In a previous post ( Protagonists & Antagonists – Part I ) I outlined the use in impro of storytelling concepts like protagonists, antagonist and sidekicks, from a theoretical point of view. In this post I explain how I use these in an improv workshop setting. In workshopping I tend to let the players discover the theory as they play. We usually start by means of monologues. Since I do not like Martha Stewart improv I typically ask the players to steer away from ordinary characters in ordinary here & now situations. Hereunder I’ll present the outline of a typical workshop on this topic; the examples provided are actual scenes and discussions we’ve had in real workshops, but the names of the players are fictitious: John, George, Ella, Bert & Joanne.
Example: The Ducks
George starts a scene, playing a duck, fishing for food at the edge of a pond. All other players jump in, play ducks, fish for food, babble about how great it is to be a duck and how tasty the food found in the pond is. The scene goes on for about 2 minutes and I interrupt.
I ask the group which character the scene is about:
- Ella: It’s about George’s character.
- Me: Why? I cannot see any reason why George’s duck might be more important than any of the others.
- John: Well, because the ducks were George’s idea.
- Me: OK, so George-Duck is going to be the main character: the protagonist. But mind you, frankly, based on what the audience has seen so far, the protagonist might be – or become – any other duck. So what is the relationship between George-Duck and the other ducks?
- Joanne: They’re all pretty similar. So far we don’t really know how George-Duck might be different from the others.
- Me: Right. Basically, what we have so far is that George initiated ducks, and all other players joined in the being-a-duck activities. Let’s call all these other duck-characters “joiners” – because they just joined George-Duck. But we all agree that nothing has really happened yet in the scene, apart from the establishment of a bunch of ducks and a pond, right? (the group agrees)
- Me: so now the audience needs to see something happen. Let’s try.
The scene continues, and Joanne-Duck starts complaining to George-Duck that he eats all the food in the pond and never shares. George-Duck disagrees and tells Joanne-Duck that she’s just lazy and expects him to feed her. I interrupt, and ask again: so what is the scene about?
- John: The scene is about George-Duck and Joanne-Duck.
- Ella: Yes, and George is antagonizing Joanne, so Joanne is the protagonist and George is the antagonist.
- George: No, my character is the main character, Joanne is antagonising me.
- Me: look at it this way: the protagonist is the main character, the good guy. An antagonist need not “antagonize”; the antagonist merely has opposing goals to the protagonist’s ones. Usually the antagonist is going to be the bad guy. Or girl.
- Joanne: Well really we don’t know who’s “good” or “bad” in this scene, right?
- Me: Exactly. We have no idea – yet – who is going to be the protagonist. What you’ve done instead is you have created instant conflict, but we don’t know why this might be important to the characters.
- John: I can imagine that the matter of food is pretty important to a duck. So they might fight over it.
- Me: True. But think about it from an audience point of view: is the subject of food – given what we know about these ducks so far – the most compelling choice you can make to pique the audience interest in what is going to follow?
- Ella: That’s perhaps a bit too petty a subject. But there might be a duck hunter?
- John: Yeah, but who’s going to play that? We’re all ducks, remember?
- Me: You are not limited to playing one character. This is improv: anything goes. Let’s try it, and let’s drop the bickering about food and start again with a happy bunch of ducks in a pond.
George sneaks out of the group of talking ducks, enters the scene from the side and starts shooting ducks. I interrupt.
- Joanne: Now we have an antagonist. It’s the hunter against the ducks.
- Me: Indeed. But you have a couple of issues now. First off: you have created instant trouble, but we do not know why. The other one is: what happens next? You’ll have to be careful or your scene is over with one living hunter and a bunch of dead ducks. Is that what the audience wants to see? And action movie in which … just ducks get killed?
- George: You could have an epic struggle of ducks against an evil hunter. That’s the premise of lots of action movies. Think the Joker in Batman The Dark Knight.
- Me: Great idea, and an excellent example. The Joker is a great example of an antagonist. But in The Dark Knight the Joker does not just pop up in the middle of Gotham and kill everyone, right?
- Joanne: Yeah, right, in the end the Joker loses before inflicting too much damage!
- Me: Indeed. And secondly, in the Dark Knight, who is the protagonist? (they look puzzled)
- Ella: Batman of course! Why do you ask?
- Me: Well, let’s compare The Dark Knight to your scene so far. You’ve got great parallels: In TDN the society of Gotham is threatened by an evil character the Joker. In our scene we’ve got the society of ducks being threatened by an evil Hunter. In TDN you have a hero: Batman. In our duck story we have …
- George: My character. He is the protagonist, so he’ll be the hero.
