Elements of Narrative Improv

This post provides a paraphrased summary of the elements of Narrative Improv as laid out by Parallelogramophonograph or "Pgraph" in their excellent little book, "Do It Now: Essays on Narrative Improv."

Narrative Improv is a form of improvised theatre in which the group creates a full-length play that result in a more-or-less coherent story that runs all the way from "once upon a time" through to the "happily ever after" (or not so happily, if you like).  It's a flexible form that stands in contrast to both highly structured forms like the Armando or Harold, and to the unstructured "montage" improv of somewhat-connected scenes with once-off characters.

I recently took a class on Narrative Improv with Neil Curran of Lower The Tone (based in Dublin, Ireland), and our group "The Players" has been doing some shows. You'll want to do such a class or buy the book to follow the rest of the post as a handy reminder. What follows is mostly a paraphrase from the "What comes next?" section on page 73 of "Do It Now" with a few insertions of my own based off the rest of the book.  Unfortunately there's no eBook, just the tree version.  Without further ado, the elements of narrative improv:

The story spine
Once Upon A Time ... And Every Day ... Until One Day ... And Because Of That ... And Because Of That (repeat to taste) ... Until Finally ... And Ever Since Then. Virtually any plot can be arranged or rearranged into a story spine form, and you can practice making story spines in a group exercise where each person in turn adds an element to the story.

Invest in normalcy
It's almost impossible to spend too much time on the "once upon a time ... and every day" part of the show where everything that happens is stuff that always happens. Even if two characters start in a sword fight, that's just something they do every day. Normalcy builds the world, the characters, the relationships. Take up multiple scenes, a large fraction of your show, just showing different parts of the everyday world of these people. If someone brings in plot too soon just act like their proposed plot is something that happens all the time. One day, when the "One Day" finally happens, you will have loads of material to work with!

Identify the protagonist
Around the "Until One Day" point, different characters will be making offers of goals and desires. As a group you gradually home in with a "spotlight" on different characters to settle on one with a strong offer, who will become the protagonist for the rest of the story. Give the protagonist a strong and simple desire - even if it's just to get their rug back (it really tied the room together!). Then the rest of the story becomes scenes that either help or hurt the protagonist in pursuit of their goal.

Make scenes have clear consequences
More than "making bold choices", by giving actions and scenes clear, strong consequences, the "And Because Of That" will come naturally, and you get a feel for where the story is going. This frees you from "oh no where are we going" scrambling for the next step, giving you space to have playful moments in your scenes.

Be clunky but clear
Be overt and clear about the details of scenes and relationships, particularly early in your group's development. It's the opposite of being vague and hoping that the others figure out what you're getting at or fill in the gaps. "My dear brother Kevin, what a dank cave this is!" comes out clunky but makes the relationship and location clear! Subtlety will develop over time.

Explore a range of acting styles and tones
Deliberately try out new genres, and new acting styles from everyday realism, to stage realism, to over-the-top stylized acting. Try out new character tropes from movies and theatre. These deepen your stories and make your shows distinct, taking your improv to new places.

Pgraph round it off saying to play, practice and enjoy getting it horribly wrong - that's how you learn! -  and revel in getting it right.  If you've done narrative improv I hope these reminders help, and if you haven't I hope it inspires you to get the book and take a class!

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