Narrative Workshop Notes

Narrative Workshop Notes

These narrative long-form notes are made up a bit from notes from Saturday’s session in the Bedford, and a bit from a previous session as I didn’t take detailed notes of what we did on Saturday.

I then ran a bit of a narrative session for Music Box on Sunday and then another one at The Free School on Sunday night. So I’m a bit narrated out right now.

Overall I think it’s important workshop to do as narrative can be one of those conflicts between improvisers that is actually due to a difference in language rather than a difference in aims.

Some people say ‘you shouldn’t worry about plot cos you don’t want to be planning ahead and missing what’s going on’, whereas I say ‘to be good at plot you shouldn’t plan ahead and should pick up on what’s going on’. So it’s basically the same thing.

To be good at narrative don’t worry about the narrative, just set a firm platform, expand it, and reincorporate like mad constantly. You don’t know where you’re going, just where you’ve been, and that’s what gives it structure.

Also obvious obvious obvious is the key. Your obviousness is someone else’s originality, so just be obvious. We can work together when we’re obvious.

I also made the mistake of being slightly negative in the workshop, which isn’t like me (I was tired), so I won’t be doing that again as I felt I slightly lost the room. I think it was something along the lines of “make a story that could be put on at The National Theatre. Actually then again, don’t, they’re shit”. Even though I only go to the National Theatre for lunch, so this wasn’t actually based in fact.

One slightly negative point I do stand by though is the following:

Lots of people have said to me “not all scenes need a platform, they can work without a where, who or what”. However I’ve never seen a scene where I thought “do you know what? I really wish I hadn’t known so much about where they were, or so much about their relationship.” But I’ve seen loads of scenes where I wanted to walk out and dunk my head in ice water because it seems to be just two vague people nowhere talking about nothing for no reason while doing nothing at all. So given the choice that one option sometimes works, and one always helps, I’d go for making a platform and expanding the where who what every time.

And even then saying that almost every show I’ve been in or seen (Music Box included) there is just scenes after scene apparently set nowhere at all. Oh well.

Opening Chat and room setting

We all lay down on our fronts in a circle on the floor.

A brief name game of just saying everyone’s name in order round the circle.

I’m never that concerned about people knowing each other’s names as a priority, as sometimes it’s helpful to actually not know everyone as it can free you from your normal personality. Keith Johnstone never asked anyone’s name and we were with him for a week. It was because it didn’t matter who you were or where you had come from or how much impro you did, it was who you were right then that mattered.

For similar reasons I also never ask questions like:

“Who has done a narrative workshop?”

“How much impro has everyone done?”

“Who doesn’t know this game?”

These sorts of questions have only two answers, neither of which go anywhere positive:

Either the person has done narrative, loads of impro and knows the game inside out – in which case they either feel embarrassed, under pressure to live up to their reputation, or develop a slight ego – none of which are very helpful for improvising.

OR they’ve never done any impro, don’t know narrative, and are the only person to put their hand up about not knowing a game – and they now feel alienated from the group, different, and like they are holding people back.

So I don’t ask. I try and do what the group looks and feels like it needs right then, it doesn’t make much difference what people have done before.

So….opening chat to set the room….

  • This is the team for the day. People spend so much energy trying to be accepted that you might as well make it clear they are accepted already, then that energy can be used elsewhere.
  • You don’t have to be clever or funny to do this. This is especially true for narrative, as the more obvious people are the better otherwise stories grind to a halt.

Narrative Theory

We then had a discussion about impro narrative, which was taken slightly seriously but I’m glad we did this as it set up a reference for the day.

I also said that narrative applied to all impro, not just a one aside topic, as you can have stories in 30 seconds and also in hours. Stories are a great thing to aim for in impro, otherwise you’re stuck just trying to make something funny on every single line (which is also fun though). Without narrative impro is just people on stage doing “stuff”.

First I drew the concept of “circle of expectation”. For any suggestion or location the audience has an expectation of what might happen. As the action continues this circle gets smaller. Suggestions from outside this circle can be disappointing, while obvious ones from within are rewarding.

I stated that the current circle of expectation was infinitely wide. I asked for a suggestion (Manchester) and then I drew a circle to show the new circle of expectation. I then asked for suggestions of what was expected from Manchester – and got The Hacienda night club, then disco balls, mirrors, shell suits, smoking, DJs, drugged up ladies, conflict on the dance floor. This started to tell a story just from constantly being obvious and choosing what was expected.

I next drew a big circle and then around the circle I wrote the following things in order:

  • Start
  • Platform/Where Who What/Establishing Routine
  • Tilt/Breaking the Routine
  • Free association
  • Reincorporation

The start can come from a suggestion or just from two actors on stage.

The platform is where the actors define where they are, who they are and what they are doing. Note my preference for stating where first, as I find this sets up a scene better. If you think about it this is also the preference in films and theatre – an establishing shot usually shows the jungle/museum/court first to set the environment before we see the characters. We hardly ever see a film where the characters are seen first and then the environment is set. In impro this “where” can be set by naming it, miming it, using a narrator, use of props, doing an activity etc.

The platform is also similar to establishing a routine, which I treat as a similar process but with slightly different theory and terminology, and there is more on that later.

