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ReV Up Your Improv Scenes
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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Revelation Revealed

PART 3 of the Series: ReV up Your Improv Scenes
If you missed Part 2 - Click Here
If you missed Part 1 - Click Here

Let's discuss revelation. In the Bible, revelation comes at the end. Actually, I would submit that it is a chapter of the new beginning. Genesis is what I'm talking about here. That's the Act 1 of the Bible Story. What I'm talking about is the set up of the story, the building of the story foundation. Stories told well are full of reveals, strategically crafted so the story has all the power it deserves. Most of the reveals are right there in Act 1, during the story set up.

That's what I would like to see improvisers do as they build a scene. Consider this initial portion of the scene or story as a sequence of "reveals" that will help tell the story.

Let me start with a little insider information straight from Hollywood and some simple math.

I'm sure everyone is aware of the Hollywood "formula" for blockbuster movie making. Please keep in mind this will be a little over-simplified but will help set the tone for our purposes here.

I like the comparison and connection with the Hollywood blockbuster movie for improv because we are talking about a highly active and visual form of storytelling, especially when we are talking about action movies. If you've heard me talk about the "science" of improv and improv scene building, you've heard me refer to the start of an improv scene as two improvisers standing on a stage with nothing. It's not actually nothing, though. I restate that they stand there with nothing but potential. There is great potential for something wonderful to happen from this apparent "nothing." It just seems like nothing to the outside eye. The goal of the improvisers is to get to something actional, or kinetic. We want to convert this potential energy to kinetic energy, and thus move the scene forward. Because the audience has nothing to see, hear or experience from the stage or scene except what the improvisers offer, it is incumbent on the improvisers to provide that. In a stage play, you have the help of sets, costumes and other special effects that have all been planned and organized to help tell the story for the audience. In improv there are no such luxuries. That is one reason we must create as much action as possible, to bring the scene or story to life for the audience. That's why pantomime is so important in improv - improvisers need to create the environment for the audience as best they can to make the scenic experience as real as possible.

That's what needs to happen in Act 1. In the movies, that's exactly what happens. The first act of an action movie for example is setting in place all you need to know for the story to unfold successfully, to draw you in, to set the stage, so you can follow sufficiently when things start to go wrong. Note the last sentence - when things start to go wrong.

This is one of my biggest complaints with the scene-building of improvisers. They are too quick to make things go wrong. To hark back to something from the introductory post of this series, they throw too much fuel on the fire too early. It burns up (in a spectacular blaze) but when it's done there's nothing left to carry through to the rest of the story or scene.

Now for a quick math lesson. In Hollywood, it is a common part of the formula movie to follow a pretty strict mathematical break down of a script. In a nutshell, you have three acts. Generally, Act 1 will take up 25% of the script, Act 2 will be 50%, and Act 3 will be 25% again, for a total of 100%. The first quarter of the movie is mostly set up and exposition (elements to be discussed later), the next two quarters (half the movie) is devoted to Act 2, the obstacles, challenges and trials for the protagonist leading up to the climactic moment, and one quarter for act 3, the wrap up, resolution of the main story line and the 1 or 2 subplots developed, tying up loose ends, etc. Keep in mind, in action movies, the set up is sometimes shortened and the resolution is condensed so there is more time for chasing, training, and blowing stuff up. Next time you're watching an action movie, you can almost check the timing to a tee. Movies generally run 120 minutes. That means 30 minutes of Act 1, One hour of Act 2 and 30 minutes of Act 3. Again, in action movies, you'll see the transition to Act 2 generally about the 25 or 30 minute mark.

Let's compare that to an improv scene. We'll use a 4 minute scene as our average benchmark, but you can easily convert the time for whatever goal your scene has - even and especially when you are working with long form scenes and stories.

