Before you erase the chalkboard: fun with formulas

On this page you will find three suggestions for using structural plot formulas in acting improvisations.

There was a time in my youth when I, too, sniffed at the thought of structuralist formulas offering accounts of plots and tales and myths and the like. I understand your suspicion. It offended my Romantic sensibilities and drove me, fuming, straight into the arms of post-structuralism without taking the time for at least an afternoon’s dalliance with the possible implications of an era’s intellectual achievements. That was before an extended immersion in Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, with its reliance on the notorious mathemes and various fanciful formulaic impostures and schemas. Plus, now I’m older and wearier. The possibility of there being, beneath all of our comings and goings, an unconscious system of determining processes at work–and operating, no less, with symbolic precision–is an intriguing lure once you’ve seen it all and grown tired.

Freud insists that the unconscious works. It works, and with non-stop dedication. Let me risk being cheeky and say: it works so you don’t have to. This is work going on behind the scenes that we are free to ignore; frankly, we prefer to ignore it. We eat the hamburger and would prefer not to know about the work going on at the abattoir.

Lacan’s move was to suggest that this work was carried out using a very basic material at hand: letters. It seems a ludicrous notion upon first hearing it. But then we begin to think about the work letters do for us in the conscious daylight world (including the services they provide to mathematicians and physicists and computer programmers) and Lacan’s position may seem not quite as fantastical as we first thought.

A sad truth for anyone attempting to work with Lacan’s ideas is that one is doomed to spend a certain amount time teaching Lacan in order to use Lacan. The seeds you want to scatter can only take root in prepared soil. And preparation is difficult. To my mind it is difficult because you are attempting to work out what’s at work behind the letters and, ultimately, you only have letters with which to work (and a sometimes feverish reliance on the italics button). The audience for such work is being asked to go with you into that behind-the-scenes world of letters while hanging on to the very same letters as emissaries and guarantors of understanding. To employ one of Lacan’s beloved images, you have to travel on both sides of the Mobius strip at once, and there aren’t two sides to the Mobius strip; you are coming and going at once. So it’s difficult, and I am going to try and keep my Lacan lesson brief by relying on the work of the letter. The letter is going to do the extensive Lacan lesson in this instance. Think through to the farthest reaches of what a letter is and you will know something about Lacanian psychoanalysis, enough to keep reading this page, at least.

The writings that follow all start with the idea that an actor need not bear all the creative burden in improvisation. Why not let some symbolic entities carry a bit of the weight and sustain some of the structure. Could symbolic systems working behind the scene free the actor to explore new avenues as the improvisation proceeds? Could improvisation carry greater complexity and weight if this were so?

The three improvisation systems that follow are purely theoretical, still just fun on the chalkboard, untested. I welcome any and all to try and put the fun on its feet and let me know how it works out. Perhaps your research will lead to our revising the formulas. Ah, the spirit of inquiry! Research!

The Ultimate Improvisation Game (built using the enigma alignment model)

This game is designed to help create and sustain any kind of performance event from an unfolding drama to a gesture which could baffle all pre-existing forms and trends. Any number of performers can participate. The goal is to create a performance event which is energized by the doughnut model and which involves an awareness of the role of artist, audience, object and the wider “symbolic” horizon of meaning. It is hoped, too, that the improvisation will have some structural values which the audience will experience as a vital part of the event.

What are “structural values?” It depends on the kind of improvisation which unfolds. If the improvisation is a dramatic one which attempts to tell a story (and as the game is explained and demonstrated, dramatic storytelling will be the favored example, it’s the closest to most students’ experience), structure addresses the question of dramatic form. Will the improvisation have the form of comedy, tragedy, farce, melodrama, epic, or something not so familiar? The Ultimate Improvisation Game is a framework for developing a formal structure as the story unfolds. Performers have the opportunity to work out concerns about form as the improvisation develops using elements important to the game. Form, after all, is a way artists go about structuring an experience of fundamental lack which an audience can then experience intimately. The Ultimate Improvisation Game claims improvisation can be more than moment to moment decision making focused on a simple situation. Performers can bring forth a complex dramatic experience with distinct formal “gravity.” Why not improvise a tragedy or a roller coaster ride melodrama which will have the audience hanging on from scene to scene? Yes, why not improvise multiple scenes? Or acts? A complete dramatic rhythm, throwing in a few sub-plots…

Let’s see the basic elements and play of the game first, then, we’ll speculate about dramatic form:

Prior to the game, the “audience” (which may just be the assembled players or may be an actual audience) is invited to write down “nouns” on sheets of paper, one noun per piece of paper. Remember, “noun” covers everything from the concrete, i.e. “dog”, to the abstract, i.e. “covetousness”, to anything in between, i.e. “galaxy.” Yes, “persons or places” are also possible.

Each participating performer draws a “noun” and does not share it with the others.

There is another drawing. This time from a large collection of pieces of paper (at least twice the number of the participants) containing an equal number of pluses and minuses, i.e. “-“ and “+.” So each performer will be either a plus or a minus, a particular “valence,” if you will. This information is not shared.

One final drawing. This time from pieces of paper on which are written numbers from one to however many participants there are, i.e. if there are four players, there are four papers, one with “1,” another with “2,” also “3,” and “4.” The players do not share their numbers.

After the players have had a brief moment to contemplate theirs nouns, valences and numbers, the “nouns” are listed on a board for all the players to see but out of view of the audience. These nouns become “What Is” for the improvisation.

Let’s stop after step five to explain the full significance of the three drawings for beginning the game:

Valence If you have a minus, you must sustain a lack, contend with something missing, or perpetually renew an unanswered question. In a story this lack must motivate and guide the actions of your character. Prior to the beginning of the improvisation, a minus performer should begin to look inward and develop such an intimate question. It should be a profound question. It might never become explicitly stated in the game, staying “unconscious” in the audience’s experience of the unfolding event. Perhaps it never becomes explicitly stated for you, the performer, remaining a prodding embodied intensity or enigmatic appetite beyond the reach of words. Or it might come to be understood as the “theme” of the story by the end. You might use the “noun” you draw to help prompt a lack or question though this is not required. The drawn number might also influence it (see “number” below).

If you draw a plus, you must embody distinct presences in the course of the performance for both the audience and the other participants. You must occupy time and space in an interesting and provocative way. You certainly might provoke questions in the audience or in minus performers, but you do not attempt to represent a substantial lack or question. You essentially make yourself available to the unfolding event, helping move the story forward and complicating or resolving elements as it becomes appropriate to do so. You use your presence, your “thereness,” to provoke or fill lack. Unlike the minus performer, you are not required to hold to one thing throughout the performance. Your actions are practical and provisional.

