If you enjoy narrative and language-centric structures you’re probably already familiar with Typewriter. It’s another classic Theatresports game that I encountered in my youth that still serves as a mainstay in my classroom.
The basic version of the game sees one player serving as the typist and setting themselves to the side of the playing area where they can easily observe the action. As the typist starts writing aloud – usually pantomiming the mechanics of a typewriter or computer all the while – the characters in their imagination come to life and are embodied by their fellow teammates. The scene alternates seamlessly between the typist’s narration and the embodied dialogue and action of the onstage characters.
The title “When It Rains” serves as the initial prompt and Player A sits to the side of the stage to assume the role of the typist. As the lights transition they roll a fresh page of paper into their imaginary typewriter and begin typing and talking…
Player A: “When It Rains. A gritty crime novel by A. Nonymous. Chapter One. As the clock struck midnight, the tired city streets cried once more. Law abiding citizens had long since escaped into the comparative safety of their claustrophobic apartments. Except for an elderly man clinging to the soggy embers of a gasping cigarette, who stood restlessly on his stoop…”
Player B, when the first character is mentioned, assumes this persona and enters the stage, bundled in an overcoat playing with the offered cigarette in their hand. They peer into the darkness.
Player B: (softly, almost painfully) “I know you’re out there.”
A second figure, Player C, slowly steps into the light.
Player C: “You shouldn’t be surprised. I warned you this would happen…”
Player A: (narrating) “The huddled man nervously reached into his pocket. An alley cat screeched in the distance…”
Player C: “Move slowly old man. Is all the money there?”
Player B: (fumbling with an envelope) “And my son?”
Player C takes the money and ruminates.
Player A: (typing) “Streams of perspiration blended with the relentless rain dripping down the man’s face as the heavy silence hung in the humid air.”
Player C: “Well, that all depends on what you do next…”
For fulfilling stories pay particular attention to the give and take as well as the unique ways the various roles can contribute to the action. There are a lot of gimmicks that tend to get passed down with this game but none of the “bits” are needed to craft a successful scene if everyone focuses on just creating a rich tale.
Traps and Tips
1.) Share the spotlight. A lot of the initial heavy lifting can sit on the shoulders of the typist and in most cases I believe it’s kind to actually give this player a little room to find their voice and perspective. I advocate for an empty stage to start the game for this reason so that the author has a few moments to establish a mood or idea. Once the story is up and running, however, it’s good form to make sure characters aren’t merely puppets enacting exactly what their writer has described. Look to exchange the reins of the scene often. It’s helpful for the typist to offer clear throws to their fellow players so that they have room to explore without every move being framed or commented upon. Likewise, if the players performing characters dash forward with no regard for the author the scene will start to feel like any other, so it’s also important to leave windows open in which the the author can play.
2.) Typist best practices. One of the richer potentials of this format is that you can dig into scenic components through the narrative that are not always easily staged or embodied. At the top of the scene it’s helpful to favor tone, style and good old fashioned scene painting to provide a tantalizing balance. As the scene continues, in addition to keeping these elements alive and engaging, you can also provide provocative backstory, hidden motivations, or elucidate a character’s subtext or psychological state. The characters primarily provide dialogue and stage action, so while the author can offer choices in these areas too, it makes sense to focus more squarely on other features that are more difficult to physically create. Don’t forget that in addition to their narrative function that the typist is a character too so explore a unique point of view and voice as the author.
3.) Character best practices. A confident author can be both a blessing and a curse as it can incline other players to defer too much to this more singular vision. It’s generous to allow the author enough room to start something but, just as you would in any other scene, make sure you are “yes, anding…” Honor what’s been pitched and then swing for the fences. If you become tepid in your own contributions you may actually be demanding that the typist remains firmly in the driver’s seat. When dialogue naturally enters the narrative flow use your words deliberately and with conviction, avoiding the standard gag of merely repeating verbatim what might have been offered from the typewriter. And make sure you’re “yes, anding…’ any physical realities too. Don’t just stand passively awaiting further orders.
4.) Discover games rather than recycle bits. I’ve alluded to this above but I’ve seen many a promising Typewriter overwhelmed by a misplaced commitment to “funny bits” rather than imaginative storytelling. Sure, you can rip out your current page and start again, erase a prior choice and type in a new replacement, or leap the action forward multiple chapters. Each of these gimmicks, at one time or another, was undoubtedly an honest discovery and reaction to the needs of the moment. Perhaps the story got off to a jumbled start, or the language was becoming a little too racy for your target demographic, or the action had stalled and everyone was talking about a future event that really needed to be seen rather than endlessly discussed. But without clear and scene-specific motivations such moves will more often than not feel like filler and hamper anything more organic from emerging.
5.) Not all typewriters are created equal. And here are four variations of this basic model. The first, Double Typewriter, can provide a gentler entry into the basic model discussed above. Here two players now share the typist duties as co-writers sitting beside each other for the duration of the novel. Tag Typewriter raises the narrative challenge by having teammates occasionally tag out the current author and picking up the mayhem where it left off. Characters are usually embodied by the same player and don’t rotate so there can be some fun logistics involved in making sure most players get at least a brief chance to type while also retaining the needed character combinations for the stage. If you’re looking to increase physical, emotional, and subtextual work, Gibberish Typewriter incorporates characters who can only speak in this invented language while the author continues to use their native tongue. Characters need to exude extra attack and confidence to playfully share the work and not allow empty “whawhawhas” to dominate. Lastly, Blind (or Absent if you prefer) Typewriter places the typist offstage and out-of- sight where they can no longer see or hear the work of their imagined personae. (They’re usually on a microphone so the audience and players can easily hear them.) This final version upends some of the more graceful narrative potentials in favor of an avowedly “fish out of water” dynamic where the onstage players must work overtime to justify the steady stream of clashing incongruities.
The mechanics of this game are strong and can happily house a wide array of different novelistic styles and author energies, from teen adventures, to Bronte romances, to futuristic fantasies. It’s a shame not to fully exploit this range when you take your turn in the typist chair.
Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Scene Painting