In four minutes, the first minute (25%) is for Act 1, setting up the scene, etc. Then the next 2 minutes or so will be dedicated to the obstacles, conflict, rising action up to the climactic moment, and that leaves 1 minute for the resolution. Now we all know that most improv scenes (not including longer form scenes and stories) end pretty quickly and abruptly, as with the blackout from the light booth or the wave of a hand from the stage. That's actually well within the model of the blockbuster movie, so you can consider 2 minutes to 2 minutes and 40 - 50 seconds perhaps for the Act 2 and the Act 3 wrap takes 10 - 20 seconds

Take Star Wars for example. It's about a 2 hour movie. Time it out sometime. At about 30 minutes in, we've got all the set up about the protagonist Luke Skywalker. We see the normal world he currently lives in, what his daily routine or life is like, and we also get introduced to his ultimate goal or objective - to become a Jedi like his father. The 30 minute point is where his normal world has been turned upside down (or in this case, burned to the ground), and his only choice is to seek Obi-wan once again and proceed on his adventure. Then we spend about 1 hour and 20 minutes in Act 2, which leaves about 10 minutes for the resolution.

Remember that scene? The final parade and celebration where the heroes get their medals and accolades from Princess Leia, and a little sexual tension tease to make us eager for the sequel. Who's gonna get the girl? I hope you recollect we didn't know the brother-sister revelation yet. [Spoiler Alert?]

To recap - that means that your 4 minute scene can go almost a minute before any conflict happens. That's actually a lot of time to set things up - a luxury few improvisers utilize. There will be plenty of time to start a fight.

Can you imagine? A whole minute without heavy conflict, push back or confrontation? What will you do with all that time? How about an 8 minute scene? 2 minutes for set up, then 4-5 minutes for obstacles to overcome to the climax, then 1-2 minutes for resolution. 2 minutes and no confrontation yet? Blasphemy!

That's the beauty. Set it up. Reveal, reveal, reveal. Reveal information about the environment you are in, reveal interesting things about the main character, perhaps a glimpse of the antagonist (Not a confrontation, mind you. Save that for later.) In the next installment, we'll discuss the ReVeal technique in more detail. For now, give this initial suggestion a try - avoid the fight, avoid the confrontation - at least for the first minute. See how it feels.

See you next time.



Unknown said...

Do you see any differentiation in formula between scenes that follow more of a narrative structure vs scenes that just explore the dynamics of two or more characters? The "Hollywood formula" seems to be describing what I know of as more of the narrative driven scene, but I've improvised a lot of scenes with little discernible narrative (or at least only fragments of narrative).

David Russell said...

Another great question Chris. I absolutely do see a differentiation. For me, it's all in the telling - or playing. I frankly don't even mind a scene that is 2 characters interacting and/or arguing the whole time, if its got my attention and interest.

So the "Hollywood formula" aspect is a great way for the improviser to see the big picture of their scene or story, and a great model to use to build such a story when desired - long form, short form, whatever form.

I really like the words you used - "scenes that just explore the dynamics of two or more characters." I love those kinds of scenes too. I would submit that even in those character discoveries and explorations, a narrative reveals itself, even if it is not what one might consider a classical narrative structure. The Bassprov guys do that excellently. Masterful. I always feel when I see their shows that a narrative through-line has been discovered, that hasn't been set up as traditional story-crafting. It's still clever and witty storytelling. Notice the key word - clever and witty. They are adept at that skill which keeps us engaged.

Many scenes I see that lack story and might be interesting character explorations as you describe are witless and even boring when it comes to the dynamics of the two characters. Just because they're arguing doesn't automatically make it dynamic or interesting.

To help with that I would suggest improvisers use the keys I am offering in this series. Simple tools to get enough into the scene to make it compelling and interesting and to allow the improvisers to find some dynamics they can sink their creative teeth into.

The "Hollywood Formula" I discuss is the schematic blueprint to build a great story or scene. The RV method is a great set of tools to help build it. The set of tools can also be used to putter around and build something else cool as well, even if we aren't working from plans or blueprints. I've got this character and this character - let me use these tools and see what I can make. (That being more like the character exploration you speak of).