What Is Not every performer needs to draw a noun, or every performer can draw more than one. It’s up to you. What is important, ultimately, is that the nouns are used to define “what is” in the unfolding event. The nouns are listed so you can see them (a variation of the game could involve showing them to the audience also). These nouns are to guide all performers as they begin to explore their valences and develop identities in the improvisation. Nouns can spark ideas and actions, establish place and time (see “number” below). Nouns might imply limits, laws and prohibitions which performers must respect and employ in the improvisation. Suppose the noun “deceit” is on the board. Somehow deceit must be a part of the world of the event, and you are honor-bound to make it a part of the activity, if not through deception proper then at least through you using the idea of deception in some way. If a story is being improvised, the list of “what is” must be used to establish a meaningful world within which you can work out the implications of your valence and which will be comprehended and appreciated by the audience. Essentially, drama portrays people contending with the reality of “what is” with humorous or sorrowful results. An improvisation cannot end until all the “what is” elements are clearly in play. This rule is itself a useful expression of “what is” which can bring a certain pressure to the activity of the performers. The play of valences is another “what is.” As are the numbers…

Number If you are 1 then you have the responsibility at the outset for choosing a time and place for the improvisation after considering all the posted items for “what is” and thinking about your own valence. You have a choice of revealing to or concealing from the audience this information at the beginning. Whether you reveal or conceal will influence the style of the improvisation. If only the performers know, they will have to perform in a way which communicates time and place to the audience. Every scene will then be revealed or concealed in accord with the style you establish at the beginning.

If you are the last number in the sequence (2 out of 2, 7 out of 7, etc.), you are responsible for ending the improvisation. You lift your hand and say, “End.” But, first, you must be convinced of the following:

Every performer’s valence has been clearly expressed (at least as far as you’re concerned).

Every “what is” noun has been brought into play.

The final valence sets have been arranged (see below).

If you are one of the numbers between first and last, you must, when your “number comes up,” arrange a break in the action and start a new “scene.” To break the action, you raise your hand and say, “Break.” You may break the action at any time. It is a matter of timing and taste. You then choose a time and place for resumption of the action, either revealing or concealing it for the audience depending on the style set by 1. Your choice of how to continue will unavoidably be guided by “what is” and what you have learned so far and what you would like to see next. Your own valence may also guide your choice.

To continue the game:

1 begins by establishing initial conditions (time and place if a story).

Play begins. Any one or more players may begin. What is done? You begin to explore your valence given time, place and “what is.” Your character or identity may take time to emerge. And you may or may not make the final decision about who you are in the action. Another performer might give you your identity depending on how the action unfolds. If you change your identity in the course of the improvisation, it must be done in a way which respects “what is” and what has happened so far. Identity is never an arbitrary detail. A story begins to take shape.

Play proceeds. As you explore your valence you will also attempt to determine the valences of your fellow performers, using actions to test hunches, using story complications to reveal valences, to attempt to illuminate them for your character’s and other characters’ and for the audience’s understanding. You move the story in a way which will allow experiments with combining valences. Keeping your own valence a mystery until the end can be a challenging option, as can making it painfully clear from the outset.

Performers make cuts in the story and provide new directions.

As play proceeds performers use action and character and situation to define final valence sets. All minuses must be linked with other minuses. Their fates or destinies or desires must be chained together in some way. A minus “set” must be created. Consequently, a plus “set” will be defined which is primarily responsible for helping create and illustrate the minus “set.”

The last numbered performer ends the game when all final conditions are met.

Form A dramatic form takes time to develop. Traditionally, improvisation works with modest means and modest aims, circulating around the object or situation. A performer usually engages in some action, others participate in the action or try to introduce obstacles, or there is an object on which performers lavish attention while playing midwife to the emerging scene. The approach is an economical one, “stay with the action, stay with the object, keep to your one trait,” etc., and the time is brief or circumscribed in some way to keep pressure on the performers as they “resolve” the situation. Such improvisations can be comic or tragic or whimsical or lunatic in the way performers apply their sensibilities to the situation, but rarely is there time for a genuine dramatic rhythm to play itself out.

Time is the province of the writer, we may think, who manages extended development and shapes a rhythm through the scripting or, in the case of extended commedia dell’ arte improvisation, through a scenario. “Stop playwrighting and act the situation” is the frequent correction addressed to the beginning improviser, as if there is a kind of embellishment of meaning which interferes with action. But what if an improviser is asked not to make up story elements but, rather, pursue a logic through action. Form, we want to assert, can be seen as the unfolding of a particular logic over time. Logic, in this case, implies a fixed set of relationships which, through time, will lead to a particular set of decisions. Form, then, can be seen as another example of “what is” in an improvisation, setting limits and possibilities and guiding decisions and acts. A dramatic rhythm is the activity of characters who are making aims and goals while constrained and, to an extent, defined by a particular logic. If this is a plausible assertion, how can our Ultimate Improvisation Game lead to expressions of dramatic rhythm and extended dramatic storytelling?

Using the basic elements of our Ultimate Improvisation Game, can we develop some logical structures which will create certain dramatic forms? Using a general understanding of particular dramatic structures, what can we propose? The following are tentative propositions, mind you, little meditations of form using the elements of our game. Only experiment can determine if they are useful. Various forms of the words “plus” and “minus” are used continuously in what follows and practically always refer to performers who are playing either “+” or “-“ in the game.

Tragedy We have pluses and minuses and we have a universe outlined by some “what is” words–how do we ensure a tragic outcome? Let’s make a simple assertion: to sustain a “minus” state will lead to destruction. Which means that death is a “what is” even if it is not on the list. “Doom” might be a more useful notion, since death can make arbitrary appearances. Death does not necessarily indicate tragedy, consider the mis-use of the term by newscasters and politicians when discussing large unfortunate and horrible incidents involving loss of life. Destruction has to appear inevitable to be tragic. How can acting on a minus lead to guaranteed destruction? The tragic character pursues a question in a way which makes destruction inevitable. Perhaps the tragic form depicts a minus trying to pursue a question or deal with a lack in two mutually exclusive ways. This means that two or more aspects of “what is” will inevitably lead to conflict. The tragic character is trying to act in accord with competing imperatives. “Pluses,” then, can see their responsibility as, in part, helping represent these competing imperatives, unswayed by anyone’s attempt to appease or compromise.

We can also see the fundamental lack of a tragic character, the minus state, as opening out onto a fearful dimension beyond any known certainties; “what is” has trouble containing it and therefore this “beyond” is rendered fatal. Pluses in this instance might help establish the limits of the known universe or, alternatively, they might function as pointers toward the impossible beyond. Related to this is the idea of some aspect of “what is” becoming the focus of a minus’s question, perhaps as a ruling ideal, and leading to a fatal neglect of other aspects of “what is.” A character can become tragic, also, by being in conflict with his or her own fundamental question, by misperceiving it or denying its existence. Pluses in this case might have to bring some fundamental contradiction or blindness to a minus’s attention. In tragic form, a minus burns and illuminates its lack with a destructive intensity. Pluses must pour on the gasoline. Over time the challenge is how to achieve a point of no return at which all minuses are guaranteed to be incinerated by their own questions. In our Ultimate Improvisation Game, in this situation where performers enter into a scenario having no idea of the outcome, let alone what sorts of relationships will develop, if one or more performers begin to pursue a question as “minuses” with little to no regard for the other performers, ignoring other valences and attempting to rule identities and relationships, essentially trying to define “what is” through their own questions, a tragic rhythm is a possibility–if the story does not take a detour into farce. The audience will share in the performers’ experience of an initial state of uncertainty taking a turn toward disaster through the agency of minuses pushing beyond what is “reasonable.” In a tragic rhythm, a minus strives to make a fundamental intimate lack become the primary item on the “what is” list. It’s not on the list, however, in spite of the minus’s “heroic” efforts, and it can never be on the list. “What is” is what is. Already decided. And that is the tragedy.

