James Joyce: A Master Improviser?

Quick: tell me the plot of Ulysses.

Haven’t read it? I have, twice. I’m not trying to brag. I was actually forced to read it, twice, in grad school. It’s dense, thick, referential, and most professors of English would snort in derision at the adjectives I just chose to describe it. Trust me on this: I am not a fan of this novel, and I don’t feel intellectually enriched at all for having read it, twice. In fact, having read Ulysses is a lot like *not* having read Ulysses. Er, twice.

But others feel differently: it’s widely considered one of the greatest works in English literature (or any literature, for that matter), the pinnacle of artistic vision and accomplishment in the novel genre. Entire cottage industries in scholarship and publishing exist in academia because of this one work. Influence? Don’t get me started. When one of those lists (you know, one of those lists) of the greatest novels ever written was published a few years ago, there was Ulysses, poised dependably as ever at the top, the one novel that everyone knows about, few people have actually read, and even fewer understand.

Having read Ulysses is a lot like not having read it

Having read "Ulysses" is a lot like not having read it

So: what’s the plot of this novel, perhaps the greatest novel ever written?

Since so few of us have actually read it, I’ll tell you:

A guy comes home from work.

That’s it.

Yep, you read that right. Leopold Bloom ventures (muddles?) through his daily activities on his way back home to his wife, Molly. Granted, there’s other stuff going on–plenty of it–but at its elementary level, that’s the plot.

So…what does this have to do with improv?So many times beginning improvisers (and even those who should know better) fetishize plot in improv. They think their job involves tying up the loose ends of all the concentrated chaos that came before. They want to make sense of it, resulting in scenes like this:

Actor One: So….[why must all improv scenes begin with this annoying word?]...we need to get Sam back to his hometown.

Actor Two: How do we do that?

[Pause. Pause. Pause. Silence. Again, not the silence that’s contemplative: the silence on an improv stage that immediately makes you worry for the actors, rather than the characters…]

Actor One: I’ve got. Let’s go steal a car [forgetting that he had already endowed himself, his fellow actor and Sam as being in the remote jungles of India, which they had to get to on foot. BTW, whenever you hear or say the phrases “We should…” or “Let’s go…” you’re watching/playing plot]

Actor Two: Yeah, let’s go steal a car. [Remembering the early endowment] But how are we going to find one here in the jungle?

Actor One: Easy. We’ll just time-slip to the nearest car [forgetting that this so very clever, non-sequiterish, in-the-moment choice would rather easily solve Sam’s problem]

And so forth. Welcome to Wackytown, population you. And your scene partner. And whoever has to follow you to help clean up that godawful mess.

BTW, even though I don’t actually believe in “denials” (more on this later) if it were up to me choices like these would be considered macro-level denials, punishable by permanent improv exile until you can cut it right the fuck out. Why? Because this is why a lot of people *hate* improv. Hate it with a passion normally reserved for cheating ex-lovers or totalitarian dictators. Choices like the above detract from the overall narrative being created, leading to digressions that have to be explained away by some swiftly tap-dancing actors. But, more importantly, they lead to confusion among audience members, confusion that leads to their resolving never to shell out hard earned bucks for it again.  It’s why improv as a theatrical endeavor will never be in the big rooms. Just the little black box theaters that attempt to supply this magical experience but only end up providing something that all too often appears to be exported out of clown college.

The cardinal sin in the above scene is that two actors decided to play plot. They decided to try to solve Sam’s problem (needs to get back to his hometown) and only ended us digressing even further  from the primary storyline and into a realm in which fantastical choices can be made (“time slips”), fantastical choices that could have solved Sam’s “problem” in the first place. Hence, the audience stopped caring about the characters (because they stopped finding out about them), and stopped believing in the world that everyone had worked so hard to create. They think they’re getting ripped off:

And they are.
So what to do instead? Easy. The solution is in the first line.

Actor One: We need to help Sam get back to his hometown.

That’s the most interesting line in the scene. Why does Actor One’s character feel so strongly about Sam? Why is he so determined to help him? Does he or she love him secretly? Are nefarious things waiting for him once he returns? Does he want the rest of the town to know that he’s been traveling with Sam? There’s plenty of non-plottish territory to be mined here, territory that would allow us to discover so much about both Actors 1 and 2, their relationship to Sam, and their relationship to each other. But the more often the choice that gets made is the plottish one.

I recently saw (and cannot rave enough about) a movie called “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Given that title, it’s easy to guess what the movie is about. No need to type “spoiler alert”: Robert Ford shoots Jesse James. That’s the schematic of the movie. But, of course, those of you have seen this movie know that the movie isn’t about that at all. It’s about what it means to try to kill someone who was already become mythic within his own lifetime, and what helping forge that myth meant. It’s about the complex relationship between a young tormented man who admires from afar, then meets, comes to know and then eventually betray a man he loves more than any other. (It is, of course, a retelling of the biblical tale of Judas and Christ…) Again, the “plot” of the movie is no more what the movie is about anymore than your official “biography” (“Born in Medford, NJ; educated at Princeton, etc.) is “who you are.”
Ulysses too highbrow? “The Assasination….” too middlebrow? Okay. “Rocky.”
Whats this movie about? It aint about boxing...

What's this movie about? It ain't about boxing...

What’s the plot of Rocky?” Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, who had potential years ago and is past his prime, gets picked out of a hat to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, where he might or might not win.

But, of course, it’s not about the fight. The fight scenes in the film are montaged. They take about 15 minutes of the movie. Notice also that some of them happen in real time, some are sped up. But those that happen in real time, are consistently hammering away at the emotional terrain that Rocky is experiencing. Not the fight.

In both Ulysses and in “Assasination,” the narrative arc of any story you tell is an emotional one. What “happens” matters little. Why it happens, the effect on everyone involved, is what the movie is about. The same holds true for any improv scene you’re in.

There are plenty of things going on in an improv scene. Plot shouldn’t be one of them. The narrative arc of any improv scene is an emotional one led by a character or characters facing a dilemma. Remember this: Character is plot. Always will be. All novels, all movies, all TV shows, all plays, most newsmagazine profiles are actually character studies. Wanna write an unforgettable novel? Write an unforgettable character (cf. Leopold Bloom, Ulysses, above). Want to do compelling unforgettable improv? Create unforgettable (read: bigger, broader, complex, larger than life, dilemma ridden, fault- ridden, desire-ridden) characters.  Have them want things. Badly. Don’t solve their plotty little problems. Instead, let us discover things about them other than their logistical difficulties. Show us how they feel about others in the scene. Show us that. We’ll be too fascinated and compelled by your creation to notice the plot, which is, again, superfluous to what we’re doing up there.

1 Comment

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One response to “James Joyce: A Master Improviser?

  1. Great post though it raises questions can an interesting character be made which is understated and subtle?

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