Pj Pantaleo said...

dynamics of two or more characters? Can you define dynamics as it relates to characters? I want to make sure in understand it and what it encompasses.

Pj Pantaleo said...

David .. offers and reveal one of the things Chris has taught me is that an offer can be an action, gesture, look, object in the scene..

In the set up a character lights a candle and pockets a lighter. In the reveal a fire needs to be lit to cook and the character pulls out the lighter to light the fire. The object is validated by the set up. Is this a correct scenario?

Jay Rodriguez said...

When can you know to stop an argument?

David Russell said...

PJ - the simplest way for me to describe the "dynamics" is to say its the stuff that happens to them, between them, through them, around them - anything that creates energy.

In fact, it also encompasses anything that happens to the person watching them discover/create.

David Russell said...

PJ 2 - All parts of that comment are correct. All are reveals. All populate the scene with opportunities for future development and help the observer feel/see the environment and characters more fully.

David Russell said...

Jay - great question. Many levels of answer here, but...

(this is not to be flippant)

When its usefulness is complete.

At some point the argument no longer serves the scene. The audience gets it. Unless there is something new and exciting revealed to or about the characters or their situation - I say end it quickly.

Also, keep in mind I suggest eliminating or severely minimizing arguments for the first 25% of your scene.

When it's time for conflict - fighting, bickering or arguing are only a few of the options available to the improviser.

David Russell said...

Mike - I am in complete agreement with both your thoughts: Conflict and starting in the middle. In the movies (you'll notice I use a lot of movie/Hollywood comparisons) there are several types of conflict, which we studied when we were all in 9th grade english. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Himself (herself). Most improvisers live in the land of the first choice and are missing out on 2/3 of the wonderful world of drama. Of course there are bits and pieces of each in any of the examples - there might be an argument between the characters of The Perfect Storm or Alien, but the bigger conflict is the convergence of storms or the slimy, gooey, mouth within a mouth mommy alien creature.

Regarding the "starting in the middle" - I love it. We can skip the formalities of the beginning of the scene. BORING. Not needed. The improvisers and the audience can glean all that is necessary. The "beginning" of the scene does not equal the beginning of the STORY (being told at this moment) in many instances. It might, but surely we can jump to a more compelling moment. We're still taking time to set up the story, so we still call it the beginning, but it's not the beginning of the energy of the moment. Again from the movies - there's a reason we are peaking in at this dramatic point of the story. We only need to go as far back as needed to reveal what is necessary for the audience to get into the story, but let's do our audience a favor (and ourselves) and jump in at a moment where the energy is already underway. Again, action movies are fantastic at raising the curtain while the action is heightened.

I will be investing a post or two on this topic specifically. Improvisers in general fall into this trap because they think they are discovering what the scene is about as they go along - meaning they don't know where they are when the lights come up. The supposed reality is that they DO know where they are when the lights come up. It's a strange dichotomy but they are making up on the spot what they already know to be true and happening around them, not making up what is around them. Another way of putting it - they're not making it up, they're making it known. A difficult dynamic for an improviser to embrace but we'll be talking about that more in future posts.

Thanks Mike, I'm really glad you brought that element of the conversation to light.

Mark said...

Hi David,

Great post and discussion so far. I really like the comparison of improv scenes to the Hollywood movie formula, that's a helpful way of looking at it for me. As someone who's still relatively new to this, I agree that it's very easy to rush into conflict... I think part of this instinct comes from insecurity and the desire to show that we know what we're doing, we have a plan and an idea of where the scene could go, so we rush to what we consider the meat of the story to prove it. I still have to actively think about it to repress that instinct.

So what should you do when your scene partner says something or makes an offer that introduces conflict too soon, without blocking or invalidating what they've said or done?