Comedy The form by-passes the fatality of a confrontation with “what is” by offering the equation “Love equals Freedom” an understood place on the list which defines the universe. This equation also differentiates comedy from farce. In pure farce, characters are not liberated through love but remain hopelessly tangled up in overwhelming desires. In comedy, a place is always made for the rule of Love and as a result, characters are freed from the miseries of desire and longing. In fact in many specimens of farce, comedic elements which favor the “triumph of love” are included to lighten the load for some of the characters and for the audience.

How can love be achieved? Here is the fundamental question for comedy. It implies that one or more of the minus players in our improvisation game must make love part of their intimate question, or lack, if a comic rhythm is to be achieved. There are numerous variations: Who loves me? Whom do I love? Am I lovable? Where can I find love? Could he or she love me? Is love possible? And so on. A player can offer this question as the most intimate lack. And since the game is based on a psychoanalytic notion of the person, here’s a quote from a famous analyst, Jacques Lacan: “Love is giving what you do not have.”

In comedy love has obstacles. In our game the best guarantee of an obstacle is an intimate question since such a question implies an obstacle. Minuses will easily provide obstacles for themselves and for one another. Pluses provide obstacles by functioning as clear refusals of love or enemies of love. Or as objects of desire, remembering that desire can motivate a character, especially a minus, but will not necessarily lead to love. Love and desire are usually in conflict. Remember, in a psychoanalytic view of things, love and desire are two distinct structures. Pluses, of course, can point to the possibility of love, can represent hope, and can help guide minuses from the misery of desire to the freedom of love.

The list of “what is” in comedy has a basic two-fold nature. Seemingly, “what is” functions as yet another obstacle to love and against the idea of freedom. But within each prohibition or impediment in the list of “what is” lies the possibility of a “reversal of fortune.” That which seems a block can, through a certain kind of effort or as a result of chance, transform into a useful avenue toward freedom. This is one reason why comedy depicts schemes and plots and deceptions and misunderstandings. Characters can undertake to exploit the changeable nature of the universe. You can turn one thing into something else; you can be tricked into believing one thing is something else. Nothing is set in stone in comedy. One door closes, another opens. If our actions didn’t bring about transformation, there would be no hope and no possibility for love and freedom. Minuses will set out to change existing conditions in order to find answers to their questions. Pluses need to be willing to illustrate the transformational nature of reality. Pluses, too, need to be willing to be stubborn when it seems useful, compelling minuses to try something else. If the situation stalls because the prison cell seems too well-made, pluses can produce unexpected opportunities, even “acts of God.”

Farce Farce depicts human appetites being inflamed, satisfied, frustrated, deceived, and constrained. The ultimate truth of appetite is something not discussed in polite society. It’s too intimate, too embarrassing, too compromising to how we wish to be seen. We wish to seem unmoved by such appetites. We have risen above such things. But we haven’t. This great unspoken truth lies at the heart of farce, shared by actor and audience alike as a great guilty secret. Our doughnut can be consumed. And who can stop at one?

The truth of our appetites distorts everything. Consequently, everything in farce is out of proportion, behaviors, schemes, deceptions, all exist beyond the bounds of good sense and what we accept as tolerable reality. Minuses are no longer prodded or driven by doubts and questions; minuses are driven by drives, drives seeking a satisfying object, something to fill the hole. Period. “I must have (fill in the blank)!” A farce depicts this drive by offering too much of everything. Pluses are objects of desire in farce, obtainable or not, offering satisfaction or disaster or both. Pluses can be expressions of pure unchecked appetite, an indicator of excess. Pluses also can be absolute obstacles.

In farce the promise of satisfaction goes hand in hand with the guarantee of frustration. What controls our drive? Law. Social codes of behavior. “What is” has to be a source of both arousal and prohibition. And of course what is more enticing than that which the law prohibits? A minus, then, is confronted with the problem: “How do I get what is prohibited without the law shutting me down?” A plan is put into action, but unlike comedy–in which the plan is designed to transform reality and open a possibility for love–in farce the plan aims to elude the law and gain the object. But the closer we get to getting the object, the greater the anxiety (so the psychoanalysts say), and farce reflects this through complicating the plan, by having minuses working at cross-purposes, by bringing the law closer and closer to uncovering the scheme. By the “climax” of the story, everyone is squirming in agony. So much for the climax.

Once the object is obtained, the game is over; once appetite achieves its object, the result cannot be represented. Farce deals with this problem by demonstrating that the object is never quite the right object. Something is still preventing satisfaction. The law in some way remains an obstacle to utopia. Human drives couldn’t co-exist in utopia. The end of a farce is usually a negotiation in which some recognition of law allows for a compromise solution in which drive is turned into a set of tolerable desires.

Obsession can be farcical or tragic depending on how a game unfolds. If a minus sublimates a drive through an obsession (disguises it as a “legitimate” pre-occupation), lets say a physicist believes he or she can prove there are actually five dimensions and pursues this goal with a single-mindedness which smacks of raging appetite, and then collides head on with a certain set of prohibiting conditions, the result could be tragic if the nobility of the cause is emphasized. A slight modulation in which the madness of the preoccupation is revealed and resonated with a certain madness in “what is,” could lead to black humor with the destruction still insured. But if the universe flexes with the absurdity of the appetite and strips it of pretension, a farce will follow.

Melodrama This is not a pejorative term. Melodrama is not a degraded form of something else. It doesn’t have to be cheap or manipulative (as if the best drama somehow isn’t manipulative…). Melodrama depicts a contest. In a melodrama you have two or more opposing forces and the battle is played out before the audience. A perfectly fine subject for drama; the one which predominates, really. Heroes and villains. Masterminds and underdogs. Farmers and floods. Bankers and terrorists. The contest is the story. And the outcome is kept open till the end; victory is never assured, rarely easy. Heroes can be complicated and conflicted. Villains can be appealing. Hope can be practically non-existent.

As for the pluses and minuses in our game, if the contest is illustrated between plus and minus, the conflict will have a certain tone. Pluses, after all, must communicate a clear statement free of question or lack. All the lack is on the side of the minuses. The plus side of the contest, if all pluses have banded together, will develop a certain overwhelming and uncompromising quality–which can be interesting depending on the “what is” elements. Stories involving “absolute evil,” natural disaster, persecution, or war propaganda would be served by such an absolute dichotomy between plus and minus. However, establishing valence sets by the end of the game does not necessarily mean all pluses wind up on one side and minuses on the other. A more complicated struggle would result from a contest which emerges through a collision of “what is” elements or if one of the elements indicates the noun “battle.” Then pluses and minus are free to struggle with how to define the contest and then take up with either side (assuming there are just two side in this case). A minus might be led to let his or her intimate question reflect on the question of victory or success. Often it will be a minus who brings about surprises or setbacks in the struggle. Pluses tend to represent certainty in one form or another. Courage is not a question for pluses, but a plus could clearly be a coward or clearly be untrustworthy. What to do? and How to do it? are issues which a minus would represent.

