Improv storytelling

m writing this on the way back from presenting Forced Entertainment’s improvised marathon story performance And On the Thousandth Night … at Hebbel am Uffer in Berlin. Since the show only ended at 1am, with all of us pretty much brain-fried after six hours spent telling stories on stage, bedtime was an almost inevitable 4.30am.

It’s a strange performance – hard to prepare for and often hard to remember. Preparations are almost completely pointless. And On the Thousandth Night … (or The Kings, as we’ve come to call it) is a free-for-all, governed by a simple set of rules; other than “having a think about stories you might try to tell”, any work in advance is pretty sure to bite the dust as eight performers, all wearing makeshift king costumes, jostle for space. The main rule (and arguably the only important one) is that no story is ever allowed to finish, since any performer who is speaking may be interrupted at any moment by another player, who’ll use the word “stop” to halt the narrative and claim the stage for their own story. It makes for what you might call a cut-throat playfulness.

Performing is always a three-way balancing act between the ideas you can think of at any given moment, the lurching mood or dynamics of the performance itself, and your own shifting state of tongue-tiedness or exhaustion-inspired lucidity. You may plan to embark on a slow-burning horror story, but at that particular moment your colleagues’ mood could be for short, comic tales involving depressed kings or sex-crazed plumbers. In this context, your tale can be stopped the moment you start. At other times, you’ll find yourself venturing a whimsical one-liner about a talking dog, or a love letter that gets lost in the post, only to find that here, where you least want it, your colleagues allow you to take the stage and don’t interrupt you for a long time. Sometime after midnight you’ll almost certainly be treading the shallow water of a story that lacks purpose or direction, begging silently for the “stop” to end your misery. More often than not, no such luck; there’s more amusement in letting you hang.