Email improvisation

Yesterday I described how Pretend Office, the company-wide mailing list for an imaginary company, came about. I also want to write about the parallels between taking part in this fiction and improvising on stage. It’s striking how similar both activities are.

OK, there are plenty of differences between the theatre and a mailing list. On stage you have an audience, it’s in real time, you can’t ignore what other people do… it’s entirely different.

And yet there are a number of guidelines I picked up when doing theatrical improvisation that keep coming back to me when taking part in Pretend Office. The collaborative process of creating an unplanned narrative in real (if slow) time is, context aside, remarkably akin to that used on stage.

Here are half a dozen guidelines that apply to both forms of improvisation:

  • Don’t kill proposals. If someone suggests a theme, don’t reply with something that kills it. Build on an idea, don’t contradict it. Replying to every suggestion with the equivalent of “Yes, and…” instead of “No, but…” is a good tactic.

  • Keep things open. Help people with the above rule by making proposals that give them room to build on it. Don’t leave dead ends.

  • Don’t keep pushing. On the other hand, if you keep proposing something and no one is following up on it, don’t keep at it. It’s probably an idea that no one can tell how to follow up. Move on.

  • Be adaptable. It’s easy to have a grand plan for a situation and how you it could turn out. However obvious it seems to you, other people probably don’t see it the same way. Or they have an even better idea. Be prepared to go with the flow and ditch your original plan.

  • Don’t over do it. Improvisation can get very silly very fast. But you don’t want to get too silly in a way that breaks the frame of the world. For example, in The Thick of It or In The Loop we know that many stupid situations will occur. But if the Prime Minister made an appearance and was played by an elephant it would be too much — it’s the difference between a crazy world and an absurdist one.

  • Bring things back. It’s enormously satisfying, both for the audience and actors, when things that we like return. So don’t forget good stuff that’s happened before and repeat them in some way.

These aren’t rules by any means, I’ve never mentioned these to anyone else in the (pretend) office, and I don’t expect anyone to pay any attention to them, never mind follow them. But I find these similarities between the two physically different forms of improvisation fascinating.

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12 May 2009 at Twitter

  • 8:22am: @andyhunti Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Pretend Office until Friday afternoon or the weekend :) ( )
  • 7:21am: Made a stupid un-@samuelpepys-ian typo. Sorry Mr Pepys. Onward. Is it really only Tuesday?