Other forms, mixing forms Most dramatic stories are examples of mixed form. The game can become interesting if each player attempts to follow a distinct formal rhythm. Tragedy mixing with melodrama. Melodrama spiced up with farce. Comedy falling into tragedy because of one character. Comic and tragic elements facing off in a melodrama. Such negotiations among the players can be ongoing throughout the improvisation. It is a choice to let one formal rhythm begin to predominate in the action. A “conventional” resolution is a useful device to know how to employ but not required to end the game. What ends the game is the last player calling for the end.

“Epic” is more a structural and strategic concern; all formal rhythms can work in it. Epic structure implies the idea: scenes from the life of X or scenes from the world of Y. In epic structure the cuts made by the numbered sequence of players take on special significance. Discontinuity becomes a crucial factor. Each scene can be viewed as a discrete little play in itself. It does not necessarily mean players change identities, but minuses might modulate their intimate questions from scene to scene to thwart a push to one overwhelming “moment of truth.” Pluses may find themselves changing character hats more often to help illustrate the shifting panorama. Often in epic structure, there may be only one or two constants around which time, place and person transform with a kind of dialectical energy.

The Ultimate Improvisation Game need not always obey the dictates of “dramatic logic.” Plus, minus, what is, number, place, time, who, what, these are all little items which can be manipulated, redefined and recombined in innumerable ways. Players can explore alternative ways of establishing meaning and relationship among the elements. Event or experience rather than “story” could be the determining impulse. Decisions could be arbitrary or made by throwing dice. One to one correspondences can be avoided or undermined. Surrealism, anti-drama, non-drama, ritual, atemporality–the game allows for any of it. “Realism” can be discussed by the performers ahead of time. It can be an implied item on the “what is” list, but it may also be excluded.

Tips Remember, you must learn to play this game badly before you learn to play it well.

A group of players who are just beginning to play may find it useful to institute a “stop the action” signal which any player can use at any time. Action can stop and the player can ask questions about rules and guidelines and available options. No “story conferences,” however. And don’t give away valence or player order.

When the 1 player decides on initial time and place, or when a 2 or 3 changes the location, this does not imply a “floorplan.” Players make decisions about the space as they act. If a plus wants to establish an active presence in a hallway upstage of the unfolding action, that plus makes the hallway appear in the act. It is now part of the identity of the place.

The opening moves of a scene will always be tense with uncertainty. Accept that your identity has to be asserted and negotiated. You may not get to live in the universe you want to live in or be who you want to be. Don’t eject yourself from the game in disappointment or stop the game in anger. Work with “what is.” Remember, the tension is part of the game, it’s entertaining and enthralling.

If you are a minus, never give up on sustaining your fundamental question or lack. Never be wholly satisfied. Never abandon your intimate kernel in frustration. See it through. This will guarantee a story with a beginning, middle and end. Pluses are encouraged to be more flexible, but you, too, must sustain a certain force in the action. You must decide whether or not to cooperate with a minus or resist from moment to moment in keeping with how you are trying to establish your valence.

If nothing is happening, it may be time for the next number to call “break” and go on.

Test for valence. You can use knowledge of other players’ valences to move the story. You can perhaps arrange a linkage between minuses whether you yourself are plus or minus. And if you are minus you can include yourself in the link.

Determining the final valence sets implies the “climax” of the story. Perhaps the last link of the last minus is surprising, a “turning point.” What does it mean to “link” minuses? If one minus is possibly a response to another’s intimate question, you have a link. If one minus undermines the question of another, there’s a link. If you demonstrate a likeness between lacks, you have a link. If minuses are compelled to collaborate on a task or align themselves strategically, they’re linked. All minuses need not share the same physical space to be linked. Equations set links. Conjunctions set links. Cogs in a machine imply links. Names in a game of Kevin Bacon are linked. A common trait or flaw implies a link. A common cause. A common fate. Death. Reward.

Use the “what is” list to guide creative decisions. Think of the list as defining the “rules” for the game. Try not to be too arbitrary if dramatic form is the goal.

This game is designed to produce large structures. Accept your place in the landscape. You do not have to carry the story. You do not have to establish every important detail in the first five minutes. Use the breaks in the action to spark new possibilities. Do not decide at the outset where you will end up. Unless you are prepared to be denied what you want. It might be interesting, however, to decide ahead of time where you want another character to end up.

“Devices and Desires.” P.D. James is quoting something in this title; I don’t know what. But it’s certainly an apt and memorable coupling; how can we not quote it repeatedly? The same plot device can appear in any form of drama and in itself will not make a story what it is. But devices involve an audience and guarantee some satisfying tangles. It is hoped that our game is set up in such a way so performers can experiment with creating devices as the story unfolds, but perhaps the mechanism of a simple device should be included here for the sake of completeness. Devices, as you can guess, are built on desires.

Device Devising So to set a device in motion, a player needs to identify a desire. How do you find the desire? Desire=wish=expectation=future. A minus player is always potentially ready to have a desire since that is what the fundamental intimate question will produce. A question, a lack, seeks an answer, satisfaction. So you offer a way for a minus to answer a question, at some future point. Call it the lure phase, the goal is to involve the audience in the expectation, getting it to anticipate along with the character. To set the device in motion, determine a formula for the desire: Character A + X=answer to ? Next, unknown to this desiring and anticipating Character A but in view of the audience, change the nature of X to some Y. So what is A+X for the expectation of A, is A+Y for the expectation of the audience. But X’s new identity as Y must remain cloaked to A. A must still be able to pursue or expect A+X. This is a pretty standard device. The creativity comes with how X is transformed into Y. A+X is the fantasy scenario; A+Y represents some calculated inversion or explosion or corruption of the fantasy. A plus or minus could embody the X. Or the X can be an action, something A intends to do. If you are tuned in to the ambivalent nature of A’s question (?), perhaps you can arrange a Y which touches on such confusion. Audiences will experience delicious dread or the awfulness of fate depending on the story elements. Look for this device in your favorite play or film. Examples are plentiful. A variation is to change X to Y away from the audience so it is surprised as much as A. In other words, effect the transformation at the moment A attempts to realize the desire. Use your adherence to “what is” in transforming X to Y, so even if the audience is surprised along with A, it also experiences a feeling of “rightness,” perhaps ironic, about the transformation.

Device Versa Here’s a device which plays with the audience’s capacity to ask a fundamental question. Something happens. No preparation. It hits the audience like an unexpected head trauma. Trauma is the key here. A trauma from a psychoanalytic viewpoint is an event which overwhelms and which has yet to be understood or interpreted. Performers enact something which registers a vivid sensual and emotional impression with the audience. Then what? The audience begins to try and understand what has just happened. It tries to give it meaning in light of what it knows and what seems to be the world of the story. It interprets with respect to “what is.” At this point, a plus can try to give voice to the audience’s interpretation, as if to validate it. Then the device begins to set up a conflict. Another performer, plus or minus, challenges the interpretation. Same event. Different interpretation. Perhaps new facts are brought to light. Does the audience find the new interpretation reasonable? Don’t give them time to get comfortable. Another performer offers an entirely different interpretation. The audience is now a part of a conflict over the meaning of some event. Now, going back to the original trauma, it need not be an event, of course; it could easily be a person or thing. Same strategy: give the audience an opportunity to develop a theory about what it means or what it is, then begin to confound the meaning. And it doesn’t have to just be through some performer voicing a different interpretation. An action could retroactively show the original enigma in a new light. This leads to a tip for performers: You don’t always have to know why you are doing something. You don’t have to own the meaning. Let the game explore possible meanings after the fact.

