I had the inspiration for the “Split Decision” format in February of 2005. It was late at night and I had just finished watching the little known 1957 film noir, “Crime of Passion” starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr. In the film (major spoiler alert) Stanwyck plays an ambitious San Francisco newspaper writer who meets an LA police detective, played by Hayden, who has come to The City pursuing a female murder suspect that Stanwyck has been writing about and is in communication with. A mutual attraction between the reporter and the detective develops as they get to know each other and eventually she gives him the information that leads to the suspect’s arrest. Stanwyck’s exclusive, inside-scoop reporting on the crime and capture brings her national attention and she is offered a high profile job on a New York newspaper. When Hayden, now back in LA, reads that she has accepted the New York offer, he calls her and convinces her to fly to LA before going to New York. He is there waiting for her at the airport and, after they affirm their love and kiss, the scene cross fades to them getting married by a justice of the peace. The following scenes make it clear that Stanwyck’s character has chosen to give up, not only the prestigious New York job, but also her entire career as a reporter. Her job title now is basically “housewife”.
Since this is 1957, the general mindset was that that should be enough for any woman, Okay…but what is Stanwyck’s character supposed to do with her fierce intelligence, audacity and ambition? Spending time with the wives of the other policemen doesn’t just bore her, their enthusiasm over what she views as trivial concerns (“We’re getting a new 36 inch TV!”), and their toadying up to the captain’s wife (“The men adore him and that speaks well of the wife.”) infuriates her. At one dinner party, her disgust at their shallowness and insincerity seems to make her physically sick to her stomach.
Hayden’s character is basically a good guy who truly loves his wife and is content to plug away at his current position as a police detective until he can retire with a pension. But that is not enough for Stanwyck, and she confronts him, “Is this what you have to look forward to, this mediocrity? Then wrapped away in mothballs with a pension? Don’t you have any ambition? Don’t you want anything? Maybe I wouldn’t care if I didn’t love you so much” When she dissolves into tears, he holds her and tells her all he wants is to make her happy and that the job is just a way for them “to live in peace and security” He says the only thing that matters is that they are together.
The next scene makes it clear that that is not enough for her, as she slyly arranges an “accidental” fender bender with the wife of the head inspector of her husband’s precinct. Things start moving fast after Stanwyck meets the inspector, played by Raymond Burr, and he makes it clear that he is intrigued by her. She begins an affair with him to further her husband’s career. And although she feels guilty about what she is doing, everything is working out as planned until the inspector announces he is retiring and instead of having Stanwyck’s husband take over his position, she discovers that Burr is planning to select the captain that she hates so much. This is too much for her, so she goes to the inspector’s house to demand that he give the position to her husband. When he refuses, effectively taking away the only justification for her adultery, she shoots him dead. Soon Stanwyck’s husband is assigned to investigate his boss’ murder and the clues slowly start to lead to his own wife as the perpetrator. He confronts her and she confesses. The final scene of the movie is Hayden and Stanwyck in the police station as he is leading her to be booked for murder.
When the movie was over, I just sat there on the couch thinking, “What just happened? I sure didn’t expect to end up here” At the start of the movie, Stanwyck’s character was a successful newspaper woman who was excited and challenged by her career and who seemed relatively happy. Now she would be on trial for a sensational murder, just the sort of case her character would have loved covering in San Francisco. Sitting there, I thought, “Wow, she should have taken the New York job.” With that in mind, I then tried to imagine what that life might have entailed: Her first day at the paper, her Manhattan apartment, the developing attraction with a New York reporter who was just as bright and ambitious as she was, the dangerous assignment they shared and the thrill of coming out of it alive with a scoop that tops all the other papers…all possibilities of what might have happened if she had made that other decision. When I finished ruminating, I suddenly thought, “Hey, I think there’s an improv format here.”
And that was the creative spark for “Split Decision”, a format where the audience votes by applause for which decision the characters make, until the audience is “split” and they vote equally for both possible choices. At that point the story splits into two distinct storylines as we explore the consequences of both of the character’s possible choices. Using “Crime of Passion” as an example, where one storyline ended with the main character being charged with murder, perhaps the alternate version ends with her charging onto the stage to accept her Pulitzer Prize, with a cross fade to the LA detective reading about her getting the award, shaking his head and saying to himself, “I know that if she had married me, we would have been so happy together…”