Story vs. Being in the Moment

The other training I’m looking forward to is the workshops at the Dallas Comedy Festival. I signed up for a bunch this week. However, some of the workshop descriptions were a little off-putting.

Using themes, recognizing patterns, and engaging characters to avoid Plot in long-form improvisation. Feel like you are stuck telling stories instead of exploring ideas and characters? This workshop is for you.

I was shocked to see it put so bluntly. Like telling stories is some sort of trap that is counter to improv. They seem to equate being stuck in your head with storytelling. As if storytelling were unnatural, forced and cerebral as opposed to intuitive.

Frustrated by the pressure to connect your scenes? Are you forcing elements of your piece together and feeling dirty for doing so?

Ooh connecting elements of your piece–how awful!

I feel almost completely opposite. For several reasons:

1) Most artist are proudly storytellers.
2) Storytelling is natural, innate and instinctual.
3) Audiences (esp. theatre going audiences) love stories.
4) As an improviser, it’s fun to use the problem solving part of your brain, in addition to emotions and instincts.

Let me discuss:

1) Most artist are proudly storytellers. Over and over in interviews I read with lighting designers, painters, fashion designers, video game developers, novelists, cinematographers, performance artists, playwrights, choreographers, photographers, composers, etc., they perceive their main job to be that of a storyteller. Try to think of an artform that does not have a storytelling aspect to it. Everyone is using different mediums to tell their stories. Why should improvisers be any different. Why would “being in the moment” or “being connected with your partner” be in opposition to storytelling? They are the medium by which we tell the story. The story of that moment, that truth.

2)Storytelling is natural, innate and instinctual. These modern day arts are handed down from ancient generations of storytellers. It reminds me of the cover of the UK version of Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers. It’s an African tribe gathered around a fire focused on an older member of the tribe with a captivating expression on his face, telling a story. The means have become more sophisticated, but the essence remains the same. People didn’t huddle around camp fires to hear a stream of consciousness. They came to see stories. Kids know stories from a very young age. Everyone can distinguish a good story from bad, including audience members.

3) Audiences (esp. theatre going audiences) love stories. Think about the most popular movies, TV shows, plays and even stand up comedy. All have great stories at their heart. Why would improv theatre be so different? Audiences are looking to be entertained. Part of what makes improv so thoroughly entertaining is that the audience gets to play along. They empathize with the improvisers and put themselves in the place of the performers onstage. They think about what might come next. What they would do. They enjoy the tension. They see unrelated ideas and make guesses as to why they appeared onstage and what they have to do with each other. Essentially, audiences are busy trying to find meaning and connections from what we put before them. That is why story-based improv is so satisfying. They play-along-at-home version is much more straight forward. I think improv should aspire to satisfy their audience, not indulge in their own moment to moment whims.

4) As an improviser, it’s fun to use the problem solving part of your brain, in addition to emotions and instincts. I find there’s two camps of improvisers. Those that like to use their instincts, be out of their head, stay in the moment, etc. There are also those improvisers that like the mental athletics of the craft. Keeping track of all the information, making witty remarks, connecting ideas in new and exciting ways. And of course in anything with two sides, each one disparages the other as being either inauthentic or self-indulgent/not funny. But I’ve always been a split brain person. What I like about performing improv is that you can do both. You can use your gut while problem solving for the story. It’s like writing a play on stage with other people. When both skills are used in the right mix, the improv show can be thrilling.

I am open and interested in learning from the Dallas Workshops. I would love to have a workshop experience that would change my mind about these issues. But as you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about it.

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
Replies: 2


  1. Anonymous said:

    I agree. Good job.

  2. Anonymous said:

    Story poo poo doody chai tea.

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