Device and Content Alfred Hitchcock famously praised the usefulness of the “MacGuffin.” It is an object which brings together a variety of people with a variety of desires and motives, causing motives and actions to become fatefully tangled. Remember, one of the objects of the game is to link all of the minuses into a set. Some object (or idea or some tangible detail) can do this nicely. A device can depict the circulation of an object, touching the intimate questions of any number of performers. What links them in the end is their relationship with the thing. Two dynamic images come to mind: the object as a threaded needle sewing together one performer after another; and the object as the axle of a wheel with a different performer at the other end of each spoke revolving about the object with different desires and interpretations.

One last suggestion borrowed from Gertrude Stein, who asked the theatre to give her not plots but “landscapes.” Certainly one can imagine linking minuses by finding places for them in a landscape. “Landscape” here is used to describe the sense of audience’s relationship with the work of art. How would an audience relate to a landscape? What would be expected? Consider the variety of ‘scapes possible: geographical, pictorial, aural, verbal, historical, psychological, etc. To return to the mundane world of plot devices without abandoning this new and provocative “modernist” ideal, imagine a device which sets out to put players into a precise place; imagine that there is a final picture or final vista toward which all effort aims. This kind of goal certainly could lead to the last numbered performer in a game undertaking a grand strategy.


This is an involved improvisation exercise with many nooks and crannies to explore. Primarily, it is a way to come to grips with the acting style we call Realism. The exercise requires at least three actors: A, B and C. B and C do the actual prep work away from A, who does not participate until time to begin the actual improvisation.

Briefly, B and C create a realistic scenario for improvisation using certain formulas. A knows nothing going in, not his or her name, not the place, not the relationships with the other characters. B and C must include A in the scene knowing A’s who, what, where, etc. So far, this may be a familiar set-up, similar to some of Spolin’s games. Here’s the twist: A must figure out not only identity, place and relationships; A must also realize a very specific action to bring the improvisation to an end, one devised by B and C and which shapes the very structure of the scenario. B and C give clues to the action A must complete by what they don’t do; A also picks up clues by tuning in to echoes of a secret and forbidden action which haunts the scene.

B and C begin devising the scenario by following a specific procedure and using some “algorithms.” Remember, A cannot witness this process.

1. Choose a word, probably a noun or a name (or it can be one of the actors, A, B or C), any word which can serve as either a subject of a sentence or an object of a sentence. This is

O(bject) 1

For example:

O1= Bowl

2. Now think of O1 as the subject of a simple sentence; pick a verb


and an object for the sentence,


so your simple sentence is as follows, with O1 as subject, V1 the verb, and O2 as the object.

O1 V1 O2

The sentence should be realistic, sensible, possible in our world. To continue our example:

O1 V1 O2 = Bowl holds soup.

3. Think of something which could connect to or result from or fall out of this sentence

O1(a) to give it a symbol.

For example, to continue our unfolding story,

O1(a)= spoon.

Set this element aside. Actor B will make use of it in a minute.

4. Use the first sentence to create a setting. Keep it simple. It can be elaborated upon later.

O1 V1 O2 associated with a P(lace).

Our example continues

Bowl holds soup. P=Cafeteria

5. Now you can begin thinking about the characters A, B and C will be in this place or setting you have chosen. Decisions need not be finalized until all the preparation is done. And remember, A is not to know which of you is B and which C.

6. Now you will create a sentence with O1 as the object, A as the subject. The sentence must establish an action for A to perform.

A V2 O1

And make sure this sentence can realistically lead to our first sentence; think cause and effect.

If A V2 O1 then O1 V1 O2

To continue our example:

If A fills bowl then bowl holds soup.

7. Now create a sentence in which O2 is the subject and B is the object.

If O1 V1 O2 then O2 V3 B

You now have a chain of actions and consequences. Examine your sentence to make sure it is realistic and could take place in P. The character descriptions for A, B and C need to support the chain also. It is inevitable that a story will begin to flesh itself out as this process goes forward, including character biographies, time, details of place, etc. Think of the chain this way

A V2 O1 linked with O1 V1 O2 linked with O2 V3 B

In our example:


Our example crawls toward an inevitable destiny:

If A fills bowl then bowl holds soup. If bowl holds soup then soup calms B.

The choice of verbs is important. They should allow for action in the sense in which Stanislavsky defines action. They should be provocative when appropriate and concrete when necessary.

8. A enters the improvisation not knowing anything. A ;s objective is to participate in the story in order to find out who his or her character is, where he or she is, and what action is to be performed to bring the story to a close. A must discover:

A V2 O1

Once we look at B’s and C’s objectives, we will see how difficult this will be. In our tale A must ultimately discover and perform:

fill bowl

9. B’s objective is to use the chosen related object


to establish some kind of relationship with A. The choice of relationship is private. B does not state his or her goal to C. The decision is made based on the nature of P, on the chain of actions, and on ideas about character. B is encouraged to use O1(a) as a way to cement this relationship.


B may or may not want A to complete his or her action; it depends on the chain created; but telling A to complete the action may not do any good since A does not know how sincere B is or even if B is B. To pursue our example

B wants to fascinate A by using talk of spoons or completing actions with a spoon.

The nature of the relationship


can be very simple or, as in this case, open and difficult.

10. C has two objectives. C must prevent A from completing the action

{A V2 O1} must not occur

And C must negate all potential instances of V3 for B.

{V3 B}

To negate is different from to prevent; it implies something more transformational, turning a thing into it’s opposite. This does not mean, necessarily, C is the “villain” of the piece; it truly depends on the series of links in the chain. A will not know who is who at first and, thus, will have to discover C and what C is trying to prevent. The negation of V3 for B is to give C some guidance on how to establish a relationship with B. Our story develops

C must prevent A from filling the bowl. C will interfere with anything which calms B, attempting perhaps to make B more agitated.

11. The preparations are almost complete. B and C must now establish an absolute prohibition

{O1 V1 O2}Prohibited!

This sentence, in its most basic present tense form, is not to be uttered by B or C at any time. This is Law. It is forbidden. Nor may they carry out the stated action in its most basic form. It is simply not done. It’s taboo. If B or C wishes to flirt with cleverly disguising the sentence through manipulating grammar or behavior, they do so at their own risk. If the prohibition is violated, B and C must stop the scene and apologize to A and to the audience. They blew it.

At no time may B or C say “bowl holds soup” in a sentence. At no time may they try to show a bowl holding soup in the scene. At one point B approaches the edge by asking A, “How much liquid do you think this bowl could hold?”

