We know it’s hard to find good scripts for large, amateur casts, so wouldn’t it be great if amateur groups were able to create their own plays, built around the strengths of their actors?
Film director Mike Leigh has made many successful films by guiding his stellar cast of actors through a process of improvisation, but is it reasonable to expect a group of non-professionals to create a play in this way? The word itself can strike terror into the heart of even the most confident theatre practitioner. It’s understandable that improvisation – or acting without a script – might seem like a foolhardy venture if you’re used to starting rehearsals with a book in your hand. Actors are frightened of saying the wrong thing – or being unable to think of anything at all – while directors are unsure of how to handle improvised scenes. However, if you’re prepared to work at it slowly, building confidence as you go, there’s no reason why you can’t create a full-length play using improvisation techniques.
Here’s a simple, 7-step guide to putting together your own play. As an example, we’ll imagine that the fictional ‘Wilverton Players’ are planning to stage a drama about female munitions factory workers in World War II.
STEP 1 Research, research, research
The starting point for the director and the actors must be thorough research. You’ve chosen a specific historical period, so you’ll need to know it inside out. The director in particular needs to immerse herself or himself in the period, to ensure the production observes all the necessary historical details.
STEP 2 Pick your actors
You know the strengths and weaknesses of your actors, so as a starting point you could appoint six or seven strong performers who complement each other to lead the cast. These are the people you will work with closely over time – during later rehearsals you can bring in smaller, supporting roles as required.
STEP 3 Create characters
When you cast your leading actors, it’s fine to tell them what roles they will play, but avoid going into great detail. A thumbnail sketch such as “Madge Williams – natural leader, funny, down-to-earth” will be enough at this stage (and Wilverton’s director will probably give this role to an actor whose real-life personality more or less matches that description).
STEP 4 Hotseat your characters
Before your characters ever meet in a rehearsal room, you’ll need to ‘hotseat’ them. Hotseating may sound scary, but it’s an almost magical process designed to push an actor deep into their role. The concept is simple and straightforward: allow your actor some time to think about and create their fictional character’s life – when they were born, their childhood, their home life now – then sit them in a chair and ask them questions. Begin with easy stuff – “What did you have for breakfast?”; “What’s your favourite colour?” and progress to questions about their relationship with their parents, brothers and sisters, first job, first love, etc. Your actors must respond to these questions as their character, not as themselves.
Make it clear during this process that there is no right or wrong response, you’re just exploring. If somebody says something that doesn’t work for the historical period, discuss it at the end, so they can come up with alternative ideas.
The group should decide whether other cast members should be present during hotseating. If it’s decided that hotseating should be a one-to-one, actor/director process, don’t forget to brief the rest of the cast about the other characters they can expect to meet on stage.
STEP 5 Let your characters meet
Your actors will most likely feel overwhelmed if you try to bring the full cast of characters together right away. Better to give them a gradual introduction to each other, involving two or three characters at a time. Set a simple situation: “It’s been a busy day at the factory and the boss has been a nightmare – three of the women have slipped away for an illicit fag break”. You may not use the scene in the final piece – this is just to get your actors started.
It’s probably better not to let this first attempt at improv drift on endlessly. Unless it’s proving to be compelling stuff, call it to a halt after a few minutes. Offer praise and reassurance, then ask the actors to play it again – maybe with a slightly different emphasis, or bringing one of the characters in after a minute or so. In this way your actors will understand that an improvised scene can be reproduced and worked on, just like a scripted scene. They will probably feel more relaxed and confident each time they repeat their actions.
STEP 6 Decide on a narrative line
Once you have your characters in place, it’s time to decide on the story. For example, the Wilverton Players might introduce the character of a new girl who starts work at the factory … she’s reluctant to talk about herself and some people think she might be a German spy, but she’s hiding another secret. Meanwhile Madge Williams leads a rebellion against the bullying behaviour of the boss, and one of the other women loses her husband, who has been fighting abroad.
You can weave all your ideas together, but it’s important to decide on the dominant storylines that will eventually lead to the play’s denouement. In Wilverton’s play, the new girl’s secret becomes known – she’s escaping an abusive husband – and the women gather round to support her. What’s more, the boss is finally revealed as a black marketeer and sacked on the spot. These are all fairly obvious plotlines, but in working with your actors you may discover subtleties and nuances you can introduce to create a really original and interesting drama.
STEP 7 On the road to production
Once you have a sequence of scenes established, you can rehearse and give notes just as you would with a scripted drama. If, in the beginning, scenes tend to veer off in different directions, you can gently guide them back on course until the improvised lines become set in stone. At that point it will all become much easier to turn the work into a fully-fledged production.
Take things gently and you’ll find that creating a play through improvisation isn’t as terrifying as it sounds (although you may want to allow a little more time than usual for rehearsals, particularly if you haven’t been through this process before). Alternatively if you really don’t feel able to tackle improvised drama but you’re looking for something a little different to perform, which not visit our script bank at http://www.scenethreecreative.co.uk?
Happy play-making – and let us know if you do manage to stage your own improvised drama.
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