since 1998 I have worked with Improbable, on and off, in Lifegame, Keith Johnstone’s kind of/sort of impro/chat show, in which we interview a guest (not known to us before the show), about their life, and perform the answers they give us, on stage. The show takes about 90 minutes, two halves, and the questions we ask range from where were you born to how would you like to die, and all points in between. (and not necessarily chronologically.)
Lifegame changed how I write. It certainly changed how I think about writing and how I share that thinking in workshops, and occasional writing or theatre teaching, in directing, in any performance work I do, and in the pieces I’ve written about writing on this blog.
Lifegame is a show, and it is an entertainment, and it is an interview, and …
Improbable is a company that works in theatre, in improvised/devised theatre, that often uses masks and puppets and music and comedy and real stories and made-up stories and impro, and …
Where the two come together is where it really works for me. Other people have done Lifegame, of course. I like the Improbable version. (I would.)
We are a company of nine people who, with some variations, have worked together on and off in this show for twelve years. We have, many of us, known each other for well over twenty years. There is the shorthand of long friendship and knowledge of each other’s wider lives, a shorthand that sometimes exhibits itself in generous listening and the utmost kindness, and equally often shows itself as the gently brutal piss-taking that one company member called ‘persecution’ this week.
We are a company of people who twelve years ago were primarily theatre-makers, albeit with some very good reputations and careers branching out in many different directions, and are now ‘internationally successful’ (there’s a phrase!) directors, writers, screenwriters, musicians, actors, designers … and it really doesn’t look like that in the rehearsal room. Mostly it looks like half a dozen people (we haven’t yet had the full company at any one time), sitting around, drinking cups of tea, playing with a ball made of newspaper and sellotape, talking about how it feels. FEELS. Not what it looks like (much), or what to do (rarely), or how to be (honest), but how it feels. It’s a company of people who make work and like to make work and absolutely don’t go on about art/theatre and what is art/theatre and how to make art/theatre and theatre as art, and do go on about how it feels. Quite often while taking the piss.

I like it. And then I don’t. And then, mostly, I do. I always learn from it, from everyone else, and sometimes that learning can be quite challenging and often a bit icky (egg on face icky, feeling a bit stupid icky, trusting myself to be rubbish icky) generally it is very useful.

There are (officially) some bosses. But Improbable has three artistic directors and all of them are in the show. Which means it’s one of the more shared theatre experiences I’ve ever had (and therefore frustrating at times), but it also calls – has called – on me to take more responsibility for the entirety of the show than I ever would have done when I was ‘just’ being an actor. It calls on everyone involved to make the show. This is partly Lifegame and partly Improbable. It is what I think all theatre should be, made by all of us, for all of us, with everyone in the room taking responsibility for what is made (actors and designers and writers and directors – ie, much less of the named-roles and much more of everyone getting on with it). Which is rarely what theatre is, and mostly what I’d hope it could be. Shared, equal (with different skills), open, stupid, funny, brave, honest.

Here’s how it changed my writing :
In Lifegame we ask people questions about their life, they give us true answers to the best of their ability, we then show what we’ve heard, perhaps the whole scene, perhaps a little, perhaps just the tone of it. Sometimes we make it up before we’ve had all the information. We may do it as a scene, naturalistic or in a genre, as a song, as an image, with puppets, with a mask. We may just leave it as a told story. That is – WE MAY DO NOTHING WITH IT …
writing note 1 : do less.

When one of us is playing the guest we try very hard not to impersonate them, not to act like them, not to ‘do’ them, just to do as little as possible, and – over the course of the show – to let them be, show themselves. The person playing the guest is kind of ‘filled up’ by the guest themselves.
writing note 2 : it’s not about what I think, it’s about the character. if I let the character tell their story and get out of the way myself, it will be a cleaner and clearer story.

Sometimes the most amazing scenes (we think we’ve done this show over 250 times, interviewed 250 different people, in several countries) are the scenes where almost nothing happens. Where someone has told us a moving/poignant/heartbreaking/hilarious/farcical story and, instead of then ‘acting out’ that story (what’s the point? it’s already been told) we simply show what happens next, the falling asleep, the sitting outside the tent watching the sunset, the walking away from the funeral.
writing note 3 : you don’t need to show it all

Of course, as Lee Simpson (one of the artistic directors of Improbable) has said, “the opposite is also true” : sometimes the real truth of a story comes alive in the showing of it, in making a first kiss into a musical number, with song and dance, when the heightened passion that underscores what really happened is shown, or an alternative perspective is offered.
writing note no 4 : ‘show not tell’ can mean showing what it FEELS like as much as showing what happened.

People (journalists or reviewers usually) often ask what happens when we get a boring guest. We don’t. We sometimes get guests who think their own life is so very interesting that they’re boring. We sometimes get guests who lie rather than say they’d prefer not to talk about a particular subject or occasion (all guests are welcome to say ‘no, I don’t want to talk about that’ at any point), lying makes the show fuzzy and then it can become boring. Sometimes we’re just not that good, it doesn’t always work. That happens too. (We’re human, it’s made up live, there’s no edit.) But it’s never because the guest is boring or had a boring life.
writing note 5 : there are no boring characters and characters don’t have to have a list of interesting things about them, or interesting incidents in their life. Quirky and incident-filled isn’t actually very real. And too much incident can get very dull very quickly.

We discovered pretty early on that there is a second half ‘lull’. That in the second half of the show, a short while after the interval, there’s a bit of a lull. IF we ride the lull, don’t get antsy or fidgety or pushy, then something wonderful will come from the lull. (or maybe just something ok!) The lull is fine. What’s not fine is forcing something to happen. That doesn’t work. Besides that, it’s after the interval, the audience are still settling back. We’re waiting for them to come back to us (literally and emotionally) as well.
writing note no 6 : something doesn’t have to happen all the time. sometimes the reader needs to get their breath.

Some shows are ‘better’ than others (funnier, more moving, more serious, more in-depth, more shallowly hilarious) than others. One show will always be different to another. That doesn’t always mean the next one will be better than the last. They can’t be repeated and they can’t be recreated and, because they are made in the moment, the WHOLE POINT is that they are ephemeral. Things change. That’s hard. And it’s good.
writing note no 7 : you can’t repeat yourself. why would you want to? one success does not guarantee another. one good book, one good play, one good screenplay, one good chapter, one good paragraph, one good sentence, one good word, does not guarantee another. Today you may be a genius, tomorrow you might be rubbish. get over it, get on with it.

At some point, invariably, even the most egocentric guest will turn to us and say “oh this is weird/awful/odd, I’m talking all about myself and everyone’s thinking all about me” … but of course, they aren’t. The audience are thinking about their own story, their own grandfather, their own best/worst teacher, their own first time in love, their own worst holiday. The guest, our performance, is a stepping-off point for their own thought about their own lives.
writing note no 8 : you might think you know all about your story and all about your characters, but you can never know what the reader/audience/viewer will bring to it. welcome that, don’t fill your work so full there is no room for them to dream into it, to join with it from their own imagining. they bring something to it you never can. they bring themselves.

what else?
well, I often tell the writing groups I occasionally work with to do an impro class, I very often share impro techniques with them. Not to learn to be funny (that’s a by-product and, in story-writing terms, hardly the most useful), but because impro (taught well!) teaches you to trust yourself, to go with whatever comes up and try to work with it. And to know that it doesn’t always work, nor should it always work, but that sometimes (quite often) if you just get on with it, do the work, get it out, start making it happen, something will come. If you start the work, the story will come.