After all the preparations have been made, B and C can flesh out the character and place descriptions:

To keep the scene as real and familiar as possible, activating the experiential knowledge of the actors, the cafeteria is a high school cafeteria. It is lunch time. A is Andy, a senior. B is Andy’s sister Beth, a sophomore. C is Carl, Andy’s friend, also a senior. Beth is ADHD and has been trying, unbeknownst to her parents but known to Andy, to stop taking medication. Beth is going off on a wild and amusing riff about spoons (actor B knows it’s mainly to keep her brother enthralled so he won’t mother her, but B keeps it to herself in the planning stage); she’s regarded as the comedian of the family and class clown. Andy worries about Beth’s extreme behavior and wants her to eat something; the soup will help her relax. Once Beth ran away from home; Andy found her sleeping in the woods and brought her home; mom and dad were still out looking; Andy got her warm and fed her some soup. Carl kind of likes Beth; he’s captivated by her wild extreme behavior. He’s invested in enjoying her riff. He sees that Andy wants to calm her by feeding her and is guiltily trying to postpone that. Also, if Andy left the table to go get something for Beth, Carl would freak; the idea of being alone with Beth terrifies him. Beth may also want to keep Andy enthralled so he won’t leave her alone, even briefly, with Carl. Does she like him or detest him?

In our example, all the elements of the scenario conform to the chain, yet there is plenty of opportunity for creative initiative, for crafting conflict and interesting character development. The story is taking shape ahead of time in such a way that the actors will not have to make too many things up to maintain interest or development. The actors are free to act: to follows actions, make decisions, think, solve problems, experience feelings, to live the life. The story, thanks to the chain and the prohibition, automatically has a drive to resolve and a certain “form and pressure.”

In improvising this scenario, the key is to take time. B and C have to act in such a way that a tangible reality exists for their characters and for A. A has a great deal of information to discern and assimilate and needs time to do so. B and C have to consider their moves carefully so as not to violate the prohibition.

Goofs, slips and mistakes will be made. That is part of the fun. All three actors will have to work to weave any slips or desperate pauses or flubs into the fabric of the scene. It’s all real, part of the moment, part of the performance. Live your character and make your goofs. There will be a certain ongoing communication between B and C about where to go next and whether or not they are avoiding the prohibition. A has his or her own set of struggles and questions. Everything contributes to the texture and density, the life, of the scene. Use it. As an actor, don’t say no to anything which falls on your plate…or in your bowl.

The audience: An audience of peers is there to enjoy the performance, respond to the work as peers would, and to participate in the game. They should not know ahead of time who is A or B or C. They should try to guess as the scene proceeds. Audience members who are not peers need not know anything about letters and actions; they can innocently enjoy the performance. If there is a moment when A, B and C consent to being at an impossible impasse, and manage to establish this opinion among themselves in the midst of the scene, A can violate the fourth wall and take a soliloquy. This will be a cue to the peers in the audience who think they have it figured out. One of them can assume a new character and enter the scene to ask A any question which might prompt a discovery of the concluding action. The new character can only ask questions and cannot tell A what to do even through a question.

The new character cannot ask: “Why don’t you fill the bowl?”

But might ask: (Assuming role of a teacher) “Andy, are you going to let Beth have lunch?”

Or: (Assuming role of a friend of Andy’s) Dude, did you get some soup? It’s awesome, dude. Split pea.”

The new character is not subject to the prohibition B and C are subject to, since he or she may not have figured that out. The new character may stay or go as seems appropriate.

Once A performs the necessary action, B and C play out the appropriate responses and the story is over. A must then state a who, what and where to show he or she did in fact work it out.

The farce formulas

Here’s an improvisation exercise in which the actors truly have to grapple with form and structure as they stay inventive and spontaneous.

Farce is the depiction of civilization and its discontents. In farce, people go to absurd ends to try to get what they want or to avoid the inevitable.

Farce is part of the comic sublime. We laugh because of implications and complications; we laugh at the architecture of disaster. We laugh at the audacity and hugeness of the desiring characters. Farce is the other face of tragedy; humans are split apart by irreconcilables, but we laugh because we think we’re safe. We know better than to stumble into such impossible predicaments. And yet, we are all in impossible predicaments just by virtue of trying to take ourselves seriously on occasion. So we laugh.

Like tragedy, farce is difficult to improvise. There is a great deal of planning involved. Farcical plots have geometrical intricacies one cannot just dream up on the spot. This exercise attempts to plant some of the complications of farce into a structure filled out ahead of time. The assumption is the characters in farce are trying to achieve their private fantasies under the eyes of propriety and convention, under the nose of the Law.

Briefly, if a protagonist, A, can negotiate a number of obstacles and enlist allies, B and C, by trying to help them realize their goals, then that protagonist can find a way around the Law and realize his or her dream: If A­­­>>B-V-O and A>>C-V-O then A>>L>>A-V-O (assuming in this case three characters, A, B, C and the Law). This is the grand design which never works out quite as neatly as one would hope. Allies become obstacles and visa versa. And the Law never just goes away. Within such a structure, it might be possible for actors to create variations, exaggerations, predicaments and reversals, reaching the heights of farce, with practice.

Preparing, and let’s assume four actors (though theoretically the work can be done with any number from one to upwards of ten or so)

1. One actor must be the Law. The Law waits.

2. The three other actors must each create a fantasy, a wish, a longed for state. They do so in the following form: S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(ject), with the actor serving as either subject or object. See making a fantasy below.

Let’s start an example as the guidelines unfold. Suppose the three actors concoct these three fantasies: 1) A goddess is feeding me (perhaps grapes). 2) I free the prisoners. 3) I invent the perfect chair.

3. Each actor must then create an inversion of his or her fantasy; its shadow or horrific negation. Subject and Object can switch places and possibly the Verb will change.

Our three actors comply: 1) The goddess eats me in a casserole. 2) Slaves force me to work as one of them. 3) I am afraid of sitting.

4. Each actor should now look at the original fantasy and think of a phrase or thought or image or something which could connect with the fantasy as fulfilled. This is the Letter.

Three Letters: 1) “Do you like my grapes?” 2) “No more iron bars to hold us!” 3) “Presenting the complete seat.”

5. The three actors submit copies of the following to the Law: the negative form of the fantasy: -(S-V-O), and the Letter.

6. The Law gives the actors places in a structure as A, B and C. A is the actor who will be the chief protagonist of the farce, with A’s fantasy as the ultimate aim of that character. B and C become complicators or obstacles by default. The Law chooses A based on which Letter and negative fantasy are most interesting.

Let’s say our Law is female and is already imagining how fun it could be to play a goddess, so she chooses negative fantasy #1 and it’s Letter referring to grapes.

7. The Law makes rules. Three rules: rules to prevent the possibility of A, B and C’s negative fantasies from taking place: R=prevent(-(S-V-O)). In a sense the Law is making rules to protect A, B and C from their worse fears.

The Law looks at the three negative fantasies and imagines three rules: 1) Only fresh fruit and vegetables allowed; no cooked dishes. 2) Guards are to mix in disguise amongst the slaves to thwart rebellion. 3) No prisoners may sit at any time. There are no hard and fast rules about making rules. The Law can try to make all three cohere from the outset or pick rules capriciously, based solely on the inverted fantasies. There does seem to be something our three example rules share, an implication of confinement and somewhat strict regimentation, but this could change after the next step.

