This summer I had the privilege of doing a one-week intensive course through Second City Chicago’s Training Center. Led by Andy Eninger, head of the writing program, the course was called Solo Performance. We spent most of our time taking stage, following a prompt, and creating a scene from there.
We practiced a variety of techniques, including direct monologue, stepping out of context and addressing the audience directly, playing multiple characters within a scene, jumping from scene to scene without breaking stride, prop work without the use of props, and mime. The core of the practice was improvisational, and still I learned a ton about the structure of storytelling.
My greatest challenge was getting out of my head.
“Let your body get out front of your mind”.
That is, when thrown a prompt like ‘daffodils’, my first impulse was to try and think of something. Instead, Andy asked me to make a movement and then discover what that movement might be; committing to whatever it was that was happening, discovering the story at the same time as the audience. Through this practice, the scene would unfold.
While most of our workshop time was spent in this sort of creative play, I did manage to note a few prompts for telling compelling stories.
Put a reasonable character in an unreasonable circumstance. The NASA janitor finds himself on the space shuttle. ”I think I’ve taken a wrong turn.”
Put an unreasonable character in a reasonable circumstance. An 84 year-old, crotchety, walker-toting stewardess gets on the airplane PA system. “If you want something to drink, get it your own damn self!”
In both cases, put obstacles in the way of characters achieving what they want. If the stewardess wants to be left alone to rest, create a situation where she’s dealing with ongoing demands. “Pardon me, ma’am. Can you help me get my dog’s squeaky-toy out of the overhead compartment?” If the janitor wants to be a good employee, create a situation where he’s asked to do impossible jobs.
All characters have something they want. As they attempt to satisfy these wants, they are propelled forward through the situation.
Audiences are generally looking for
1) Broken characters coming together, or
2) Whole characters coming apart.
In the telling of a story, find the internal vulnerability. Let the audience hear the inner dialogue. What’s at stake? Need to make this moment important.
Why is this character taking this action today? Why didn’t they take this action yesterday? What has changed in the life of the character and prompts them into this new behaviour?
Addressing these basic prompts creates tension, lends insights into the nature of the character, and leads to funny and/or dramatic circumstances more likely to engage an audience.