Global Impro 3 - The Snake Eating it's Tail

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

3.) The Snake Eating It's Tail – a seminar by Patti Stiles

This blog is the third of a series of blogs, charting my experience as a Theatre Bristol agent at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium, May 2019. If you'd like to get a little context, start here. Otherwise, welcome to theory and questions to help you  explore originality vs replication.

Patti Stiles is an Australian actor, improviser, director, instructor, and playwright who has been working professionally in theatre since 1983. She served her theatre apprenticeship at the world renowned Loose Moose Theatre and was trained by Keith Johnstone. Patti has taught and performed in all corners of the world for impro companies, theatre schools, and in the corporate arena. [From GII notes]

In the seminar description, Patti asks: “Creation or replication? Process or product? In an art form with the ability to create anything why do we keep reproducing the same work in the same way? We teach freedom of creativity and risking failure yet we don’t apply it to our own productions. Why? Lets look at how can we develop more innovators and less replicators.”

During the session, Patti asked us to write in our journals. I've pulled out Patti's questions so you can follow this seminar at home, I hope you find it useful. 

1.) Make a list of the impro shows we've worked on recently. 

2.) For each show, write down all the components that made up that show, ie:

  • what sort of spaces is it performed in?

  • how many people are in it?

  • How many people come to watch it?

  • Any kind of set or props?

  • Any costumes?

  • What tech – lights and sound?

  • Any music?

  • What impro structures are you using?

  • What themes are you exploring?

Patti invited us to form small groups with people of different nationalities. In our small groups, we shared what we'd written about the shows we'd described in our writing.

Back to the whole group - Patti asked us to discus the similarities and differences we'd discovered from the small group sharing. She asked us to raise our hands if our show has:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10, more than 10 people? (the majority was 6-8 people)

  • Do you perform in studio theatres with no back curtain and no wings? (most people said yes)

  • Do you have just 2 chairs on the stage? (I cringed as I realised that Beyond The Ridiculous do this)

  • Do you all wear a solid colour t-shirt?

  • Do you use spilt stage? (around a third of us used that devise)

  • Do you ask for stimulus from the audience? (many people said yes)

  • If you do that, is it actually integral to the show? (many people put their hands down for this question)

Patti states that she is seeing a lot of repetition in impro. She argues that improvisers are going to see successful shows and then taking elements back to their own shows without questioning why they're drawn to those elements.

She spoke of the trend of Shakespearian themed impro, one company pioneered it and others saw their success and said “I want to get some of that.” Now there's loads of Shakespeare themed impro shows.

She mentioned the trend for a bare stage with two chairs and asked 'Why? What does it say? What else could we create as a promise to the audience?'

Speaking about the impro uniform; converse trainers, the fad of bowling shirts, the current fixation with solid coloured tops, Patti said it's fine to have a uniform if it's adding to the work, but have you asked yourselves why you're doing it? Is it just because it's what you've seen other people wear? "This is the snake eating it's tail."

Patti implores us to question our choices and not just copy what we see, asking ourselves:

  • What do you want to create?

  • Why do you want to do that?

  • What impact do you want to have on audiences?

  • What do you want to say to the world?

Patti says; “I'm bored to death with what I'm seeing on stage.” She continues; Spolin, Johnstone and Close; the pioneers of improv as we know it, were trying to create something different on the stage, they went in for process over product. They continually asked, “What if...” But our homogenised industry has reverted back to what the pioneers were pushing against. We're creating identikit impro, or “Museum Theatre” as Johnstone termed it. "Our problem is we're thinking about success and not process."

She continued; if you've answered all the questions and actually, what you want to do is just make people laugh, then fine, but are you devoting yourself to that? Are you studying comedy and timing so that you can be the best you can be and offer something unique?

3.) Go back to the show you described before, now sum up, in one sentence- what is the point of your work? Why do you do what you do? What impact does it have on audiences? What are you saying to the world?

Whole group discussion:

  • Was the quality of discussion different that time?
  • Did you feel differently about each other's work this time?

For me, this is my preferred mode of conversation. I long for depth and passion and the shared vulnerability that happens when we wear our hearts on our sleeves. I felt really engaged in my group members process this time.

Patti referred to “cookie cutter shows” – shows that take the essence of an original hit and water it down, she argues that plagiarizing each others ideas waters them down for all of us. By ripping off other peoples ideas, the copy cats remove the individuality from the originators. Of course, this plagiarism can show up in teaching too – some impro teachers hash out the exercises they've learned from their teachers, without investigating the whys. As a teacher, it's importance to ask: what is this exercise for? 

In teaching, I'm always discovering new layers to games I've been using for over 20 years. When I use other people's exercises, I stay open to how the group meets the material and allow games to morph to suit the participants. This way, we invent together the structures that will serve us. The trick is to stay alive.

  • Write down / share something you'd like to say in an improv show

  • Patti's final invitation: Bring that sentence into a rehearsal room with a “What if...” and see what happens.

Patti finished with a call to action: In order to get back to what the original teachers were teaching, we need to get present to what's alive in us and take the risks to make original work!

I think I agree with Patti, in sentiment, although I also believe there are no original ideas. In Elizabeth Gilbert's “Big Magic,” the author writes about the phenomena of 'multiple discovery,' when several people happen upon the same discoveries at the same time, some examples from Elizabeth Gilbert's book include; “Calculus, oxygen, black holes, the Mobius strip, the existence of the stratosphere and the theory of evolution.” When teaching or facilitating, I encourage people to drill down into cliché, rather than try to avoid it. When you fully apply yourself to an idea – it will become uniquely yours. So perhaps this is what's needed in impro and indeed devised theatre? Whatever ideas you're drawn to, drill down deeper to find your unique take on it.

Next up, it was time to talk about racism in impro with a panel discussion.

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