8. Using A’s negative fantasy and Letter and the rules he or she has just created, the Law makes some decisions about the story. Every detail must derive in some way from the Letter– a word, a piece of a word, an image, an association. Specifically, the Law needs to determine the following:

–place, a place in which the three rules make sense (or seem preposterous depending on the tone sought after), the world of the story, in other words, the setting

The Law is really intent on the goddess angle, so: DO YoU Like My graPeS? OYULMPS, which rearranges into Olympus. The place is Mt. Olympus (home of the gods in Greek myths). Let us say we are upon Olympus, now rule #1 prohibits cooked food. Demeter is the goddess of harvest, so perhaps she allows only fresh fruit and vegetables to be consumed in her domain; we hope this will prevent cannibalism from occurring. #2 speaks of guards in disguise among slaves, so perhaps Olympus exists in the midst of a real place. Common people feel they are servants to the gods who move among them in disguise. You never know if a god is watching. As for rule #3. No sitting. Hmm. Common people who work in Olympus cannot sit–only stand, work, and then lie down to sleep and die. It’s a tough life.

–who are A, B and C in this world; and what do they have to do to be in good standing with the Law in addition to following the Rules, a social identity in the following form: (A-V-O)Law, (B-V-O)Law, and (C-V-O)Law.

Still trying to pull from A’s Letter, the Law imagines three characters. A is Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. B is Myron, a mortal, Dionysus’ chief grape stomper. C is Pegra, guarding protectress of Demeter.

–a character the Law can play in this world to assure enforcement of the rules and to hold A, B and C to their roles

The Law chooses, of course, to play Demeter.

–finally, an inversion of A’s Letter, a final ironic twist or a nightmarish transformation which echoes the original Letter in some way

“No more wine for you. Only grapes. Aren’t I intoxicating enough?”

9. There are two ways the game can get underway. Beginner form (pre World War II): the Law gives a run-down to A, B and C of what the world is and what characters A, B and C play, their duties and the rules and who the Law is. Advanced form (post World War II): the Law gives no information ahead of time but imparts it gradually once the improvisation begins.

The details in the example have not been plotted out or worked over for consistency. They arose from simply focusing on the task of each exercise, including an adherence to the Letter’s dictating of duties and details. If the actors stick to the demands in each stage, they will discover images and associations will begin to emerge and perch at the periphery of thought. These may start to inform some of the decisions and lead to a plausible (albeit silly) situation. The setting need not be fanciful. The Law could transform the actor’s wishes and Letters into a very simple setting, like “A Room,” and let ideas bubble up from there.

Making a fantasy. The three actors, ultimately regarded by the Law as A, B and C, need to develop fantasies for their characters. Each will do this in isolation. A fantasy is structured like a simple statement: S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(bject). You can begin developing one in a variety of ways. For instance, you can choose the verb first. It can be any verb, active or not. Pleasant or not. Remember, a fantasy is a wish, not necessarily a pleasant wish, but in some ways an absolute wish. A final wish, perhaps. Then you decide whether you are going to be the subject or the object in your statement. It will depend on the verb and the kind of fantasy you begin to imagine. You might see it as a choice between active and passive, though nothing is set in stone. Then you must choose the third term. Person, place or thing (or something serving as such). It can be one of your fellow actors, and the Law will take that into account in arranging the scene. Depending on the verb, it might be possible to be both subject and object. Actors, however, tend to make less solipsistic choices.

The actor need not start with the verb, of course. There are many ways to go about this. Next, once you have the statement, the next step is to compose a “letter.” A “letter” is a little piece from the fantasy, a result, a detail, something which can be put into words, something which your character may or may not say; it might be said by someone else or just be an objective piece of writing. Choose something distinctive, as if it were particular to one person, time and place. It should be something which certifies the fantasy, which makes it seem as if it really did happen.

Farce in phases. Once all preparations have been made and the Law has imposed the location, duties and identities of the actors, improvisation can set the farce in motion. In order to build an effective farcical rhythm, the action has to move through three stages, the very stages of what is often called “dramatic rhythm:” exposition, rising action, with complications and crisis–and the dénouement (or falling action). Exposition is crucial because it communicates the stakes to the audience, the dreams and constraints of the characters. It builds the foundation for all the delicious dread to come. Actors can see this phase as an opportunity to define character and relationship, place and time, all through meaningful action:

–A, B and C must each find a way to communicate his or her relationship to the Law: (S-V-O)Law. A, B and C can attempt to characterize the Law as they do this, but the Law need not conform to their dictates. They, however, need to do their best to conform to how the Law characterizes them–while the Law is present, at least.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical unfolding of our example. The tip for the actors at the beginning is not to do too much here, just be your character, choose some action in the world or wait and respond to something initiated by another character. Let action and interplay clue in the audience. Perhaps Myron comes on and begins stomping grapes, talking to the audience about how difficult it is laboring as one of the mortals in Olympus. Dionysus comes on as a wino, never having revealed himself to Myron. This wino is a constant pest, always begging to be given cups of spill-off and overflow from the casks. Myron gets him to leave by giving him something, at great risk to his position. Pegra enters, also in disguise, as a sweet but mousy representative from the vineyards. She reports Demeter is outraged by the latest order for cabernet grapes…

–The Law has the choice of rather or not to make an appearance at this phase. If the Law does appear, his or her job is to help define the Rules: R=prevent[-(S-V-O)] and draw out (S-V-O)L for A, B and C.

Perhaps Myron and Pegra develop an attraction. Perhaps the wino is making a scene. Myron has to explain why the wino is drinking out of the grape vat. Demeter enters in disguise as a society woman interested in something tangy with a little bite and with an unapologetically earthy nose. Myron is less than flattering, so the woman transforms into Demeter and chews him out, including a temperance speech. The wino begins to sing the praises of Dionysus. Demeter demurs and calls him a bum, a drunk, filthy, etc. Demeter leaves in a huff. Pegra follows.

–Once the above has been accomplished, A moves the improvisation into the next phase by establishing his or her role as chief protagonist and begins the process of complication by revealing his or her fantasy to one of the other actors, B. B finds a reason to reciprocate and tell A his B-V-O. And remember, because of the way the preparation phase is structured, the Law does not know A’s fantasy ahead of time, only its negative form. This could be influential.

Clearly the bum should reveal himself to Myron as Dionysus. Dionysus asserts Demeter is too high and mighty. He brags that before the day is out she will hold his head in her lap and feed him grapes. Myron must somehow express his desire to free the prisoners (meaning the mortals in this case) to Dionysus. Can he do this directly? Perhaps he secretly imagines marrying Pegra and the two of them leading a Sparticus-like rebellion against the gods, so he prudently confesses this to Dionysus.

–A must establish a reason to help B reach his objective. If B reaches his objective, he or she will in some way assist A.

Dionysus believes if he could get to Demeter, charm her, plead his affections, put on a show of newfound temperance, he could win her over. He has to watch out for the fierce Pegra, the hidden warrior goddess who protects Demeter. Myron suggests he might be able to sweet talk the mousy assistant (Dionysus and Myron unaware she is Pegra in disguise), get her drunk (Dionysus’s suggestion), and find a way to sneak Dionysus in.

–C’s job is to bring about —(B-V-O), the negation or inversion of B-V-O, by whatever means, willfully interfering or through accident. Success is by no means assured in this endeavor. A, then, must contend with C in efforts to assist B.