- Me: Perhaps in your mind.
- Ella: Yeah George, why would the hero not be a female duck? You are thinking in gender stereotypes.
- Joanne: Me too I would love to play the hero duck!
- Me: You see, it’s not clear to you guys who will be the hero. So it will certainly be unclear in the minds of the audience. Compare that to TDN.
- John: I see where this is going: in TDN everybody knows, even before the movie starts, that Batman is going to be the hero. And everyone knows that The Joker is going to be the bad guy, even before he’s committed any evil.
- George: Yeah, but that’s common knowledge. Everyone who goes to see a Batman movie knows this beforehand.
- Me: Exactly. But in our improvised story the audience does not know. And frankly neither do you.
- John: So you’re saying the hunter started killing ducks too early?
- Me: It’s improv. There is no right or wrong. I’m just pointing out that if the hunter kills all ducks the story is over. And it would be – at least to me – a pretty lame one: Once upon a time there was a bunch of happy ducks. And then they died. (everyone laughs).
- George: Ooh, perhaps 2 or 3 escape the killing spree and they mount a duck resistance?
- Me: That would be a way to kickstart an epic duck story indeed. More thoughts?
- Ella: One of the ducks who escape will transform into the charismatic leader of that resistance! So one protagonist will need to evolve!
- Me: That is indeed a standard storytelling technique: one antagonist is a threat to a society. Society fights back (and usually wins), so society is the protagonist. Audiences like to connect to characters, rather than to groups, so the writer creates a protagonist character to personify that society. Batman, for example you could consider to be the personification of the population of Gotham.
The group is pretty excited now. But there’s more we can do with the original example.
- Me: OK, so you have discovered a way to turn the original setup – a bunch of happy ducks – into an epic battle between Good and Evil. Way more interesting than bickering about who eats the most food. But frankly, the way we played it now is still instant conflict: we have a bunch of happy ducks and then bam, out of nowhere appears a hunter who starts killing them. Does that make sense?
- Joanne: Yes and no. It makes sort-of-sense but it’s very cliché. Perhaps it’s too easy a choice?
- Me: Easy choices are good, because everyone will get them. I would love to see an improvised epic about ducks fighting a hunter – and I’d want them to win.
- George: Perhaps the problem you’re trying to point out to us is the instant killing?
- Me: I don’t know. Do you have an idea on how to play what you are getting at?
The group goes back to the initial situation: a bunch of ducks in a pond. George edits the scene and portrays – in a monologue – and evil Duck Hunter: “I’m going to kill me some ducks today”. I interrupt again.
- Me: How you we like this?
- Joanne: It’s a way of creating tension. We – the actors playing the ducks as well as the audience – now know that the ducks are going to be threatened. I think that’s more powerful than just barging in and killing a bunch of ducks.
- Me: Yes, I like that too. But given what you’ve established now, what is going to be next? Hunter kills a bunch of ducks? Then we are back to where we originally were: we have only postponed some demise of duck.
- George: We could go back to the ducks and establish a leader? So we know who to turn to when the Hunter strikes?
- Me: That’s certainly a good idea. How might you go about doing that?
The group continues where they had left of, edits out George/Evil Duck Hunter and returns to the ducks in the pond. John starts bossing some other ducks around.
- Joanne: Frankly I think this is kind of lame. Why would John be the leader of the ducks? Being bossy does not make for leadership? And we have this evil hunter – that’s also too cliché – why is he evil?
- John: Can we forget about the ducks altogether and do something different please? Ducks are boring.
- Me: I’m going to bet we can turn this into something yummy. Let’s spend another 15 minutes on the original duck setup.
The group – a bit reluctantly – agrees. I offer a suggestion: let’s get to know both the ducks and the hunter a bit. I want to know who they are, and we don’t need to see a boss-duck.
We first get a scene between George/Hunter and his wife Joanne. They portray a poor couple, their baby is hungry. Joanne suggests George goes hunting; George is reluctant because commoners are not supposed to hunt the King’s ducks. We discuss:
- John: The hunter is no longer the antagonist now. He’s actually a decent guy.
- Me: In a story the antagonist need not antagonize – he’s simply a character who’s desires or goals are opposite to the protagonist’s.
- Joanne: I like this better; at least now we know why the hunter wants to kill ducks. It’s far more real; in the other scene he looked like a raving maniac.
