The short-form game Chapters deliciously complicates the improv tradition of Shelving and reincorporation as players construct a linear storyline that has become jumbled out of sequence.
An audience-inspired title informs the action as well as an elicited number of chapters (something in the eight to twelve range works well.) At irregular intervals, an offstage caller shifts the action by nominating the next out-of-sequence chapter number. Improvisers perform the selected chunk of the story giving heed to both past and future events that have already been established. The scene ends when the “last” chapter is performed although, in all likelihood, this will be any chapter number other than the last!
Based on the suggestion, “Beach Day,” and the number “nine” the scene begins with a blackout and the offstage caller nominating “Chapter Eight” as the first offering.
As the lights rise, Player D has thrown themselves onto the ground and a panicked Player B kneels over their body.
Player B: (Calling into the void of the cave) “Jorge, are you out there! Hang in there, help is coming soon. I promise.”
Player D inaudibly grumbles.
Player B: “Why did we ever step foot inside this cave? What was I thinking?”
Another moan from Player D… Player B adjusts the makeshift bed. The sound of falling rocks grabs their attention.
Player B: “Jorge?”
Caller: “Chapter Two.”
The stage plunges quickly into darkness. A moment or two later the lights rise on all four players assembled around what is soon revealed as the family car.
Player A: (unloading the trunk) “You’re right, honey, there’s barely another person in sight!”
Player B: “I thought we could use a change from the regular family beaches. What are you looking at there son?”
Player C: “Just a sign post. There’s no life guard on duty here…”
Player D: (looking at their cellphone) “I’ve not been able to get any service for the last few kilometers…”
Player B: (grabbing the phone and throwing it into the car) “Okay everyone, this is a technology free adventure!”
Player A: “I agree! It’s a beautiful day and we have the beach all to ourselves… Lead the way Jorge!”
The family locks up the car and starts down the sandy path to the beach…
Caller: “Chapter Six…”
There’s no denying that this jumping back and forth in time requires unflinching focus alongside an ability to track shelved details and a heightened awareness of where you are in the established story arc at any given moment.
Traps and Tips
1.) Transformations. When the lights plummet between the various chapter calls it’s crucial to leap into action. Take full advantage of these opportunities to craft novel stage pictures that are clearly different from what has just gone before. It’s exciting for the lights to rise on a dynamic tableau – perhaps even a slightly inexplicable image – that the resulting scene must quickly incorporate and justify. If each chapter starts with lethargy or under-energized characters wandering aimlessly around an unnamed location, players will have to work hard to sell each scenic unit. Later chapter numbers, in particular, probably represent story moments deep within the rising action and the climax itself. Subsequently, these vignettes need to hit the stage with some sense of stakes and urgency. Dynamic new poses also discourage going to the same story well time and time again or too quickly connecting distant choices.
2.) Combinations. Related to the above, much like a game of Entrances and Exits (see here), look for strategic ways to shake up the character combinations, especially early in the game. While a protagonist might find themselves in the majority of the chapters, even this character (when you figure out who it might be!) should rotate out as this enables other unexpected relationships some time in the sun. And they can always enter the chapter later on if their absence becomes unhelpfully conspicuous. Sticky feet can quickly squelch the hopes of varied stage pictures especially if you’re also inclined towards a “stand and deliver” style of play. Once you have a few benchmark chapters established, combinations may be largely predetermined by what bookends the current offering, so investments in this area early on really lay the groundwork for later fun.
3.) Complications. As we experience plot points out of sequence there are delightful opportunities to forebode events, heighten emotions and lay contextualizing groundwork for future events that have already made it to stage. When the game is played under typical short-form conditions where you might only have four or five minutes maximum to complete your haphazard journey, it’s wise not to overburden the improv shelves with an excess of details and ideas. Look to polish and add on to others’ offers rather than scattershot a disconnected pile of possibilities. The story proves most satisfying when the major shelved elements are all skillfully incorporated. Chapter eight, above, focused on the climactic event of one of the party needing medical attention while Jorge, presumably, went for help. (Who knows what’s happened to Player A…?) Chapter two establishes the remoteness of the beach. Too many other facts or curve balls decrease the chances that many (any?) of them will reappear meaningfully.
4.) Facilitations. There are some helpful pointers to shape the impending madness from the caller bench. It’s useful to have all the chapter numbers written down so you have a visual guide and can make sure every chapter is seen once before the game ends. On rare occasions I’ve seen the caller return to a previously embodied chapter thereby inviting a replay. The players have a lot to juggle and remember so I’d warn against this gimmick unless the team is on fire or you’re faced with a peculiarly low chapter number and need to build energy before the “out.” I like the device of starting with a chapter somewhere near the end (or making such a call reasonably quickly) as this invites bold emotional choices and the joyful challenge of now reverse engineering the requisite story points. Where did Jorge go? What happened to Player D (and A for that matter?) Why did they go into the cave in the first place? If the team is really struggling in a way that isn’t serving anyone in attendance, the caller can also gently guide them by providing brief chapter headings that allude to previously established moments: “Chapter One: Heading to the Beach,” “Chapter Nine: Is That You, Jorge?” and the like. This, of course, requires that the caller had been paying close attention themselves and probably taking some really good notes.
Chapters requires and reinforces a sound sense of linear story construction and action. (Utilizing a more theme-based or circular organization wouldn’t maximize the gifts of the game as such stories already frequently shuffle plot ideas around or use seemingly unconnected vignettes.) While each chapter should begin with gusto, make sure choices are deliberate and grounded or a sense of panic can take hold.
Connected Concept: Shelving