I think it would be fair to characterize E Pluribus Unum that played at the Orlando International Fringe Festival in 2005 as having an auto-biographical feel. (Read more about this production in my earlier blog here.) I’ve developed a custom in my campus work of often using our own names onstage which can further incline improvisers to lean heavily on their own stories and truths in performance, or at least use personal narratives as a launching point. This has the added advantage of minimizing the “I’ve forgotten your name” shtick than can become omnipresent and distracting lazzi in more sincere pieces, although I’ll happily acknowledge that there are certainly times when an improvised name can really add nuance and detail to a character or endowment.
To further encourage more personally meaningful improv, I’ll often spend considerable time early on in my rehearsal processes unlocking and sharing true stories and experiences as a way of building connections, trust and frankly even material in the absence of an audience. The exercise I describe here, Fluid Sculptures, is a great option for facilitating this type of sharing. I spent a month in the summer of 2004 at the School of Playback Theatre, and that’s where this game entered my lexicon.
Fluid Sculptures provides a meaningful way to check in with the company, develop deep listening skills, explore kinesthetic communication, and heighten trust.
Here’s a peek inside:
Players form a circle. One player volunteers to serve as the first “teller” and shares a brief statement or story about their day or the emotional climate they are bringing into the space. The player positioned opposite in the circle along with the performers on each side (for a total of three) translate this feeling into a brief moving sculpture that seeks to honor the details and truth of the shared story. Once the sculpture finds stillness and completion, the person next to the prior teller shares a new story and the three performing players correspondingly clicks around one spot as well. This continues until everyone has had an opportunity to share and has also performed in three re-tellings.
It’s a little difficult to describe the nuances and feel of the miniature performances in a written medium. If you are familiar with the short-form warm-up game of Machines, the logistics are similar (players work together with their bodies to create noises and actions in one connected image) although the mood and intent are markedly different. Generally, it’s helpful for the “middle player” to begin and end the sculpture, with the others stepping forward or arranging themselves around this first choice. As each choice generally repeats in a loop, the ending often emerges when the action has been sufficiently repeated or perhaps when the routine reaches a climax or is broken. Players can elect to take different phrases, energies or ideas from the teller’s narrative, especially if there are clearly conflicting or contrasting dynamics or “characters,” and can use language, sounds or utterances in addition to movement. As is the case with the parent form of Playback Theatre, the key is striving to honor and represent each teller and their story in a way that doesn’t critique or belittle. That being said, there is often laughter as the group recognizes themselves and their own similar tensions in the vignettes, but the intent is not to cleverly entertain.
The first “teller” offers that they are feeling a little overwhelmed. Prior to coming to rehearsal, they had to leave their child at home who was clearly wanting attention, and they’re feeling some guilt that they really wanted to be among adults tonight. They’ve been having a hard time balancing family and work commitments in general and craving an escape from it all for several days now.
After a moment of silence, the teller’s actor (opposite in the circle) steps forward and takes a huge de-stressing breath, joyfully seeing the adults in the room. Once this is established, the player repeats this general motion with a sense of relief and release.
The actor to one side of the teller’s actor kneels down beside them, gently pulling on their sleeve and saying, “Just one more game…” with a plaintive cry. This continues as the first actor acknowledges the child’s presence but tries to retain the sense of calm.
The third and final actor steps behind the first and mimes juggling three cell phones, trying to frantically read each screen before it is thrown once more up into the air. Again, the two prior actors adjust and react to this new addition but maintain the central concept of their first choices.
The teller’s actor takes one last long sustained exhale, cuing that the sculpture is complete, the performers slowly stop, and they take a breath together.
Traps and Tips
1.) Avoid commentary. When you are first experiencing this game it’s unavoidable that there may need to be some guidance or coaching in terms of the mechanics and form, finding the most effective way to begin and end tableaux, tightening staging, and encouraging listening and the like. When it comes to the content, however, you want the performances to serve as the response to each teller, so avoid discussing each contribution whenever possible, especially before the performances have taken place.
2.) Remember who the exercise is about. The last beat of each vignette is typically the actors turning and giving the focus back to the original teller. This can be helpful in several ways. If something is “off” in the performance, the teller has a moment to quickly digest and perhaps share that reality. Conversely, if something is particularly “on” or moving in the performance, the teller can have a moment to process and acknowledge what resonated. In some rare instances I’ve seen a redo if the tone or focus of the vignette was sufficiently off that it left the teller unsatisfied or made them feel poorly heard. If our focus is on representing the teller’s feelings and narrative with nuance, a second chance may be necessary and welcome.
3.) Break down the elements of the teller’s narrative. I’ve tried to model this as best I can in the example above, but often there will be multiple energies, facets or possibly even characters in the mix and it can be dynamic and fruitful for the three responding performers to look for these contrasts and opportunities. (This feels connected to Augusto Boal’s “Cops in the Head” work and Playback shares approaches from the realm of psycho- and socio-drama as well). Performers may all contribute from the teller’s perspective (the deep-breathing first character above), or include other dynamics (such as the child above), assume metaphoric or thematic energies (such as the juggler above), or a variety of these approaches.
4.) Don’t over-rely on language. I will admit that this might be a person preference, but the exercise can unlock interesting new ways of representing lived truths and experiences, and I think this sense of discovery can be discouraged if players essentially just paraphrase the initial story or engage in long dialogues with each other. This is where I think the Machines comparison can be helpful in that each player generally makes a distinct action accompanied with some noise or a brief sentence that is then repeated. These offers can certainly morph and transform, especially as new elements are introduced, but you don’t want to think of these as scenes so much as moments or tableaux, hence the helpfully descriptive title of Fluid Sculptures!
5.) Be gentle and patient. This can be a surprisingly vulnerable experience, especially if this type of sharing is not the norm for your company or class. Allow sufficient time so you don’t have to rush through it and can tend to anything that might bubble up in the process. For example, if a teller is processing their performance in a complex way, it is certainly worth taking the time to make sure they were heard and this may require some additional sharing or feedback.
This exercise can take a while to teach and mold especially if you’re working in a larger group. Once a company knows the exercise, it will generally move a little quicker, but there can be times when heavier material emerges and it will need time to breathe. I had this slated as an early part of my first E Pluribus Unum rehearsal as I wanted to set a tone of honesty and bravery for our improv, and this certainly helped in that regard. If your troupe has a check-in routine, this is also an interesting and effective way to add a performative element that promotes some good old fashioned empathizing and Atticus Finching.
I don’t recall if this particular exercise is in Jo Salas’ book Improvising Real Life, but this is a helpful resource if this type of work is of particular interest to you and you’d like to learn more.
And that’s your peek inside the rehearsal process of E Pluibus Unum: Out of Many, One, my first improv show at a fringe festival.