BATS Founder and company member Rebecca Stockley talks about her love of story, and how, over 30 years ago, it changed her life.
My love of improv springs from many sources but one of the strongest draws is the personal agency we have as improvisers. In a play the producer decides on the play to present, the playwright creates the story and describes the characters, the director interprets the play and casts the actors, and the actors play the roles in which they’re cast. The actor has little or no control of the characters she’ll play, the words she’ll speak, the story told, or the message the play delivers. Improv is different: An improviser casts herself in any role she’s inspired to play. She speaks words inspired by the moment. She’s using her own ideas and imagination. She’s working with others to co-create scenes and stories. The improviser is the director, playwright, and actor all at once.
In the 80s, I lived in Seattle where I was working in theatre, both acting and directing. One evening, I took a workshop that changed my life. I took a Seattle TheatreSports™ workshop taught by Josh Conescu. The next day I read IMPRO by Keith Johnstone and “BAM!” Suddenly I was an improviser. For several years I studied, taught and performed with Unexpected Productions (formerly known as) Seattle TheatreSports™.
My theatre training was helpful in improv: Acting, playing characters, projecting my voice, movement, stage combat, dance, singing, and using dialects are all invaluable on the improv stage. The piece I was missing was practice in creating stories.
The first story tool I learned to use is ‘reincorporation’. Reincorporating can be magical. In the Narrative chapter of IMPRO Keith says,
“The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improvisor’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.”
IMPRO 1979, Keith Johnstone
Reincorporation is a powerful tool. However, it doesn’t make every scene into a great story. Story is the thing that separates good improv from great improv, but I thought that narrating stories required a certain talent: A gift one is born with, rather than a skill one can learn. And when a scene had a good story it seemed like a wonderful accident.
In 1986 I visited San Francisco to teach a TheatreSports™ workshop and the participants in that workshop went on to create BATS Improv (formerly known as) Bay Area Theatresports™. I stayed in touch with the BATS community, visited to teach and perform, one thing led to another and in 1989, Paul Killam and I moved from Seattle to San Francisco where we joined BATS Improv.
As a player here at BATS, my perspective about story in improv was transformed. One of the first things I noticed here is that everyone in the performing company embraced story telling as a skill to practice, explore and master. I was surprised and inspired by BATS Improv’s approach. I accepted the challenge to work on narrating stories, and developing good stories within improv scenes.
For years, I’ve read everything I can find about story and narrative. I’ve read and re-read Keith Johnstone’s Narrative Chapter in IMPRO, and IMPRO FOR STORYTELLERS. I have taken workshops, and I’ve played every story game I can find. Today I see the ability to create stories in improv and co-create story from within is a skill that can be learned, developed and enhanced.
One of the first BATS workshops I took when we joined BATS was, “Narrating Story” taught by Rafe Chase. Taking the role of the story narrator on the side of the stage had been intimidating to me, and Rafe offered clear strategies for setting up a story, give and take between the narrator and the actors, and allowing the story to unfold. In that workshop I gained a new story tool that I use like a mantra:
“Serve the narrative” – Rafe Chase
When everyone in the scene works together to serve the narrative, it is more likely there will be a cohesive story. When you are in a scene with partners who are randomly firing ideas at the world, it is a vastly different experience than that of working together to create a story.
When J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, she outlined the entire story. Her hand-drawn series grid with characters and events has inspired a generation of authors. When we improvise, we cannot outline the story beforehand. We don’t want to have a plan of where we’re going. We’re in the present, attentive and aware of what is happening now, gradually exploring what comes next as we collaborate to unfold the story.
If you look at the world’s literature, you see similarities in story structure and types of stories. The hero’s journey, for example, includes a three-act structure: A beginning, middle and end. The journey starts at the beginning where we meet our characters and see the world in which the story takes place. Then something happens that changes things: The inciting incident is an event that changes things. It is the story point that moves us from the beginning to the middle of the story. The journey of the middle of the story is full of surprises. We want our protagonist to overcome the obstacle he faces, when it happens, that’s the climax of the story. The resolution or falling action delivers the ‘end’ of the story. Joseph Campbell’s book HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, first published in 1949, outlines the structure of the hero’s journey very clearly and has become the blueprint for film and literature. But how can improvisers create story structure?
Try this with a friend. Follow this structure line by line. Take turns saying the next line of the story. THE STORY SPINE
“Once upon a time…
But one day…
Because of that…
Because of that…
Ever since then…”
By following the structure, you will create a story. Quantity is quality when practicing new skills so try it again and again. The Story Spine is a map of the hero’s journey. In full disclosure, I admit that I add, “The moral of this story is…” as the last line of the Story Spine when I play and teach it.
A great shift in my perspective on improvised stories came from the study of story, or “narratology”. Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. Defined as “the branch of knowledge or literary criticism that deals with the structure and function of narrative and its themes, conventions, and symbols.”
Narratology proposes that story structure reflects the fundamental nature of the human mind. Great storytellers are not just inventors, they’re connecting with the minds and imaginations of the listener to inspire and provoke.
In 2009 at York University in Toronto, a group of scientists used M.R.I. machines to experiment with the effect of story on the brain. In the experiment, the test subjects were placed in a M.R.I. machine and told stories. In the control group, the volunteers in the M.R.I. tube was exposed to data and facts.
Those exposed to data and facts showed brain activation in two areas of the brain, Broca and Wernike’s areas. A well-told story can engage many additional areas, including the motor cortex, sensory cortex and frontal cortex.
In the M.R.I. read-out, those who were told a story showed more brain response. A story activates parts of the brain that allows the listener to turn the story into their own ideas and experiences – a process called neural coupling. Mirroring occurs when listeners not only experience the brain activity similar to other listeners, but also to the speaker. Dopamine is released into the system when it experiences an emotionally-charged event, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy.
“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn.
Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Native American Proverb
As a member of BATS Improv’s performance company, I have the pleasure of improvising story in different genres, from different perspectives, with a variety of approaches. Whether we’re creating a short scene, or a full-length improvised play, improvisers explore stories from within. We share control, take turns contributing and responding, and the story unfolds in real time. Over the years our approaches to story have evolved and our shows reflect our ongoing exploration. Story is the thing that separates good improv from great improv, and the skills can be learned.
As a coach with BATS School of Improv, I get to share my approach to improvising story with students from all over the world. When you take workshops at BATS, you’ll be exposed to a variety of approaches to story. There are many different approaches – as many as there are coaches. As you explore these ideas, you will learn what works for you. Take our improv workshops and spontaneously co-create a million stories.
On May 12, 2017 at the Global Improvisation Initiative at U.C. Irvine, I attended a workshop led by Randy Dixon from Unexpected Productions in Seattle. The workshop, was titled Spontaneous Myth: Improvisation and Image Work to Create Story and Archetype. Using moments and images from stories, Randy took us on a journey. It was in the playing of those moments that we connected the power of story to ourselves. Story is part of us. In Randy’s words:
“Teaching people about story is like teaching a fish about water”.
For three decades I’ve been a fish trying to understand water.