“If you reveal your secrets to the wind you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese Writer
When it comes to the use of Secrets in our improv one size does not fit all needs and situations. I’ve explored numerous approaches in my short- and long-form work and now deeply appreciate how hidden information can add to the detail, tension and arc of spontaneous storytelling. In our battle against cartooning or overtly didactic choices, carefully utilized secrets provide mystery, dimension and complexity. Especially in long-form pieces where we may encounter a smaller set of characters for a larger period of time, these elements can also prove crucial for sustaining interest and momentum. I’ve heard some instructors warn that unexploded secrets, in particular, can actually steal energy and stall the action if they become too internally focused thereby serving only the needs of the individual actor. While there is clearly some wisdom in these words, as I outline below, I believe there are many fruitful strategies for making sure secrets are additive rather than diminishing. As is so often the case, it is less likely a fault of the tool rather than its clumsy or uninformed application.
Player A: (with a disproportionate sense of defensiveness) “Nothing is going on with me. Why would you even ask that…?”
Secrets Secrets are So Fun
I’m not sure I fully realized just how much I’ve deployed secrets in my own productions until contemplating this encyclopedia entry! Here are some potential strategies that I’ve found useful. I’ve bundled them by the different spheres of who is (and isn’t) in the know…
1.) Everyone, including the audience, is in the know. In this situation the key information may have been elicited as an ask-for prior to the scene in question or enacted by a player in full view of the audience and fellow company members. Even when a secret is common knowledge it can create energy and playfulness as the company enjoys exploring how this “hidden” information influences and frames the unfolding action. “Known” secrets unlock the wonderful potential of improvisational lies where everyone knows that false information has been proffered; this, in turn, encourages dynamic and creative storytelling and justifications. If the audience has provided the suggestion of “plagiarism” and, subsequently, we all know the protesting student has clearly engaged in this activity, the resulting scene becomes much more about their tactics than the simple presentation of this known truth. Similarly, if a scene begins with a character onstage alone accidentally breaking a prized possession, if they spend the majority of the scene carefully shifting the blame to another unsuspecting candidate this can enable dramatic (and comedic) mischief. Yes, there can be a power in jumping to culpability through an earnest confession, but prolonging the revelation of commonly held information when played with finesse adds suspense and interest while also complicating characterizations and motivations in nuanced ways. To a certain degree, improvisers exploit a similar dynamic when riffing on or alluding to historical or pop culture storylines (thereby placing everyone in the collective know) although care should be taken if the majority of the audience may not, in fact, be familiar with the source material in question.
2.) Everyone except a featured player is in the know. This configuration is most common in endowment games where one player leaves the performance space while critical elements are obtained from the audience. Games such as Crime Endowment, Chain Murder and Home Late all utilize this approach to strong effect. Here the secrets are often somewhat metatheatrical in that they are structural or game conceits rather than strictly based on the characters’ perception of reality. Endowment games thrive on this disconnect between what the audience knows and what the endowee struggles to comprehend. The contrast between the seeming transparency of loaded offers or clues and the oft-resulting bewilderment of the player who is in the dark provides a joyful and typically humorous juxtaposition. This dynamic is particularly well-suited to the stop-and-start dynamic of short-form shows where it’s possible to remove a player for the allotted time as the pertinent elements are assembled. If you’re familiar with this type of endowment game it’s a common adage that it really doesn’t matter if the endowee is ultimately successful or not as long as they attack the scene with conviction and maintain some sense of improvisational composure and narrative. The audience will relish the struggle if it’s undertaken with charm and delight. Such scenes also serve as palpable reminders that audiences savor the process and gain satisfaction from a game well-played as well as a game well-won. While the game examples listed above lean towards the comedic I also use a similar device for training purposes where paired characters are provided secrets known to the audience but not each other. (For a favorite example, see Mantras here.) With some carefully constructed scenarios, the dynamic routinely results in weighty dramatic explorations.
3.) Only the pertinent player/character is in the know. Secrets of this variety provide rich character motivations and backstories. In most improvisational traditions it’s possible for players to craft their own secrets as scenes unfold in such a way as to increase the dynamism or tension at play. If a character is struggling with unknown abandonment issues from their past, a looming breakup may take on additional intensity, or a character that has been secretly harboring and suppressing an unrequited love for a long time will likely feel more deeply if their passions are suddenly reciprocated. Such secrets may also be provided or imposed by an outside hand or system. For Murder We Wrote I compiled a large array of secrets into a shuffled deck of cards with each character drawing one before each performance just to add a little extra spice and complexity to the action. As each secret was random, they typically had little or nothing to do with the greater plot of the murder but rather served as red herrings or engaging subplots. In these cases, private secrets ally closely with the concept of a character’s objective, informing the shades and specifics of their tactics and subtext. Subsequently, many of the preferred facets of an objective apply here equally as well, specifically pursuing choices that are active, connected and evocative: active in that the secret propels the relevant character into the scene rather than encourages them to retreat into their unseen imagination; connected in that it forges bonds and needs embodied by the other characters present within the stage action; and evocative in that the hidden information inspires the player in question to engage in the communal act of creation. (The concerns expressed in my introduction above strike me as inabilities to construct secrets that meet these key criteria.) While I think it’s possible that some secrets can effectively remain as such as the curtain falls on the production, unless the genre demands it I think leaving too many motivations unresolved or hidden might also frustrate rather than captivate the audience.
4.) Not even the pertinent player/character is in the know. This is territory I’ve been exploring with some more recent serial long-form work. Such a strategy is likely unworkable in shorter modes that are more on-the-spot and don’t allow for some behind-the-scenes orchestration. An omnipresent hand is required for this system to thrive as they assume the responsibility to curate and plant potentially intersecting secrets into the backstories of the improvising stock characters. This is not a small feat but such an approach can provide a rich and contrasting array of dramatic possibilities that are less likely to emerge organically. While some of the other secret methodologies offer more immediate payoffs and pleasures for the audience that are well-suited to shorter improvisational scenes, this more dramaturgical angle can provide exciting buried powder kegs that can reveal dynamic twists and turns more suited to action that seeks to develop over the course of many hours or multiple viewings. In my own work, Upton Abbey would serve as a full-throated commitment to this experiment. Here a cast of thirty characters – fifteen upstairs and fifteen downstairs played by a cast of fifteen improvisers assuming two roles apiece – each received carefully researched and constructed character biographies in which both explicit and dormant secret information was carefully embedded. As the eight-episode show unfolded, and when characters randomly rotated into featured story positions, an in-house dramaturg would carefully reveal pertinent secrets to the characters in question as mandated by the action. This level of preparation was undeniably considerable (and might fly in the face of some practitioners’ view of what is and isn’t improv) but the results were often riveting as characters, players and the audience all experienced honest moments of surprise and revelation together. You can read more about this particular project here.
If you find yourself passively floating through the action without purpose or investment as a character, a little dash of secrecy can go a long way. Be wary of pursuing an inner life that is too “inner” and not “lively” enough – a well-executed secret should complicate and motivate action rather than squelch or minimize it. And don’t under-estimate the value of letting the audience in on the game. Played carefully, a secret can have many phases of usefulness, starting with the bearer by informing subtext and actions, incorporating the audience through providing empathy and investment, involving select characters by adding stakes and story twists, until it is ultimately exploded at the most or least opportune moment thereby shaping a climax or anagnorisis. Much like an effective CAD, a strong secret is also marked not just by its content but also by its impactful delivery; after all, the character has decided to hold onto this information for a reason and shouldn’t just carelessly throw it out into the scenic waters where it might be swept away.
Connected Game: On the Back Word Endowments