Improvisation and Motivation

Over the weekend, I had my first experience of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). If you’re unfamiliar with this, here’s a brief introduction.

I enjoyed my experience because players are allowed to improvise parts of the storyline beyond how the Dungeon Master has described the scene. For example, my character had a vivid dream as part of the story, but I could interpret the images any way I wanted, and that interpretation would contribute to the direction of the story.

The experience reminded me of an exercise from drama class in high school. Each participant was given an outline of a setting, plus an individual motivation kept secret from the others until we revealed it through improv.

This produced natural-sounding dialogue, even from school pupils without an acting background. Similar methods are used by some reality TV shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex, to avoid the action sounding too scripted.

The same principle can be adapted for scripted drama. Aaron Sorkin takes the approach of working out what each character wants, then writing the scene accordingly. In this way, he’s produced The West Wing and The Social Network, among many other screenplays.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking part in more D&D sessions. I think the key to making a more interesting campaign is to work out what exactly my character wants and bringing it to the surface when interacting with the other players.

I believe improv keeps me sharp, and roleplaying seems to be a great way to exercise that metaphorical muscle.

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Giving the Right Direction

Whenever possible, I go to an event called Scrieve. Playwrights are invited to submit a 10-minute extract of their work, where it’s read out by volunteer actors.

Having recently revisited and edited my one-woman play Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream, I submitted scenes 1 and 3 for reading. I omitted scene 2 largely because of time constraints.

Some months ago, I’d submitted another extract from later in the play and I was pleased with the person who’d read it out, as it was in exactly the excitable manner I’d intended. I was fortunate to have the same person read it out in this instance. However, while scene 3 was satisfactory, scene 1 made the audience laugh – but it’s supposed to be more serious than the majority of the play.

Playwriting is not for the control freak. It’s a common rookie mistake for the writer to micromanage the actors. By convention, the writer supplies the dialogue and the bare minimum of stage direction, while the director has control over how the play looks and sounds to the audience. There were some great plays at Scrieve, but my script definitely allowed the characters the greatest freedom of movement.

So I’ve taken another look at the direction in scene 1. I can’t control the final outcome, but I can suggest how the dialogue is supposed to be delivered.

The misunderstanding probably arose with the phrase I’d used to describe the character at that point: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND CONFIDENT’. The lines were definitely delivered with confidence, but also with humour. This has now been amended to: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND SPEAKING IN A SERIOUS TONE’.

Unless I can rope in a willing volunteer, this will probably be the last time I’m able to hear my words spoken by someone else before I submit it to an upcoming event. Nonetheless, it proved invaluable for ironing out a small flaw that changed the nature of a whole scene.

The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.

Ready to Play.

Having been flat on my back with illness last week, I missed the chance to go to a play on 25 June called Shape of a Girl at the Little Theatre in Dundee. It tells the story of a Canadian girl who was bullied and subsequently found dead. I’d been invited by a friend, playwright Mark McGowan, who is involved with Dundee Dramatic Society.

By last Friday of that week, I was feeling much better, and Mark invited me on a backstage tour of the theatre used by the society. It really is a little place: more like a large house than a venue. The auditorium seats just 100 people, and I saw the actors holding an intense rehearsal session there for a show that opens in August. Backstage is upstairs in the attic space, accessed by wooden staircases at the sides of the stage, yet it houses a green room, costume store, sewing room, and a coffee bar.

As Mark persuaded members of the company to sign up for his latest production, I spoke with one of the actors. The theatre group has lasted around 90 years, and we discussed how it has managed to remain in its own niche against comparable venues in the city, and the potential threat from a cinema that is due to open across the road.

I also flipped through an index of plays, each with a summary of the plot and required number of actors. Between the ages of twelve and 14, I had a brief acting career through the National Youth Music Theatre. It now strikes me just how difficult it must have been to find a suitable script so we all had a part. Similarly, Dundee Dramatic Society are volunteers, so there is little control over the age and gender of the players.

I’ve only once tried my hand at playwrighting, and I enjoyed the process. The group that runs National Novel Writing Month used to run a similar event in April called Script Frenzy where participants were challenged to produce a 100-page script during the month. Many of my local SF group chose to produce screenplays, but I elected to write for the stage as it needs only two actors.

I haven’t redrafted the script since it was written. But I’m confident I’ll one day return to it, tighten up the dialogue, iron out any plot holes, and see it performed.