What longform improv can teach writers...and everyone else.
Last week I had the privilege of seeing Ben Schwartz and friends in Hammersmith doing a one hour show based purely on five minutes of chatting to the audience.
Five minutes of chat from three stories, a few characters, a pub crawl and a vegetable orchestra, and they were away. One hour's made up entertainment from masters of the game. I have attended rehearsals with local friends Foghorn so had some introduction to how they might have created the show, the rules at play and the unseen structure but in essence as Ben said (obviously he's my best friend now so I call him Ben), this was our show. A moment in time that would not be repeated, made up on the spot.
But it was in fact a product of hours of work. Improvisers practice. They play and repeat. The learn rules and understand what's happening in a scene whilst keeping an open mind and building ideas and, as importantly, knowing when to let them go.
It is a joyful process and a disciplined approach because you can't make the show until you make the show.
How does this help inform the writer? A writer who is often alone, sometimes miserable (I don't know about you but I feel all the feels when I write a story and they can be pretty sad), ploughing away at an idea over and over again seems a huge distance from a group of happy high status performers. What can we learn from them?
Well, one of the things I struggle with is the amount of writing I have to do, or thinking, or reading, before anything comes of it. I have been published recently and did a reading for Digbeth Stories a new anthology from Floodgate Press and my story River Rea is out in the world amongst a brilliant group of writers. A moment of glorious communion after a long and winding road of lone writing.
The story itself was created during a 15 minute exercise on an Arvon masterclass from a prompt by Lisa Blower. I then rewrote it a couple from times and that was it. Not the hours and days and weeks I've spent writing novels but maximum a few hours work plus conversations with the editor. Was it even worth spending all that other time writing?
This is where the improvisers show us up and show us what to do. What strikes me that the real work comes before the outcome. Before you got that finished draft. Before you step on stage. Before you get an agent, publisher or audience. Iceberg work.
That 15 minutes arrived like the improv show did, because I practiced and showed up. Because my brain knew to get to work.
It's in the process.
Every time I pick up a pen for 5 mins, or write with my thumbs on a phone, I'm pushing forward with the relationship, the rehearsal, the trust in the process. And sharing it is part of that, not all of it.
So here for the love of it is a picture of Birmingham in all its beauty and the beginning of my story 'River Rea' which you can find more of by buying a copy of Digbeth Stories.
'It's six o clock in the morning, just me and the River Read passing by, speaking in riddles.'