This resilient improv frame can serve equally well as a handle, short-form game or as a device housed within a long-form structure. Prologue utilizes a spoken narrative introduction to set the wheels of a scene in motion while also giving a little more artistic control to the featured Deviser than may be typical in some improvisational settings.
One player assumes the role of the prologuer or narrator. Before the action of the scene commences they step forward and provide a detailed narrative introduction that establishes the given circumstances (or CROW) of the scenario. This narration may be inspired from an audience suggestion or derive from a personal artistic goal for the scene. Other teammates then craft a nuanced scene that fully utilizes these offered details. In the short-form tradition, the scene continues until it finds a natural ending without additional guidance or interruptions from the prologuer. In a long-form setting, the prologuer (or a different narrator) might then build on the previous scene by offering new narrative introductions or bridges.
Player A volunteers to assume the role of narrating the prologue and steps forward…
Player A: “It can take a while to become accustomed to life in the country with its more leisurely pace and the increased likelihood that you’ll be recognized wherever you go. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that teenage siblings, Grace and Greg, weren’t feeling particularly in sync with their new rural high country surroundings. They had promised their parents that they would give this relocation a try, and in their earnest and frayed opinions they had. Or at least, that’s what they told themselves as they stood on the train platform that frosty Monday morning…”
Player A leaves the stage as Player B and C enter and stand on the platform…
Player B: “…I thought it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I had imagined, but I was wrong.”
Player C: “What were Mom and Dad even thinking?! We’re clearly city kids.”
Player B: (with slight panic) “You’ve got the tickets, Grace?”
Player C: (tapping their pocket) “It took me two months to save up for them. These are our freedom.”
A local, Player D, enters from a distance, and immediately recognizes them…
Player D: “Well, if it isn’t Greg and Grace! Should you two be in school…?”
A well-delivered prologue can quickly launch a scene and set it up for a dynamic journey. Players should mine the narrative for details both intended and those that may have been almost unconscious, like a unique turn of phrase. Prologue also offers a wonderful opportunity to boldly explore different styles and tones of play.
Traps and Tips
As the scenic component of this game largely demands traditional improv skills and techniques, I will focus here on the more peculiar role of the prologuer.
1.) Offer details. A strong and helpful prologue includes a fair share of nuanced detail. Providing solid CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective and Where) elements is without question a good place to start as these facets allow the ensemble members to spring to action confidently. Every element needn’t be painted in technicolor, but it’s helpful to go beyond the basics on some level. This dynamic is predicated on the conceit that the prologuer has a particular idea in mind, so you shouldn’t apologize for offering up a few loaded choices. Embrace and savor the role of the scenic deviser! A vague or overly-deferring prologuer essentially defeats the purpose and promise of the game.
2.) Provide inspiration. In addition to providing a launching pad, an effective prologue should inspire the company. It should not be exclusively prescriptive, telling the company what you want to see, but should also strive to unlock the creativity of your fellow improvisers. I liken it to an ellipses: there is an innate sense of promise or lurking potential. A dynamic prologue, subsequently, should feel a little incomplete. Rather than instruct the players explicitly step-by-step how to proceed, it suggests an interesting way to begin trusting that your fellow improvisers will take the story ball and run with it in playful and surprising ways.
3.) Suggest mood. I’m a fan of not only establishing some strong who, what and where ingredients but also using the prologue to offer up or model some sense of mood or style. Run-of-the-mill improv scenes don’t always afford such an opportunity to take a moment and set a tone right up front so it would seem a real waste not to fully exploit this aspect of the device. The narrator can embody or establish a strong stylistic choice or genre in their own initial delivery or energy, or offer up some narrative guideposts for the improvisers to embellish. From the example above we could lean into a modern fable energy, an after-school special filled with hyperbolic warning, or perhaps even a Rod Stirling Twilight Zone vibe.
4.) Consider mystery. This may be a personal preference, but regardless of the overarching mood, I think a little mystery in the prologue can go a long way. Introductions that include a rich or provocative question are likely to ignite the imaginations of the players. Why did the family move into the rural highlands in the first place? Why are the siblings so determined to escape this new home? Has something just happened that was the final straw to break the camel’s back? Don’t feel the need to answer everything in the prologue: a little intentional mystery can go a long way.
If you are a player in the scene you can certainly gently work your way up to the prologue ingredients with them finally coalescing for the climax or resolution, but there is also an invigorating power in jumping into the scene with all (or the majority of) the named ingredients already established and in play. This allows the scenic players to get the best of both worlds: the structure and inspiration of the given circumstances, and then sufficient time for freedom and exploration to develop their own discoveries. The prologue example provided above is also on the lengthier side. You can certainly still gain great value from considerably more concise introductions, such as “Siblings Grace and Greg, wait anxiously on the train platform as they try to escape their rural lives…” I’ve used both lengthier and more concise prologue introductions to strong effect in multiple projects such as Lights Up: The Improvised Rock Opera and Variations on a Theme.
Connected Concept: Deviser