Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Art of Saying Yes

The Art of Saying Yes:
Improv theatre

Meeting The Renegade Saints, Geneva

A few months ago I was asked to do some photography for Geneva's improv theatre group, The Renegade Saints. The group put on their second ever show on World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day last week, donating half of the proceeds from the evening's performance to Red Cross and Red Crescent societies worldwide.

I went to their final rehearsal to find out a bit more about improv theatre, and talk to Katt Cullen, one of the Saints I had met earlier this year. If you don't know much about improv theatre, here is how Katt described it to me.

"The first lesson in improv is learning to say 'yes'... to everything. Saying 'no' is called blocking and doesn't make for a great scene. This can be really weird at first because it goes against everything in life where we learn to think things through before we speak, or avoid weird or scary situations. 
Example: I was in an improv class once where two people did a scene based on Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf character proposed they should head off into the forest/to a cabin/down a rabbit hole and of course the other player kindly refused over and over, so we basically had a scene of two people walking down a path having a polite conversation but it didn't go anywhere. But of course she's doing what seems real and natural in real life. She wasn't going to head into a scary forest with a scary character. However...
Say yes. Go into the forest with the wolf. Discover his secret collection of stolen Picasso paintings, reveal that you're an undercover FBI agent and you'll have him arrested unless he can replace the paintings by midnight in a museum that may or may not be rigged with a bomb inside a watermelon.... the possibilities are endless. But only if you start saying yes.
The trouble (read: joy) is it seeps ito your personal life. You become like Jim Carrey in that movie and say yes to random things. 
It generally works out well."

The Renegade Saints formed last summer. They met up every week and played improv games with a view to eventually performing. It started out as a kind of outlet where they could let themselves go, until the day one of the Saints finally booked a venue. Then things got serious ("read: slightly more organised", said Katt). The Saints started performing in Geneva this year and currently have two gigs under their belt. Katt spoke a bit about how that felt.

"It feels great to be up there and doing it in front of an audience, getting real suggestions from complete strangers that take scenes in a whole new direction. I love working with this group. I know that all those Saints have my back on stage. There's a bond and a trust between us that makes it an absolute pleasure working with each and every one of them."

As a writer and Ghostwriter, I spend a lot of my time crafting story lines and plot structures, creating dialogue and developing characters. Improv theatre showed me a completely different method of storytelling. It was fresh, spontaneous and instantaneous, but best of all it dramatized the connection between listening, language and interpretation. Improv theatre works on the relationship between the storytellers and the audience, asking the audience for material first: a word, a place, an object. With these basic elements, the performers then use each other to tell a story.

One exercise The Saints used to great effect was a scene in which three performers were given limits of three words, four words or five words to speak at a time. They would use their bodies and each other to tell a story within these word limits.

Katt told me a bit about these games. 

"The improv games we play set some restrictions such as limiting the number of words or having to talk in questions, because the content has no limits and it's easier to create something within a frame. It can be a tricky challenge, but you can train your brain. In this way, improv is a cross between playing make believe and sudoko." 

Situations developed quickly...


... and could quickly escalate.

Here, for example, is a scene where someone must always be sitting, someone must always be standing, and someone must always be crouching. But of course, as the scene developed, one performer would change their stance and the others had to adapt quickly, following the thread of the story being told.

When it came to the main performance, the Saints seemed to take their energy from the crowd, and in return, gave it back, making a theatre full of people laugh. 

This scene was great, with one of the performers acting as another performer's arms whilst another performer interviewed them. The material for the interview came straight from the audience, so Professor X spoke very eloquently about mosquitoes and pink eggs. (And the dance these two things inspired in him).

In all cases, the Saints were quick, witty, and bounced off each other at a lightening pace.

I'm wishing The Renegade Saints the best of luck this year and in the future. If you would like to learn more about their work, you can visit their Facebook page here. They also offer improv sessions.

'If you're debating whether to give it a go,' says Katt, 'there's a very simple answer...

... yes!'

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