There's a lot of fun to be had asking members of the audience up on to the stage to improvise a play with us. Of course, this has to be done with care. It works best in a chummy environment where the audience already know each other well. It often helps if we can win their trust by playing a shortform game like Pillars or Puppets in the first half, to demonstrate that we're in the business of making them look good. Volunteers with no stage experience at all tend to get more out of it, and are easier to play with, than those who think they're going to be brilliant. We choose stories that everyone is familiar with, so that no one has to worry about what happens next. A Christmas pantomime is ideal. The show is guided every step of the way by a narrator.
In the past, we have held on-stage auditions for the role of protagonist, hoping that the audience will vote for their friends to play the lead. For the most part so far, this hasn't worked: the audience plays it safe and votes for an improviser to play the main character.
At the weekend, The Inflatables did shortform games in front of a village hall crowd of about 125, and persuaded eight volunteers to join us on stage for the second half. Backstage during the interval, we played a quick warmup game of Zip Zap Boing, then went straight into improvising The Wizard of Oz. Abandoning the audition process, we reassigned the role of Dorothy on a scene-by-scene basis. She was denoted by a blue gingham apron that was quick and easy to swap between actors. The remaining volunteers played scenery, Munchkins, flying monkeys, etc.
Dorothy is almost the perfect passive protagonist. She barely does anything and hardly changes over the course of the story. She is the perfect role for someone without improvising experience. She can be pimped and prodded along and made to look good, while the seasoned improvisers take the more difficult supporting roles.
It was great, energetic fun: fantastic to see the shyest of the volunteers start to come out of their shells on stage, and heartwarming to watch them being congratulated by their friends afterwards.
Dorothy serves as a good illustration of the distinction to be drawn between "story" and "plot", two words that are commonly used interchangeably. What is Dorothy's story? If we define her story has governed by the choices she makes, it could hardly be simpler. 1. She is unhappy at home. 2. She runs away. 3. She misses her family. 4. She goes home again. The two main decisions she takes (there are a couple of subtle other ones along the way) are marked by memorable lines: "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "There's no place like home". Almost everything else that she experiences consists of people telling her what to do, explaining what's going on and reacting to her. She kills two witches, both of them by accident. She even needs to be told to make the decision to go home.
By contrast, the plot of The Wizard of Oz is remarkably complex. It involves a twister, a pair of ruby slippers, flying monkeys, an egg timer and a hot air balloon. It is colourful and arbitrary, very much like the absurd nonsense that improvised comedy often creates. We can play around with it – embellish it using audience suggestions, send it panging off in random directions, do scenes in different genres – without ruining Dorothy's story. In our version, Dorothy won over the Wizard by growing a Ferrero Rocher tree from a magic bean. What the Scarecrow lacked was not a brain, but a sex drive. The plot was different, but the story was the same. She returned to Kansas at the end.
I don't wish to imply that plot is so insignificant it can be dispensed with. We cannot simply fast-forward to the emotional heart of a story without allowing the action to unfold in a colourful and coherent way. We included enough of the plot of The Wizard of Oz for the story to be recognizable, but lots of details – most notably the Tin Man and the Lion – were omitted, only for reasons of limited time.
In summary, the story belongs to the protagonist and is fixed. The plot belongs to the story and is arbitrary. The story is "what happened". The plot is "how it happened".
Improvisers who don't engage emotionally in the characters they play can easily get bogged down in plot. Without empathy for the characters and an understanding of how the decisions they make create the story, it is necessary to fall back on clever reincorporation of material in order to create a satisfying conclusion. And while some improvisers are amazingly good at this, and have fantastic skills of listening, memory and reincorporation, most improvisers struggle to tie everything together in this way. They could make their lives easier if they focused less on the plot and more on the story.
Curiously, when you allow a character to follow the story that is laid out for them, the plot often seems to look after itself. The mountain of miscellaneous stuff that you created through free-association in the first few scenes will uncannily include exactly what you need in terms of plot to allow the story to make sense, rather than be a burden that needs somehow to be accounted for. I cannot explain this phenomenon, but it happens with practice.
I'd be lying if I claimed that our Dorothies were three-dimensional and emotionally well drawn, or that The Improvised Wizard of Oz engaged the audience in deep empathy for her. Our show was little more than an affectionate (and occasionally bawdy) romp. But I wonder . . . Would we would have created such a delightful atmosphere in that village hall – with the audience singing joyfully along with our improvised choruses – had we not been faithful to her story?