A slightly longer blog this week to explore some slightly longer ideas!
A couple of weeks back I had the privilege of spending the weekend training with Jason Chin, the legendary long-form* impro maestro from iO in Chigago and creator of the highly successful “Whirled News Tonight”.
(*To clarify the jargon….Short form impro = the “Whose Line is it Anyway?” type game based, short, snappy single-scene improv. Long form = a longer, story or theme based piece that develops characters and story through a number of interwoven different scenes. For those who have been to see the Comedy Store Players in London roughly 1st half = short form, 2nd half = long form)
Whilst I’ve dabbled and played with long-form improv a little in the past, virtually all of my training and experience has been with short-form so I was keen to have my thinking s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d through working with Jason.
The main thing I noticed as different were the disciplines that Jason looked to focus us on (or ‘amplify’ in complexity language). Whilst the short-form disciplines of listening, committing, saying yes, offering, accepting, being obvious and being altered were still key, Jason’s “Prime Directives” brought a greater focus on establishing and developing the relationships and feelings in the scenes which proved incredibly helpful in sewing together a congruent long-form piece.
“Just as Robocop has three prime directives, you have three prime directives in any scene: 1) Who is this person to me? 2) What are they really saying? and 3) How does that make me FEEEEL?” (I add lots of Es to that to re-enact the way Jason emphasised the word ‘feel’!)
We were encouraged to be incredibly specific early on in the scene to establish who the other actors were and instead of saying “Well it’s a nice day here on Brighton beach” we would strive to add more relational detail such as “Janice, I can’t think of a better way to spend our 40th anniversary than coming back to Brighton beach” (Notice the difference prime directive 1 makes?)
We were encouraged to really pay attention to what the real intent may be behind any offer. On the surface the Brighton Beach offer could simply establish a location and a character but if the ‘wife’ imagines possible underlying history behind the words it allows the relationships to develop further. Coming back to Brighton beach could imply any of the following – the husband is a skinflint and this is the first time he has taken his wife out anywhere for 40 years, or Brighton beach was where they first met 40 years ago and he’s trying to re-create the magic of young love/lust, or the husband is a wannabe nudist and is always trying to trick his wife into going to naturalist beaches! (Notice the difference prime directive 2 makes?)
Finally, the biggest insight for me was how Jason encouraged us to express our feelings. “The feelings the actor has are relevant for the character he is playing.” This reminded me a lot of constellation work where the real feelings of the ‘constellators’ help illuminate meaning for the client. When Jason spotted a dull offer he’d interject:
Actor 1: “OK – that sounds like a good idea”
Jason: PAUSE! How do you FEEEEL?
Actor 1: Er – I feel really happy.
Jason: Tell that to the other actor then
Actor 1: “OK – that sounds like a good idea. I feel really happy.”
Actor 2: “I’m so thrilled you are happy. You’ve been so sad recently”
(Spot how prime directive 3 adds something?)
By bringing feelings into the scene it both added some extra offers but also developed the relationships and story between the characters in a greater depth that provided stronger offers and threads for further scenes to build on and reincorporate in the long-form piece.
I had Jason’s prime directives in mind back in the factory where I’m consulting on culture change at the moment and decided to experiment (This poor factory is getting the benefit/brunt of all of my experiments at the moment!!). Whilst hanging around on the factory floor I asked questions about what each person meant to each other, what they felt the underlying intent behind spontaneous interactions might be and how any particular interaction or event made them feel. This surfaced some rich information about the complex web of relationships and the ongoing story of the shop-floor.
The most interesting part of the experiment was in a meeting that I was observing. At the end of the meeting the group asked me for feedback but instead of telling them my observations I asked them three questions. What did that meeting mean to you? What did you think was really going on? How did this meeting make you FEEL? The floodgates opened! Especially when I asked the last question. It was as if all of the under-the-table dynamics, unspoken relationships suddenly couldn’t be contained any more and exploded out. We then spent an extra 45 minutes making sense of this new information which was both painful and positive at the same time but helped us develop a greater shared understanding of the ‘characters’ and the relationships that are key to this ‘long-form’ culture change work. This was invaluable in helping me identify key things that needed to be developed or reincorporated in future ‘scenes’.
I’m starting to use the term ‘short form OD’ and ‘long form OD’ now to help myself and others understand the difference between one-off interventions where one drops in, causes a disturbance and then drops out again and longer term immersive cultural change pieces where one is making sense of multiple characters in multiple scenes such as I am doing at the factory. I am starting to see that there are subtly different lenses (or prime directives as Jason would say) that the consultant would be wise to pay attention to when engaged in a longer-form piece of work. Having realised this I notice some personal biases towards short-form OD (it feels easier!) and through this reflection I have identified areas in which I need to develop my long-form OD practice in the same way that I am doing with my improv.
I feel both long-form OD and short-form OD are valuable practices to develop in parallel with each other – I’d encourage you to reflect on what you are most comfortable with and how playing out of your bias would make you FEEEEL!!!!