The Driver’s Dilemma

Recently at Mopco we’ve been rehearsing Spontaneous Broadway, a show that consists of improvised songs in the first act, and a long form musical built around a reprise of one of those songs in the second.

It’s a show that requires the impossible, which of course is why improvisers love it.Having little more than a handful of ragtag costumes and an agreed-upon title and opening location to go on, the cast must write, edit, direct and perform a musical play in real time, in front of the opening night audience.

It’s a form that brings out the driver in some of us. And the wimper, and the bridger.

If you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, apologies. Driving= moving the action forward by overwhelming the offers of your partners, and therefore blocking them. Wimping= not doing anything for fear of making a mistake. Bridging= putting off an inevitable outcome for fear of the unknown results—“I am going to shoot!….some day…..really! I mean it…..” If you are going to shoot, shoot. If you enter a scene, do something, simply and definitively. And if your partner makes an offer, don’t ignore it because you have a better one…the audience will sense that conflict/tension and become uncomfortable.

So, the other night in rehearsal we were discussing driving. Kat Koppett (Mopco co-director and creator of the form Spontaneous Broadway) had this to say about driving: “When you feel as if you know exactly what should happen, and feel compelled to make it happen—don’t. Chances are you are wrong, and someone else, who actually does know, will do the right thing if you let them.”

Zen and the art of improv, summed up by Kat Koppett.

Someone is thinking: but–if everyone followed that advice, we would never do anything, right? Nope. Kat went on to say (Kat, please forgive the paraphrase)”When you feel that way, it’s because you are writing instead of listening. We must listen to each other, and be scrupulous about yes-anding the offers that are out there—that way, the story goes forward organically, and the audience is amazed.”

So, the driver’s dilemma is: I know I know what should happen, but I know (because Kat told me) I am wrong. But…but…but…. Like a creaky overloaded computer tricked by Mr. Spock into meltdown, this improviser freezes, and essentially leaves the show. (Wimping/bridging and driving being, after all, two sides of the same coin.)

What’s the prescription? Same old thing. Listen. Relax. Breathe. Create no action; rather, allow yourself to be moved to action by the action of others–in the moment, not after planning. And don’t be fooled: Even if you only plan for five seconds, you are still out of the now, and therefore probably not right about what you intend to put out there. Look to the person who is totally in the moment, and let yourself be changed by them, in the moment.

A post to be written soon: How do I know when my partner is totally in the moment, if I’m not? hmmmmm……..

It’s very, very simple. Easy? No. But simple.

Dropping the bomb: after Routine Routine.

So, last night in rehearsal we repeated the exercise described here previously called “The Routine Routine.” Then, since we are working toward a long form narrative structure, We added another scene, wherein a third character enters and provides the “But then one day” energy to the story. (We are basing our structure on Kenn Adams’ Story Spine. Read more about Kenn’s remarkable work Here)

Kat and Amy played a scene, first described, then acted with dialogue, between a mom who didn’t like her daughter much, and that adolescent daughter. The scene took place while the mom finished dinner and the daughter angrily set the table. It was (in a good way, mind you) uncomfortable to watch. Both characters were smiling deadly smiles as they fenced and jousted their way through the routine. At the end of the scene, the mom announced that she was going out with her new boyfriend, the hot dog cook “who attended the BOCES culinary program!”

Details abounded. And mattered. There was spaghetti sauce, a sideboard with silverware, cabinets, a table…all of them used to underscore the really miserable ongoing relationship between mom and daughter. We learned about the absent father. We learned about the new boyfriend. And we learned a huge amount about the very unhappy life the two characters were living.

Lights down, Lights up. Mom was sitting next to daughter, now appearing more conciliatory, even consoling. We didn’t have a chance to find out why: Nick entered, as the boyfriend. He took command immediately. Sitting at the table, he asked the mom: “Did you tell her?” Note that he wasted no time: Nick’s job was to provide the big, “It’s Tuesday!” energy, and he did it immediately. Great choice!

The mom had told her. . The mom and boyfriend had decided it was time for the seventeen year old daughter to leave the house.

Kat made another great choice at that moment playing the daughter. She said “Yeah, she told me.” And left. boom. I really loved that choice, because it’s so daring: There’s a whole long (quite possibly maudlin, melodramatic) scene that begs to be played out between the three of them, but the outcome has been decided. So….poof!

Now, we are really in a moment of crisis. What do we know? We know that probably, the main character is either the mom or the daughter, probably not the boyfriend. But we aren’t sure which yet. We do know that the boyfriend has set in motion a series of events that will definitely change their relationship. Both mom and daughter face huge challenges now—mom in dealing with her choice and the guilt it provokes, dealing with the boyfriend who clearly pushed the issue of kicking out her daughter– and the daughter dealing with sudden teenage homelessness.

The next scene, with its completely unknown developments, would tell us the direction the story would take. Of course, in this particular instance, we’ll never know. But that’s OK—there are a zillion stories waiting to be discovered.