This narrative exercise encourages active listening, subtle connections, and grounding characters in your personal Truth. Let me introduce you to Lotus Monologues.
Three players (A, B, and C) volunteer to play and stand in stage right, center stage, and stage left positions respectively. The exercise usually begins without an audience prompt as any themes or connections are discovered rather than imposed. Subsequently, it’s helpful if the stage right player has a personal story that they’d like to share at this particular moment in their capacity as the first narrator. Players explore three rounds of storytelling with each improviser sharing in sequence as focus moves down the line from stage right to left.
Player A begins by taking a step forward and narrating “the first third” of a true story. This is a rather artificial measure and generally consists of establishing the given circumstances and some sense of the story’s mood or essence. Once they feel they have met this goal they step back thereby giving the focus to B who steps forward. This improviser now narrates the beginning of their own personal story that was subtly inspired by the previous narrative. Once they complete their first offering, the process continues with Player C now providing a third honest story start that’s influenced by the tone or feel of both of their predecessors.
Player A tells the start of a story of moving schools as a young child and the nervousness of entering a classroom without knowing anyone there. Player B responds with an account of meeting their beloved pet dog and the elaborate surprise created by their family for the moment. The round concludes with Player C recalling a road trip adventure with their older sister where they just followed the highways that spoke to them…
We now return to Player A who picks up their story from where they left off. However, the next step or focus of this story should now reflect the “feel” or emerging themes explicated by their teammates. The story may remain wholly true with just a slightly new direction or voice, or the narrator may elect to deviate more substantially in order to reflect commonalities with their teammates. After finishing the “second third” of their story they step back again, and Player B and C continue this process of narrating their own stories based in truth but influenced by the choices of their peers.
As the second round unfolds, all the players lean into the theme of adventure and the unknown, with Player A continuing to narrate about that first day at school, B tells of training their dog in the neighborhood park, while C recalls a particularly out-of-the-way small town that felt like a trip back in time.
Finally, we rotate through the tellers one last time with Player A, B, and then C sharing the conclusions of their individual stories. Players should not seek to name or make explicit perceived connections but rather just allow them to color each narrative in ways that feel appropriate and grounded. As each story culminates, it may remain completely factual, modestly adjusted, or a more complex mix of honesty and artistry.
Picking up on some potentially scarier hues, A’s story ends with then running away from school and trying to walk back home, B has their dog run away only to be found and returned by a kind stranger, and C recounts driving down an abandoned dirt road only to eventually make it back to the highway and “civilization.”
This exercise invites a nuanced application of truthful and intuitive storytelling by encouraging players to combine factual and fictional honesty. If the final round of narrative is largely absurd you’ve likely missed the mark a little (or a lot!)
Traps and Tips
1.) Start as yourself. The request to share personal stories might immediately make some players a little uncomfortable right from the outset. Stories needn’t be the darkest moments of our lives (and frankly, probably shouldn’t be as this may cause the teller harm), but avoid narratives designed purely to get a laugh or to evade revealing anything vulnerable whatsoever. The first teller sets the tone, so I’ll let players self-select into this spot. Especially once the dynamic has been modeled, stories tend to bubble up that offer grounded launching points. For B and C, they should ideally just react honestly to the initial narrative and not feel obliged to explicitly explain their rationale.
2.) Look beyond the surface. At the completion of the game, I’ll ask those watching to brainstorm the various shared themes and connections they experienced from their seats in the audience. (One of the innate values of this game is the realization that audience members seek and see connections everywhere effortlessly.) Narrators should resist grabbing obvious elements from others’ tales and then plopping them inorganically in their own: Player A mentioned a dog so now I’m going to have a dog in my story too… Instead, honor subtler energies, themes and tensions, trusting that this will amply serve the exercise and your future scene work in general.
3.) Retain a truth. I feel a little odd writing the advice in black and white to “lie well” but that’s the gist of this bullet point! While the stories should start in your experienced (albeit, subjective) truth, by the game’s conclusion it’s probable that each narrative will represent a much messier amalgam of truth and dramatic lies or conceit. Regardless of where each individual ends up on this scale, stories should feel honest. It’s foreseeable that a teller might just plod through the rounds without any content or tonal shifts. While there might be occasions when doing so reflects an alignment of the storytelling stars as the base narration as is connects gracefully to those around it, more often players should allow the greater context to influence their work.
4.) Measure your steps. Finally, each story needn’t move through time in exactly the same pattern. A narrative could span several weeks of content, move jauntily through a singular important day, or linger on the repercussions of one particularly intense minute or moment. You’ll want to avoid making the entire story generalized context or an impersonal overview: narratives unquestionably benefit from specifics. But subsequent stories can solve the challenge of time in the manner that best suits them. One player might always pick up immediately from where they left off with each new visit, as is the case with Player A, while a teammate might use these edits to enable dramatic shifts in time or location.
Players invariably will ask for a less opaque measurement for the preferred duration of each narrative segment, but the best answer is truly “when you’ve said enough.” Some stories will require more preamble or illustrative balance than others to set up the appropriate details. This flexibility also encourages players to develop an ability to “read the room” so as to determine when an offer has sufficiently served its intended function.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Lotus format, this monologue version serves as a nice introduction to the scenic version where three pairs of improvisers now craft three rounds of work that gently reflect the energies and choices of their peers.
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Truth