In our example, C, Pegra (still in disguise) can obstruct Myron and his dream by resisting Myron. A joke about Pegra and Myron negotiating the sitting prohibition is in order here. And perhaps he does get her drunk, and she confesses her dream of helping the common folk by inventing a magic chair which would make it possible to sit, but then Myron insensitively makes a move and she is turned off by his aggressiveness and runs away. Meanwhile…

–The Law has the choice to appear and help C or not. A and B in their efforts may need to encounter the Law. The Law should be flexible but not necessarily conciliatory.

No call for Demeter here.

–If A fails to help B, B cannot assist A. A may make another attempt to assist B later in the action.

Ultimately, Dionysus’ suggestion did not help Myron (to win the assistant and free the prisoners). So Myron is not inclined to assist Dionysus at Demeter’s place. Perhaps he begins drinking and shouting liberation speeches.

A’s attempt to help B and C’s attempt to foil B’s reach for an objective represent one complication cycle. Now A approaches the next actor, C, and determines C-V-O (or C causes it to be revealed, revealing his or her own A-V-O again, if appropriate, lying if appropriate) and endeavors to bring about C-V-O. B must try to: -(C-V-O). The Law has the same duties as described for the first complication cycle, this time attempting to foil C-V-O if seen fit. A’s going to each actor in alphabetical order will insure a certain structured progress the actors can rely upon.

The next action cycle must involve an encounter with Dionysus and Pegra (still in disguise, of course). Perhaps Dionysus has found Demeter’s chambers and is nosing around. Pegra, in distress, feeling guilty and confused and heartbroken, seeks out her mistress and discovers Dionysus, in disguise as the wino. Pegra, transforms into her true form as the protectress, but since she is drunk, she cannot dispatch the wino effectively. Dionysus realizes she is disadvantaged and transforms into himself to reassure her. Pegra is now even more humiliated. She cannot forgive herself for being drunk. She will never be able to help the common people because when Demeter finds out how she has betrayed her duty, she’ll be banished. A deal is struck in which if Pegra helps Dionysus to enchant Demeter, Dionysus will cover up Pegra’s lapse. They determine the only way Demeter would ever give Dionysus a second thought would be if Dionysus renounced drinking and excess. Demeter arrives, Dionysus hides. At some point Dionysus betrays his presence. Pegra makes to throttle him, trying not to betray her drunkenness. He begs for mercy and insists he has come to announce he is a changed man. He makes a show of conversion, renounces wine and excess. Myron comes stumbling in shouting liberation speeches. Chaos. Demeter orders Pegra to destroy him as Myron is trying to understand why the mousy assistant is now an avenging Amazon. He is trying to apologize to her for his behavior. Dionysus pleads with Demeter for her to show mercy toward this poor drunken mortal. Pegra reveals her errors to her mistress. Demeter cries out that her realm has been polluted and violated and insists some kind of sacrifice is in order. Pegra or Myron or some other poor mortal must be roasted on an altar…

A continues in this fashion with all the other characters, a complication cycle played with each one (assuming a D, E, F, etc). A then must try to help any characters who were foiled the first time through. This time, no other actor will attempt to foil the attempt. The Law can choose to be involved or not.

Regrettably, Dionysus has been unable to help either Myron or Pegra, so he has to try something else. In our improvised example, it looks as if an avenue has opened up for Dionysus to help Myron and Pegra by appealing to Demeter and in so doing pass through the Law (or around it) and get his desire (see the definition of the “crisis” below). He reminds Demeter of her insistence on the uncooked; a roasted sacrifice, while expedient, would be deeply unseemly for the Goddess of the harvest. He offers himself as the sacrifice.

Crisis and Dénouement. Now A attempts to realize A-V-O, but must go through the Law to do so. This is the crisis. The Law knows to relent and allow A-V-O if all other actors have achieved their objectives. A gets A-V-O and gets to utilize his or her Letter in some way in the process.

Demeter decides Dionysus will be her servant. It is clear from the way she articulates her wish, however, that she is becoming intrigued and charmed. He says he would be honored once she has blessed the union of Myron and Pegra. After doing so, Dionysus offers to throw them a party, but Demeter insists he cannot offer such services anymore and bids Myron and Pegra go their way, promising to listen to their suggestions about making life easier for mortals. Dionysus must stay with her…and feed her grapes. Dionysus does, and eats a few himself, still asking if a toast might not be in order. Demeter says, “No more wine for you. Only grapes. Aren’t I intoxicating enough?”

The dénouement involves the Law moving to a fallback position:

A-V-O<<L(Letter). It involves the negation or corruption of A’s Letter which the Law has kept secret. This turn manages to prevent A from having a fully satisfying resolution. The other actors should respond as they see fit. The farce has ended.


Three stages of farce,

1. Show (A-V-O)L+(B-V-O)L+…(n-V-O)L <<RL=-(x-V-O), where x=(A, B…n).

2. If n-V-O then A-V-O. n+1 and maybe L>>[-(n-V-o)]. Then repeat with
n+1=n (B,C…n).

3. If for (B…n) =x, x-V-O, then A>>L>>(A-V-O)(Letter)

but A-V-O<<L(-Letter).

Fleshing out the structures. With some exceptions, farce involves various forms of exaggeration of character, behavior and situation. The subtleties, such as they are, will usually be revealed by relying on the structure. But, at the same time, you do not need to go overboard working for laughs. Exaggeration has more to do with conveying the magnitude of the appetites and wants and colors of the characters. The laughs will emerge as the schemes get underway. Laughter in farce comes from the audience’s ability to see ahead of the characters and thereby experience a giddy dread; it also comes from the audience’s appreciation of how one thing can take on many different implications for each character. Such incongruities and ironies and multiple meanings produce laughter. Bergson’s classic assertion is always helpful as a last resort: we laugh when we see people compelled to act inhumanly, like machines, or treated as inanimate objects.

There are, of course, choices to be made as to tone. The Law, in considering the materials he or she is given in the preparation stage, can decide on a world tightly constrained by realistic demands or might want to create a very surreal landscape full of odd juxtapositions and absurdities. Or slapstick plain and simple. Cruel clowning? What is crucial is the set of rules and prohibitions contorting the characters and calling for schemes, deception, evasion, and confusion in the process of achieving a desired end.

The actors should be on the lookout throughout for opportunities to work amusing turns within the structure of the material. Often, the actor responsible for disrupting A’s attempt to help a B or C or D and so on in an action cycle is in the best position to foil a fantasy by introducing a classic comedic turn. Consider some of the standard conventions: mistaken identity, misappropriation of a vital object, multiple versions of a vital thing or person, being exactly the wrong person at the wrong time, saying the one thing which shouldn’t be said at any given moment, distraction. You cannot be afraid to gum up the works as long as it is consistent with your character. Frustration is essential and gives the other actors new problems to solve and new actions to undertake. Take your time. The structure will tell you where you are and what is still to be done.

Imagine if, in our improvised example, Dionysus tried to win Demeter over by getting her to drink some special magic wine, a wine which caused the drinker to alter his or her behavior in some way. What if the wine was lost at a crucial moment, or drunk by someone unexpected, or replaced with a common vintage. Many possibilities are open to an actor with what Henry James called “an imagination for disaster.”

You can find more formulaic approaches to farce and structure at this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.