at this exchange. Improv is not science.
Here’s another example from that same Reddit thread: gardener and single-woman.
S: Well, I guess I’m gonna have to pay you now for finishing my lawn.
G: No, No. You don’t actually have to pay me.
S: What’s the catch bro?
G: No catch. I’m actually a missionary from Spain. I heard that women in North America often need their lawns trimmed, so I left my country to volunteer and make sure that no woman’s lawn was ever too bushy.
S: Well, you don’t say. I’m gonna call and tell all my friends about it…
Again, the fourth line can be considered as overexposition. I happen to like it, for the same reason I liked the previous example: it creates instant tension. The missionary got his facts wrong (antifactual storytelling again!) – and he got them wrong in a pretty hilarious way. The poster of this example remarked further in the Reddit thread: “The scene went great, and other improvisers started asking how her lawn looked so amazing and if it was possible to hire a missionary from Spain for them etc.”.
And that is the point: this only “works” if the implied tension is subsequently explored and heightened. If not, the missionary exposition is merely a joke, and we risk a feeling of overexposition gettng the upper hand.
Mick Napier’s Position
In his (excellent!) book “Improvise: Scene from the Inside-Out” actually devotes a paragraph on “Too Much Exposition”, in the chapter titled “Common Problems”. In this paragraph he seems to argue that exposition at the top of a scene is not needed, really: “If it is absolutely important to you to have exposition at the top of an improv scene, dole it out gracefully, a little at a time […] it [the narrative] will be coming from a more powerful and organic place” (quoted edited for reasons you’ll get in the following paragraph).
I am going to guess (if you read this, mr. Napier, and my guess is wrong, please tell me!) this is more or less what I am advocating here: Napier seems to include “What” in the narrative sense of the word in his definition of exposition. If you take that away (like I would) then what is “coming from a more powerful and organic place” is pretty compatible with my preference for narrative to appear (organically) out of exploration. But my statement is “I really like strong exposition”.
I hinted that some readers will likely cringe at some of the examples that I happen to like (not just in this post but also in previous posts). It is true that many of those examples are very in-your-face. In real life (real stage situations, not written out in a blog) I like to use monologues to remedy the cringe-worthyness. That is the subject of next month’s blog post. In the mean time, any comments are welcome!