January 4, 2009

Improvising in workshops?

Jean Betts            posted 2 Jan 2009, 10:14 PM / edited 2 Jan 2009, 10:36 PM

Does improvisation have a place in a workshop of a scripted play? Or are actors being exploited?

(Grateful thanks for any feedback on the following, either here or to scripts@playmarket.org.nz )

Below is an attempt to clarify briefly the purposes of the various forms of improvisation I’m aware of. I think they often get dangerously muddled.

1. There is a tradition of ‘Improvisation As Performance’ that has built up over the last few decades, has certain rules, and attracts performers with very particular skills. They make up the script as they go, usually (if not always) with a comic aim.

2. There are methods of writing a script/making a play based on group input and improvisation – ‘Devising’. This usually continues well into the rehearsal process. (However, the final script often still ends up being the responsibility of one person, and dissension about copyright is common. Playmarket does accept requests for assistance from groups devising shows, but needs to be certain that the group has a solid agreement on authorship.)

3. Improvising during rehearsal of an already finished play is completely different. It has nothing to do with writing script, but is a rehearsal tool used to help actors enrich an already written character or onstage relationship, specifically to enhance their performance. As long as it’s in the hands of skilled directors it can be very useful.

4. Improvisation as a teaching tool, or game, to encourage students of all kinds to free up their imaginations, explore issues and gain confidence. It usually involves developing a character or situation spontaneously around a few facts or character traits.

So – for a workshop of an already scripted draft, clearly ‘improvisation as performance’ and ‘devising’ are irrelevant; we already have a playwright. ‘Improvising in rehearsal’ and as a teaching tool are also irrelevant because this is not a rehearsal process; we are not preparing actors for a performance from a finished script, or teaching anyone, or playing games.

So when we ask actors to improvise in workshops of existing scripts, what is actually happening?

When we ask actors to improvise in this situation, what we are actually asking them to do is ‘devise’ – i.e. provide the playwright with new dialogue, new script ideas etc. They become (uncredited) co-writers. I think this is inappropriate and exploitative, and playwrights should not be led to expect this sort of input from actors. Actors are exploited quite enough. Just by bringing the playwright’s characters to life for the first time they are already contributing enormously to the final draft.

Another common danger is that improvising can lead to actors feeling ownership, taking over the script and pushing it in all sorts of directions never intended, falling into ‘Improvisation As Performance’ more often than not, and feeling an obligation to entertain the room rather than explore the work in front of them. This can leave the playwright baffled, depressed, furious or all three. (And you can’t blame the actors – ‘entertaining the room’ is their job!) Couple this with a director hanging out to explore a ‘concept’ and you have a potential suicide on your hands.

My view is that the actors’ job is simply to act, not co-write the play – to make the script they have in front of them work as well as they possibly can, however unfinished, rough or uninspiring they may find it. If the actor has prepared well and has done their best with the material, every question they ask, every difficulty they have is then really useful to the playwright, indicating what ‘works’ and what doesn’t, immediately. Nothing helps a playwright more than seeing their script performed well – ‘coming off the page’. A couple of straightforward moved readthroughs guided by a good director/script advisor and a bit of discussion should provide the playwright with all the stimulation they need to prepare the next draft.

So furthermore: – Playmarket can provide a two-day workshop, and though two consecutive days is very useful for devising groups or when preparing for a public reading, for a private workshop I suspect that two one-dayers separated by as much time as the playwright needs to prepare a new draft, is a much better use of the time and more helpful for the writer.

Too often everyone is wondering what on earth to do on the second day (leading frequently to “I know! Let’s improvise!”) while the playwright is quite often just longing to get away and rewrite, overwhelmed with new ideas and quite incapable of absorbing, or offering, any more. If the playwright needs more guidance straight away, spending time alone with a script advisor helping them to organise all the new information would almost certainly be preferable.

P.S. Playmarket script development assistance of various kinds (including workshops) is available to ANY playwright anywhere in NZ, although those with a definite production coming up tend to float to the top of the contender list. We adapt our assistance as we can to suit the playwrights’ needs and requests. Actors, directors and script advisors are paid. See www.playmarket.org.nz for further information, and/or enquire to scripts@playmarket.org.nz – or Jean, (04) 382 8462 X3

Dane Giraud       posted 3 Jan 2009, 01:32 PM / edited 4 Jan 2009, 08:22 AM

I actually think you can put a strong argument forward against many forms of improvisation even being in play rehearsals. If it takes game playing and improv to free-up an actor then I would question why the director initially chose to hire an actor so reticent with their creativity in the first place. 

You will find that many directors and actors committed to the use of improv in such settings (script workshops/etc) actually hold the belief that text is essentially limiting to performers anyway. Are these the types of practitioners you really want at a ‘script’ workshop? 

Jean Betts            posted 4 Jan 2009, 10:57 AM / edited 4 Jan 2009, 02:23 PM

Exactly, thanks Dane.

The ‘text is essentially limiting’ brigade flourished in the 70s and was one of the main reasons Playmarket was set up. Until then playwrights had no protection and had to watch their work being mangled outrageously on a regular basis. Even now there are still plenty of people who should know better who don’t understand that playwrights have rights; who still believe they can alter scripts without asking permission.

It doesn’t help that there is such scant respect for writers in the expanding film culture. (And on this note – I hope all who may be interested are aware of a new annual competition, the Live Screenplay competition for the best unfilmed screenplay, deadline 31st Jan. The winner’s screenplay receives a public rehearsed reading in a theatre [with practitioners deeply respectful of text, needless to say] and appropriate assistance and advice. Contact stuff@playpress.co.nz for further info.)

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