- Bert: What I also like is that we know the stakes for the hunter: if he does not hunt his family might starve to death.
- George: And there’s also more tension, because duck hunting is illegal.
We now turn back to the ducks. Here’s what the group played: Ella and John are a young duck couple; they are madly in love. And they have their first eggs together and are expecting baby ducks. We discuss:
- Bert: The baby thing really raised the stakes. Ella or John – or both – dying would be devastating.
- Me: Indeed. Now we know a couple of characters – the ducks, as a group-protagonist, now have a face.
- Joanne: So it would make sense that, if there is to be a war of ducks, John or Ella would morph into the leaders! I like that!
- Me: Indeed. Let’s discuss the story options now; there are not that many.
- Ella: I can think of dozens; I don’t understand you thinks there are few.
- Me: Let’s list them – I’m going to bet that your dozens of options are all variations on perhaps 3 main story lines:
- Ella: The hunter kills all ducks and feeds his family.
- John: But the ducks put up a fight first.
- Me: That’s the first option. What else?
- George: No ducks get killed. But that would be boring.
- Me: Why would that be boring? They might have to jump through all kinds of hoops, mount an exodus, who knows. Anyway, that is option 2: the ducks win and hunter family stays hungry.
- Ella: The ducks kill the hunter.
- Me: That’s a variation on “ducks win” or “no ducks get killed”.
- John: Some ducks get killed, but not all.
- Me: But what is the conclusion of that? Who is happy in the end? What happens to the ducks?
- Joanne: Perhaps a few survive and they have to flee the forest.
- Me: Then that’s basically “hunter wins”.
- John: Oooh I can think of one more: no ducks get killed and the hunter family finds another way to survive. With a little help from the ducks.
- Me: that’s your third option indeed: protagonist and antagonist survive and find some sort of compromise.
- Bert: But how do you find that compromise? I can’t think of one in this situation.
- Me: (chucklin) You don’t have to find that compromise; any of these options is valid. You’d have to play it and see what happens.
We decide to move on to a different story now.
Example: The Headmaster
For sake of brevity, in what follows I will no longer type up the whole group discussion – the reader should have gotten the gist of the approach from the Duck example above.
In the next setup, John offers a ‘60 boarding school for boys. He is practicing Beatle songs on this guitar.
George barges into the room as the Headmaster and tells hims to stop it as rock music is strictly forbidden at the school.
We discuss: I am not too fond of this setup in the sense that it creates instant trouble. I have some idea on how to remedy that in this situation but I shelve that for later.
Apart from instant trouble, at least the characters’ relationship is clear: from John’s point of view the Headmaster is the antagonist; from the Headmaster’s point of view George is his antagonist. Even though it constitutes instant trouble, the tension between John and George – and by extension the whole school, or even the establishment is clear. And there are only 2 clear cut outcomes:
- Either John keeps playing the guitar (in school, or out of school) and that somehow becomes meaningful (e.g. he becomes a famous rock star).
- Or the school/the establishment wins and perhaps George, 15 years later, forbids his kids to play rock music.
- There are variations possible, like a compromise, where John is allowed limited guitar playing, or does it clandestinely, and still becomes a rock star. Or perhaps the school becomes a rock school – which is in my book a variation on “John wins”.
Example: The Beauty Parlor
Ella sets up a ‘60 beauty parlor and establishes she is woman of color. The rest of the actors play a group of racist bigots, protesting in front of Ella’s parlor.
We discuss: in this case Ella is clearly the protagonist; the antagonist is a group of characters, or perhaps “60s society” in general. Again, we know what the story is about: either Ella succeeds or bigotry wins. I ask the group what we now need to move the story forward; they immediately realize they will probably need to give the antagonist group a “face”.
Example: The Bat
Bert introduces, in a monologue, a character whose village, friends and family have all been killed by an implied vampire character. He’s got a silver stick and makes it clear that his task in life is to kill the vampire. I make 2 mental notes (I notice but do not interrupt yet):
- Bert’s character has now – by means of his monologue, killed all characters that might have joined him. He’s alone.
- Bert has – simply by mentioning – created this antagonist: the vampire.
The scene continues: Ella enters as a bat-like creature, complete with flapping wings. Bert decides to fight it. I interrupt the work and we discuss:
- Did Bert realize that he implicitly “created” the antagonist? Turns out he didn’t realize this.
- The group has discovered that an antagonist need not even be on scene (yet)!
- Bert had not realized that he had killed off all obvious characters that might help him.
- We all agree that we basically know the deal of the scene: Bert will either succeed in his quest to kill the vampire, or he will not.
