These workshop notes are from a Thursday a few weeks ago, some interesting exercises on improvising with loads of people on stage.
Quite often multiple person scenes can descend into chaos, so I thought we’d do a whole workshop on them. Some of the important points that came out were:
2. Be aware that you are part of the overall picture/scene/story, it’s not just about you.
3. Increase, compliment or contrast what’s already on stage.
4. Be aware where the focus is, are you receiving or giving focus.
5. You don’t all have to have different points of view on stage, having only a couple points of view keeps things simpler.
6. Feel what the group wants.
Here are some exercises we did:
The entire group walks around the space at random. At any point anyone can jump, and the entire group jumps simultaneously. The idea is that eventually from the outside you couldn’t tell who had lead the jump, it’s a group decision.
At first this lead to people using all manner of tactics to signal to the group that they were about to jump – breathing in, raising their arms, jumping slowly, making a stomping sound first. So I pointed out that there actually didn’t have to be a leader, the group should just spontaneously jump. If people are aware of the group they’ll know whether it’s in jumping or not jumping mode.
Eventually this lead to some spontaneous jumps, where the whole group left the floor at exactly the same time without anyone leading.
We then added in walking or not walking. The whole group could also now stop, and then walk again, as one.
We then added in that sometimes just one person could be walking, and if they stopped one person took over walking.
So now the group had a concept of focus and group mind with the physical, next step was the verbal.
This is a great game for teaching verbal focus.
The actors are scattered around sat in pairs at tables as if at a restaurant, maybe throw in a couple of waiters or waitresses too. They pre-decide who they are, get them to pick big characters and topics.
Only one of the couples talks at a time. Any other couple can then take over by repeating the last line they heard and using it in their different conversation. Also if a couple stop talking then another couple have to take over immediately, repeating the last thing they said.
Sometimes focus is given by a couple being quiet suddenly. Sometimes focus is taken by a couple just starting to talk.
Some conversations last a couple a lines, some longer. Sometimes there is a rapid change in focus, sometimes it’s a more leisurely pace.
Encourage the actors to be bold – either they are in focus or they aren’t, there must be an immediate change so don’t hesitate. The worse that can happen is that there is a little bit of hub bub with a couple of people talking at once, which is fine.
As it goes on you might find patterns form in the conversations, even though they are talking about different topics.
Keith Johnstone mentions these in Impro for Storytellers as if they aren’t that important, but I find they are great for teaching people how to improvise objects and props, and also how to improvise for the greater whole rather than as an individual.
The group improvise various machines of repeated sound and movement, where each person plays a small part of that machine.
Building a Multi-Person Location
We then put this all together with the group building an entire picture of a location and building a whole scene.
We gave a location and then two people came up and started something without words in that location. Then two by two improvisers came up and built upon that location, adding to the stage picture.
The stage picture became really important, I think that gets forgotten in impro sometimes. What does this look like on stage? Symmetry, balance, height, depth all became important.
Also it really became apparent how easy it was to accidentally steal focus. In the first one (a beach scene) there was so much movement on stage that it became a blur, and in fact the focus landed on one person in the middle who happened to just be laying down and having a sun bathe.
We also reminded people that you didn’t have to add something new when coming on stage, you could increase and back up what’s already there and this can sometimes look more beautiful.
Eventually really beautiful stage pictures were built using multiple people.
For instance when given spaceship as a location:
– Two people come on and sit at control panels driving the spaceship, either side of the stage.
– Captain comes on and sits between them and slightly back in commanding role.
– Robot comes on a twiddles nobs.
– Bored soldier comes on and sits at back.
– 5 more bored soldiers come on and sit at back.
– 1 improviser lays down on floor.
– 3 more lay down on floor.
– 1 monitors their breathing, establishing them as being in sleep mode.
They were then able to play a scene across the whole spaceship, aware when they were giving, receiving and taking focus both verbally and physically. With group awareness of focus every move meant something, and every line was heard.
At first this has to be directed a bit, with a director and audience pointing every now and again at where the focus is, or stopping it if it’s become confusing. Full face masks are also very good at teaching focus.
We then played with this some more, with people becoming objects and basically supporting each other in various ways. This lead to some beautiful scenes like a hamster in a hamster wheel in a class room, and someone buying a hot dog where the entire stand, condiments, umbrella and hot dog was built by various improvisers.
Lots of love,
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