You’ve probably heard of Chekhov’s Gun, it comes up in narrative improv as much as Schrodinger’s Cat comes up in science fiction.
Let me open with the fact that I do both narrative and non-narrative/freeform improv shows. So, if this blog sounds negative, it’s not meant that way. I absolutely thrill whilst I jot my Oh Boy! The Quantum Leap Show structure on the blackboard and our new Maydays musical is as Hero’s Journey as they come.
But let’s talk about the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun and how exciting and freeing it can be.
I’m going to call it Coens' Gloves.
About a year ago, I heard a podcast (listen at 12:30) with the makers of FX's Fargo TV series. I loved the show and was so happy to hear this story told in one of the episodes:
(to paraphrase) A man gets on a train, as the train starts to move, he realises that he only has one glove in his hand. He looks out of the window and sees the other one on the platform. There is no one near it and he doesn’t have time to get off the train and retrieve it. What does he do? He throws his other glove out of the window. That way, at least one person will have a pair.
I loved this parable in the show. Lots of people debated what it meant and why the character told the story. The writer - actually Noah Hawley and not the Coen bros - talked about how the Coens used various stories and moments in their films which pertained to nothing. Life is full of irrelevances, of strange and incongruent moments. The writer fought for this story staying in his script and won, despite that fact that it was not part of the plot (or even character development, necessarily). He was emulating the style of the Coen brothers and therefore emulating the randomness of human existence.
""Once you take away that Joseph Campbell Journey bullshit... then you're doing something that people can't predict as well... but it has to be satisfying".
Not everything you do in improv has to serve the story. That doesn’t mean you can drop information or pay less attention, it means that you can choose what is important to the story and what is important to the feel of the story.
Let’s not follow the road well-travelled. I would rather watch (or play in) a show where I’m surprised and delighted at what is happening than honour a plot that is predictable and cliché. One of the most fun things about improv is how it differs from writing; that we discover something more organic than perfectly driven narrative and something that can only be produced by a group mind in this moment. This one. Freeform improv is a discipline. It doesn’t mean going straight to wacky land or adding too much information. It’s just as hard (harder?) as telling a neat story and when you’re good at that neat story, you can decide to get off the path.
It’s Fargo’s truth, or the feeling of truth that I love the most about improv and if truth means leaving Chekhov’s gun on the wall for the whole show, I’m down with it. Perhaps that unfired gun will hang there as a metaphor for the emotional impotence of one of our characters, perhaps it will portend a darker future, or perhaps it will prompt the audience to think about their own guns (their potential, their rage, their secrets). One thing that narrative and freeform agree on however, is that whatever that gun is there for; it's important.
Just: fuck firing it by the end of Act II.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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