- When Bert decides to fight the bat, he basically creates instant trouble. We do not even know why he wants or needs to fight it. And it adds – unnecessarily – to the tension we already have. Furthermore, we already had an antagonist: the Vampire. By putting up a fight with Ella/Bat Bert is – unnecessarily – creating a second antagonist. There is absolutely no need for that.
We agree we are still setting up the scene – there is no need for instant trouble. So we restart the scene from the moment the Bat appears and here is what they play:
- The Bat offers Bert some help in fighting the vampire.
- Bert points out doubts about the Bat’s motives (“I can see blood on your left fang”) – but since his character has no-one else to help him he accepts.
- We now have multiple tension: can Bert trust the bat to help him?
We discuss: the scene is now really on track and it can end in only 2 ways: Bert wins or Bert loses. And probably the sidekick will play some role in tilting the balance of the scene. Also, the Bat is not just a sidekick: because the doubts about hit motives (created by Bert) we now know the Bat is a Shady Sidekick (not a quirky one – see the theory section on Sidekicks for background).
Example: The Lion Tamer
Joanne sets a lion tamer; a bit bizarrely her character is very lion-like. George decides to join in as a lion. Ella makes it clear (to the lion) that tonight’s performance for the king better be good, or they will both get fed to the lions. George makes the decision – since Joanne is very lion-like – to be an anti-lion. His character is lazy, implies clumsiness. I interrupt and we discuss.
- George does not seem to know what he is: he is a clear quirky sidekick though!
- The King has been established as the antagonist.
- The writing is on the wall (tension!) that George may play a role in a poor performance, getting Ella and himself in trouble with the king!
- We all agree this scene is nicely on track!
By now the players have – unconsciously – discovered parts of the theory I outlined in the first part of this post, and they have found ways to apply it:
- A protagonist can “create” their antagonist simply by mentioning it. This is the Vampire in the Bat example.
- A protagonist can walk into the scene (the ‘60s schoolmaster example).
- A protagonist may be a crowd (the Rosa Parks example).
Parallel Split Scenes
We move on to stuff they did not discover: I offer a vehicle I really like for setting up stories: Split Scenes. This is a technique where we basically have 2 scenes going on in parallel, and focus ping-pongs from one scene to the other. This takes some practice: say one scene is going on, and other players decide to change it into a split scene: you want to avoid the players in the original scene to think that their scene is being edited. The way I teach it is as follows:
- When a scene is being edited the original scene gets either tapped out: i.e. players are signalled to leave the stage by means of a tap on their shoulder. Alternatively, the players in the new scene take place in front of the scene that is going on, and that is the signal for the original scene’s players that they have been edited away.
- When players want to signal a split scene, they take place next to the original scene (not in front of, and no tapping out). This way the players in the original scene know that a scene is going to take place in parallel of theirs. These players may not notice or see the players in the parallel scene that takes place; as soon as they hear dialog in the parallel scene they stop theirs, and make a quick check to see whether a parallel scene has been set up. If so, they remain on stage, and focus gets ping-ponged between the 2 parallel scenes.
The group tries this out in the following example.
Example: Slush Forever
- Ella sets up a pretty weird premise: we are 3000 years in the future, and humanity only feeds on “slush” (ground, liquified food). She claims to have invented “teeth” and is convinced this will change humanity. No more slush! (this actually reminded me of a story line in the book Cloud Atlas, based upon which I created a format).
- Bert initiates a parallel monolog, introducing himself as the CEO of a Megacorp called “Worldwide Slush Unlimited”.
- I interrupt here and clarify that it is important that either the antagonists knows about the protagonist (or vice versa) – otherwise there is no tension driving the characters; there are no real stakes. The scene continues.
- Enter George as a serf of Bert’s, to inform Bert of the invention of teeth and Bert explodes: Ella needs to be silenced or disappear as she threatens Bert’s empire. George agrees, “because he gets such great benefits”. Which makes him a shady sidekick!
- Ella & Bert sing an opposing duet to top it off – each sings about their perspective! “No more slush” vs “Slush forever” !!!!
All this may seem a little heady to you. In a way it is, until you have rehearsed it. A bit of workshopping can turn this into the equivalent of muscle memory.
I am not claiming you “have to get this” in order to perform great improv. Admittedly, this stuff is more applicable to narrative improv than it is to game-based improv. But in my experience, getting this into your improv-muscle-memory can help anyone to improve their improv chops. If you try this, let me know your experiences!