The tilt in Keith Johnstone terms is the thing that pushes the platform into action, the balance of normality has been tilted. In Impro for Storytellers he tends to talk about deliberately forcing a tilt and even has pre-set tilt lists. I tend to disagree with this approach as I feel it intellectulises the process and misses what’s actually going on there. I’ve found that if the actors are picking up on offers and yes-anding, a tilt tends to come up naturally anyway when they try and be ordinary – you just have to look out for it.  When I did a workshop with Keith Johnstone he seemed to have gone off forcing tilts and was instead coaching us on being altered more, which actually makes more of what’s already there.

I also mentioned this is similar to breaking the routine, but more on that later.

Next comes free associating – which is what a lot of impro exercises are about including yes-and, offers and accepting etc. This is when we build on what’s there and expand information. It’s important to note though that it’s never too early to reincorporate. We build on what’s already there, expand on what’s happened.

Towards the end of the circle comes more reincorporation, where we reincorporate things we left behind, justify mysteries and make connections. When all these reincorporations have been made the story is usually finished. If there’s too much free association without reincorporation then the story reaches a point of no return and just becomes “stuff”. In fact even though this usually gets mentioned as being towards the end of narrative, I actually think it’s ongoing right from the start and you can’t improvise soon enough. In fact I’ve found it helpful to refer to free-associating as ‘expanding’ instead, to make it clear that you are expanding on whatever is there rather than just making stuff up randomly until you decide on something. The story is happening right there, right at the start, whether you like it or not, so might as well stick with it.

I also mentioned the importance of justification. In impro there are no mistakes, just stories that haven’t been justified yet. These can either be justified into the story or drastically change the story for the better.

I draw these things at the start of the workshop as I find having a visual reference is usual throughout the day so people know where the exercises fit in and why they are doing them.

Platforms, free associating and reincorporating seem to use different parts of the mind, so it’s good to know which part you are exercising and why.

Word at a time Stories

First we told a word at a time story in pairs. We just used this as a warm up, without being too concerned about what happened.

I find it good to do exercises first without comment, as people learn lots from just doing something a few times, and me interrupting too soon can remove self-reliance. With impro you need to have faith in your own offers.

I then made the group do it again but this time with more commitment and without being too concerned about making mistakes. This was fun.

I play this game a lot to encourage listening, saying yes and not planning ahead. This time I instead played it with the emphasis on reincorporating as you go, of not leaving things behind.

This made a big difference to the stories I was in as they were easier to follow, told a story and had structure.

Yes Let’s

This is a great game at teaching the Circle of Expectation.

The entire group stands in a circle. One person says a simple action. The whole of the group shout ‘Yes Let’s’ with enthusiasm and carry out that action. Immediately someone at random says the next suggestion. And So On.

We repeatedly this endlessly, sometimes with the group leaving when a suggestion blocked the story, until the group gradually relaxed and allowed themselves to be obvious enough for the stories to flow.

Take the pressure off by saying that the individual offer doesn’t have to be clever or get a laugh, and if they freeze up they should just relax and add the smallest detail they can think off or reincorporate something without knowing why.

This generated some cool stories like the spirit of a Victorian Gent going to the palace, and the shadow of an evil sea witch being good to a stranded sailor.

What Happens Next Pairs

We first played this in pairs. One actor says what comes first, the other actor tells them, they carry it out, then they say what comes next, the other actor tells them, they carry it out.

For instance:

– What comes first?

– You are dressed as a fairy.

– What happens next?

– You are skipping through a meadow of flowers and butterflies.

– What happens next?

– A butterfly lands on your hand.

– What happens next?

– It says “would you like to be the butterfly princess?”

– What happens next?

– You say yes.

– What happens next?

– A hundred butterflies flap down and pick you up and fly you over the meadow to a forest clearing.

– What happens next?

– A huge caterpillar comes out of the clearing.

It’s important that the actor just carries out what’s said and doesn’t add too much that’s new.

The one giving the suggestions is like Al the hologram in Quantum Leap, they’re able to see and be involved but they don’t participate in the scene.

What Happens Next Group

We then did what happens next as a group. One actor was on stage asking ‘what comes first’ followed by ‘what happens next.’

It’s very unusual for a group to be able to start like this – usually the first stories have very negative or no platforms.

I had the feeling that the only people making suggestions were ones who had done the exercise before, and that people who hadn’t weren’t getting to say anything. So we repeated it a few times with only a team of five people making suggestions to make sure that everyone was getting to say something and learn.

This produced some really interesting stories.

The words ‘what happens next’ tend to encourage immediate action. Therefore I’ve modified the game to instead start with some platform building questions like ‘where am I’, ‘who am I’, ‘what am I doing’ etc. This way the group can build an environment and platform before progressing into rapid action.

We then repeated this exercise with other groups making suggestions so that everyone got to have a go.

Five Things

One person gives the other person five disconnected things with description – people, objects, locations etc and the other person has to tell a story using only those five things. It’s a great game for practicing reincorporation.

Final Thoughts

It’s great to perform with people who have the same shared understanding of this and are creating stories together, but unless you’re all rehearsing games like What Happens Next together a lot this is never going to happen as you have to be in the same obvious frame of mind with the same awareness to improvise solid stories together.


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