Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Dramatic

There is a simple concept that I teach that is worth giving its own short post. I could even tack it to the first post by calling it a sixth skill of improv. That skill is developing a sense of The Dramatic.

The Dramatic is present in every good scene, and while there are countless examples, giving examples tends to throw students off course, into an imitation-mode of thought. My goal when teaching improv is to avoid allowing my students opportunities to imitate instead of innovate.

The Dramatic can be felt in any scene as soon as there is something at stake, for at least one of the characters. There's a certain magic to it, and a seasoned improvisor can hear a scene click into gear as the stakes are defined for a character the way lucifer can hear a person sigh they'd give up their soul.

A character without stakes is in a state of neutrality, and there is no drama to it. Whether there are no stakes to entice the character, or the character is simply unmoved by the stakes at hand, without a flicker of emotion, the story remains in the prologue.

It is our jobs, as conductors of the scene, to tease the rotten humanity out of our characters, so we may unravel their foibles for the audience's delight. The hero may succeed, or fail, or learn to live life without their desires, or forget where they were going, but the end doesn't matter remotely as much as the beginning: the end is embedded in the beginning.

Just as death is a pre-written conclusion to every birth, every initial dramatic tension has its resolution, and requires no artificial encouragement whatsoever. In fact, forced motions towards a conclusion will seem forced and in-confident to an audience. Once a dramatic tension is established, like a harp string brought to tune, it should be played for music.

There is no limit to the dramatic moments that can occur; heroes can be sidetracked, enemies can be enticed, friends can become enemies. Great things happen when these tensions interact, and fantastic complexity can be simple when the stakes are well known.

My favorite game to teach this skill is probably "It's Tuesday," in which each student is put on stage, and told "It's Tuesday," and is to react as powerfully as possible, in as unique a way as possible. This potentially illustrates the many ways one can react to the same information, and has its place as a skill spotlight, but I think I've refined the concept into a more fast-paced drill, for learning through repetition.

I call it "The Last Supper," and it's inspired by the DaVinci painting, which takes place after Jesus has told his apostles "One of you is going to betray me." This painting is full of drama, as each character has their own particular type of surprise to the news, with Judas standing out for grasping his bag of money.

My game "The Last Supper" is played in a circle as a warm-up game. One student makes a statement, and then going around the circle, each student gives a different unique reaction to that statement, including the first person. The next person makes a new statement, and the cycle repeats itself. While this doesn't give as powerful a singular performance opportunity as "It's Tuesday," it gives a rapid-fire drill of practice in creating sparks of The Dramatic, and I'm a strong believer in learning through repetition, so it suits my teaching style well.

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