Tag: murder

Commedia 101: An introduction to improvised theatre

Commedia 101: An introduction to improvised theatre

Recently I was interviewed by a high school student who is studying the Commedia dell’Arte about how I have used this form of improvised theatre in my book. His questions were really astute and they got me thinking. I thought I’d follow up by putting my answers online. But I should probably start with my background in improvised acting.

Theatre sports and murder (or ‘theatre sports is murder’?)

Playing Madame Anastasia, a mysterious psychic.

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I was part of a university theatre sports team. We called ourselves The Famous Five. Each of us took on the identity of one of Enid Blyton’s popular characters. I was George, the tomboy. Since theatre sports teams only have four members, Timmy the dog was actually a stuffed toy that I dragged around behind me on a lead. If I needed to dive into an active piece of improvised madness, I would drop the lead and say ‘sit’. Timmy always obeyed, and it invariably got a laugh. We were very fortunate to train with Belvoir Street Theatre, who had brought theatre sports to Australia. Eventually we ended up competing in the intervarsity competitions. Unfortunately we didn’t win. I think it’s because Timmy froze under pressure.

A few years later, in Melbourne, I did training in theatre games. These games, invented by Viola Spolin, have a set structure, but the content is left open to the inventiveness or lunacy of the actors. It was Spolin’s games that were adapted to create competitive theatre sports.

Improvisation is very much like a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get. As someone with chronic social anxiety, I was never going to be great at it, but because I’m very imaginative I could pull some interesting ideas out now and then. Part of the appeal was being able to take on characters very different to myself.

Fly forward more years, and I’m in the cast of Murder on the Puffing Billy Express. This is an improvised dinner murder mystery that is still running today. Performed on the Puffing Billy steam train in the Dandenong Ranges, it remains very popular. (Click here for more details.) I did this for five years. The scenario involved a 1920s party, with everyone on the train as partygoers. The entree was murder, then dinner included a lavish serving of clues. After dessert the audience would (hopefully) be in a position to solve the mystery. Character was key to the improvisation. We never knew what the audience might throw at us, but we knew how our character would act.

Writing about improvised theatre

What my improvisation experiences and the Commedia dell’Arte had in common was the use of structure. In theatre games this took the form of rules. For example, in ‘Death in a Minute’ a character must die at the end of the minute, funnily enough. For Murder on Puffing Billy it was defined characters and a general shape around what information needed to be introduced when. In the case of the Commedia, the structure comes from defined scenarios. In Harlequin’s Riddle the scenarios are given to the actors before they perform. Mina, my protaganist, has to learn these story outlines because they give the general shape of the performance. Within that shape she and the other actors can add speeches and physical action.  Mina’s discovery about where these story outlines have come from is a key plot point in the first book. In the real Commedia things are rather more mundane.

How scenarios worked

The Commedia has one-act and three-act performances. Whether short or long, scenes contain a proposition, then development, and finally a solution. One act scenes focus on a single theme. Usually this is love, money or vengeance. Longer performances are more complex. In my novels, to clearly distinguish between shorter and longer types, I use the name canovaccio for a one-act scene, and scenario for a longer one.

A plot summary is pinned up backstage so the actors can remember what to do. Basically this is ‘who does what when’. It contains an outline of scene content, the characters in that scene, the actions they do, and some hints for dialogue. For longer performances, there is a list of all the scenes. When the actors onstage change, that indicates a new scene to the audience.

Do we have records of scenarios?

As John Rudlin notes in his actor’s guide to the Commedia, it is very difficult to notate improvisation. I doubt anyone could have come away from one of our Murder performances and created a detailed account of the events of the evening. There are written reports of Commedia performances, such as one by Massimo Trojano from 1568. But any oral tradition loses something in the writing. And what had meaning at that time may not translate to a modern audience without the cultural and historical context. On a recent visit to Japan I learned that the tea ceremony that geisha perform has many levels of meaning attached to it. But anyone not raised on Japanese folk stories will not recognise the clues that hint at the secret meanings.

In the Commedia, a similar example is that characters are based on regional stereotypes. Anyone not raised in Italy is like to miss the nuances of this. Another reason why we don’t have clear records of scenarios is that many Commedia troupes were families who kept their performance techniques as closely guarded professional secrets.

What this meant in writing Commedia scenes in my book was that I used the same technique I had used as a performer. I improvised! I would identify characters and plots, then let the scenes shape themselves on the page. There was an added complication in that sometimes I wanted the scenes to hint at or reflect what was happening in the story. But essentially I allowed myself the freedom to let these scenes take on their own life. Perhaps if I had written these scenes on a different day they would have looked very different.

An Interview with Steampunk author Felicity Banks

An Interview with Steampunk author Felicity Banks

Felicity Banks is an Australian author with a fascinating array of books, including interactive fiction (like ‘Choose your own adventure’ but in an app), an Australian steampunk trilogy set during the gold rush, and a brand new series beginning this week, set in the magical world of Rahana (think Narnia, but with pirates). She has boundless energy for exciting ideas – her next project is ‘Murder in the Mail‘, which will begin in June/July. Felicity also lives the steampunk dream – meet her in person to see her wonderful creations! Make sure you check out her website for trailers and preview pages of all these great books!

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

Childhood is a blur of stories, but I definitely remember CS Lewis’ Narnia stories (all seven). They were fun and exciting and the kind of story that has extra meaning for me as a Christian. Plus, like all my favourite stories, it makes me feel like a stronger, more hopeful person. Certain stories have a knock-on effect of real-world joy and that series was the first to make me feel like a better version of myself.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

This is a question that cuts very close to the bone, because I write full-time while also working from home. As the washing piles up and our bank balance dwindles, I have to question how I spend my time. It’s been established in numerous studies that reading increases empathy, and right now there are grave injustices happening around the world simply because humans are bad at caring for other humans who are not immediately in front of them, or who are different. I hope I can write stories that make the world kinder.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I love being all-knowing and all-powerful. It’s a real rush to pull stories and characters out of thin air and make them real. It’s even crazier when the stories become real to others.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

I love heroic journeys. When I was younger I travelled a lot in Indonesia (the inspiration for my fantasy world of Rahana—my middle grade pirate trilogy begins release in February 2018) and I still love the feeling of leaving home behind and being that lighter, braver person. So any archetype about physical and emotional journeys resonates for me. You’ll notice that a lot in my books.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

I usually write for young adults because it’s such an interesting time of figuring out who you are. But the process doesn’t end there. Everyone has the power to create and recreate who they are regardless of age.

My Australian steampunk fantasy young adult/crossover trilogy will be completed in 2018. The first two books are already out, and there’s excerpts and more info on my blog at https://felicitybanks.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/antipodean-queen-1-heart-of-brass/