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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (10/4/09) 4:54pm - ... wherein Peter attends another Dickens rehearsal.

We had our second rehearsal for Improvised Dickens ("Dickprov!"[1]) this past Wednesday.

This time around, we'd had a chance to do some research, reading plot summaries, watching film adaptations, and so on.  We took some time in this rehearsal to just discuss what we'd learned.  (Also, I handed out photocopies of the "Cockney" chapter from Foreign Dialects.)

One interesting thing I had noticed was that, whereas the early novels have a clear simple structure -- an orphan such as Oliver Twist or Nell Trent faces a series of trials in an attempt to reach comfortable middle-class-dom -- the later novels like Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend do something different.

Honestly, I think Dickens does something analogous to String of Pearls.

String of Pearls operates over narrative time:  you start with the first line of the story and the last line of the story, and then you spend the exercise building all these intermediate steps between those two points.

I think Dickens operates over distance, either in space or across the Victorian class structure.  These late, complicated books start with several simultaneous stories taking place in sharply different parts of London -- here are the Parliamentary ministers having tea, here are the street urchins finding a body near the ferryman's wharf, here's the aristocratic younger son buying his army commission in the Hussars -- and then he'll gradually move these stories to a point where he can weave them together.

In the rehearsal itself, we had a go at doing some long-form work -- not a full 80-minute show, but the first ~20 minutes of several shows.  And several times in that, I would just start a scene that had apparently nothing to do with the protagonist.  We followed two kids making their way in a London workhouse, and then I stepped in and started a scene on a train chugging across the English countryside.  But the rest of the cast backed me up on that, and eventually we found that two aristocrats on the train were going to the same ball that the impoverished kids were somehow wending their way towards.  And that was really beautiful, because Dickens pulls things like that -- not exactly that situation, sure, but he sets up these disparate storylines and finds arresting ways to weave them together.[2]

Something else I've been thinking about with Dickens but (IIRC) forgot to mention was what Dickens does with his settings.

Let's face it:  a lot (most?) of improv is "Two White Dudes in a Void" -- that is, there is no setting.  Let's put all that aside.  Of what remains, a large proportion of short-form takes place in very standard, familiar locations:  an office, a kitchen, a lobby.  A lot of the long-form improv I've seen sticks to one place where all the characters are -- we alternate between a few different rooms in the hotel, or the chocolate factory, or whatever the cynosure of the current story might be.

So I'm really intrigued by the possibilities of a show that takes place in such a wide range of varied settings.  As I mentioned above, he likes to set up stories that deal with different locations and people and social classes, so you'll end up alternating between the ferryman's wharf and the aristocratic estate and the taxidermist's shop as the chapters go by.[3]

This show could be the diametric opposite of TWDiaV.

And like I said above, I don't see a lot of improv that hits setting that hard.  Maybe Six Degrees is the format that comes closest to "using a variety of locations", but even then the form doesn't include any deliberate emphasis on making those settings fully-realized.  That, and in practice the shows rarely include that breadth of social classes -- all six characters are in the same (usually middle) class, or their social standing is unspecified.

Then again, you can argue that most *scripted* work doesn't hit setting that hard, either.  The Wire is dead opposite to Dickens in its characterization, outlook, tone, and humor, but critics constantly peg it as "Dickensian" (much to David Simon's dismay) because each season of The Wire weaves together all these different social classes and locations.

Of course, maybe we just can't pull this off in an improv show.  Dickens wrote books that could double as blunt weapons, and The Wire runs to seventy-odd hours of very dense television.  One and a half hours (max) on an improv stage just isn't a lot of time to create 'epic scope'.

On top of that, improv provides very limited tools for creating a setting.  Typically, you have no sets, no costumes, no props, and a limited, general-purpose lighting grid.  However, this show will have a (no doubt gorgeous) standing set, and we'll each have a costume.

But still, how are you going to get across how the wharf smells? or what you can see in the distance down the river? or how the light plays on the water?  Sure, you can wrinkle your nose and tell your friend "This smells like rotten fish and I see the great merchant ships on the horizon and the water looks all sparkly" but that feels clumsy.  (Maybe we can use narration instead?)  I'm sure there are ways to create amazing settings in the mind's eye of the audience, but I'm equally sure that improv just hasn't explored that question very much.

And I'm not being snarky towards the improv world there -- it's more that this show can break some new ground if we can figure out how to kick ass at settings.  That, my friends, is exciting.

The rehearsal itself was great. 

This cast is amazing.  To put it selfishly, I know that I can step out on stage and do damn near anything, and the rest of the cast will find some way to make it look brilliant.  As I mentioned above, I started a random scene on a train, and everyone just stepped in and made it work.

Later in the rehearsal, I asked Curtis to bring back an incomprehensible beggar he played at the start of the story, and I endowed him as an eccentric millionaire who was trying to track down the protagonists.  It was rather drivey (see "driving") on my part, and a bit of a retcon/block of what Curtis had set up in that first scene, but it was something I wanted to try out in rehearsal.  In our discussion, we had talked about (1) the appearance of a rich deus ex machina in act III of many Dickens novels, and (2) how that 'rich guy' is often a background character early on.  So I brought Curtis out for that scene -- and Curtis found a way to make my crazy choice work.

Frankly, this show is making me realize how tentative I've been in improv all along.  This gleeful "I can go out there and do *anything* and it'll come out cool" feeling is kind of foreign to me.

But enough about me -- the show is also shaping up really well.  This was just our second rehearsal, and it's already at a level where I'd feel comfortable telling my friends, "Yes, pay $10 to see this."  (Okay, maybe not that awkward prostitution scene, but definitely the rest of the rehearsal.)  We'll keep rehearsing for the show all through October, and presumably it'll only get better.

Anyway, next rehearsal is Tuesday.  w00t!

(Side note:  there's some costuming discussion here -- apparently the phrase that pays is "frock coat".)

(Additional side note:  in our first rehearsal, I still had some nerves along the lines of "I'd better do awesome or they'll realize they made a horrid mistake in casting me."  For some reason, I felt much more at ease this time around.)

[1] No, there's no way they're calling it that.  Yes, I myself am obnoxiously persisting in calling in that.  *is twelve*

[2] Again:  not really a surprise that the LOST showrunners dig this writer so much.

[3] shadyglenn cannily points out that this might be a side effect of how the books were published.  Perhaps due to their serialization, it made sense to vary up the chapters for the audience:  now you get a story about aristocrats; next month, a story about a convict ship; and so on.

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Mood: [mood icon] optimistic · Music: none
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