Narrative Long Form Improv, Montreal Style

A few weekends ago I did a superb improv workshop with Marc Rowland and Brent Skagford, amazing improvisers who had come all the way from Montreal just to teach us. They didn’t swim it but, bearing in mind no one was getting married, I thought that was a grand effort!


The workshop took place in the Nursery, a cracking theatre space in an arch under the railway line off Great Suffolk Street. There are several different enterprises going on under the arches all along there, from a gym to a dance studio, and probably several other weird and wonderful things, strangely central and yet strangely hard to find.

The Nursery’s arch is a huge space that has been split into at least 3 sections. The entrance “hall”, with a desk, the loos, a coffee table for snacks and bath filled with blood coloured water and a dismembered baby doll. Probably just for decor.

Then, the other side of the hall, the main theatre area. A very good sized space, with seating already set up for 40 easily and room for a further 60 plus. When the doors were shut, even the sound of the trains going overhead was not that disturbing, although, despite the weather having been the hottest day of the year, in there is was definitively chilly.

Finally, behind the stage, that you could get to down the side of the room, there is a whole other space, which is probably used as an office, storage and any number of other things. Probably not an S&M club, but who knows. Although, an S&M club called the Nursery would be a little disturbing. Then again, there is a strip club in Zurich called the Dolls’ House. So I’ve heard…

I arrived to find a room full of people. About 25 had joined the workshop, many of whom I knew, quite a few from the Wilmops. It was going to be a fun couple of days.

Warm Up exercises
We initially did a few warm up exercises, including “clap throwing” and “simultaneous claps”, and then went straight into “4 line scenes”, scenes which must include the details of Where, What, and Who.

From there, we did “4 line scenes” but in gibberish, taking it slowly and building some very interesting and understandable visual dumplings. The key emphasis was on making the location as clear as possible through action, and then to really show the relationships through emotion. We then set about creating 30 second gibberish platforms to set up the start of the scenes.

This then led into various ideas that were to become the foundation of the narrative structure:
To make the beginings of the scenes stronger, part of which was the idea of “ordinary people in extraordinary situations”.
To choose a routine, something that is going on, it is so routine that it is not spoken about, the players are just discussing gossip etc. N.B. The routine can be an emotional routine too.

The 30 second platform allows the scene to develop on a firm footing. With the where, what and who, the routine that is happening but not discussed allows the “ordinary people” to be believable in the situation, be it extraordinary or otherwise.

Justify yourself
The next exercise was “justifying an action”, where both start the scene with an action and the justifying the action, followed by “justify a line”, where both prethink a line, each then say it, and then have to justify it. Both these exercises, by getting us to justify things, help create the beginings of a story.

The Desire and The Flaw
During the above routine, we want to find out our character’s desire, and once we have determined the desire, we find out why they are not achieving their desire – the flaw. A hero needs desire, and for a narrative arc, they need to be prevented from achieving their desire because of their flaw. There has to be a degree of discomfort for not achieving their desire too, but it is the flaw that is preventing them doing anything about it.

As with all improv, specifics are important. The flaw can be a character flaw or an operational flaw, and it is key to discover this, as key as knowing what the character wants is knowing what is stopping him/her. Over the length of the story, the hero will eventually get their desire, but the story itself is the struggle to get it. Therefore, to make the story more interesting, it is as simple as making things more difficult for the hero.

The hero can make the desire very clear, just through statement: “I wish” / “I want”, and can also just as clearly provide a reason why not, deny the call. Also, it is good for a reason for the desire, and the best reasons are emotional rather than material. “I want to get a Ferrari to show how rich I am” is less interesting than “I want to get a Ferrari so that my girlfriend will marry me”.

The Catalyst
The flaw is what stops the routine changing. The catalyst is what changes the routine and forces the characters to take the required steps forwards. The catalyst thrusts our hero into the challenge.

The Hero
The best heroes are the least likely ones, the worst people for the challenge. Think the Hobbit, an individual with many flaws. Someone highly capable is less interesting because the obstacles to overcome are not as great, and the next part of the narrative is about putting the hero through hell before giving them what they want.

Hence why a solid platform at the start is so important:
Where is it? Show me the space
What is going on? Show me why they are there
Who are they? Show me the relationship

Here, we did another exercise: What happened next (Advance vs Expand)
Purpose: Scene building, story telling, descriptiveness
Description: Two people tell a story, one saying one line, the other the next. Each line must either advance or expand the story. The director may call out “advance” or “expand” to encourage the development of the story. This exercise can create some very interesting stories

Then we did the above exercise, but with the structure of Character, Routine, Desire, Flaw, Catalyst, so that the story tellers would try to advance and expand and at the same time also using those other elements. If they are not forthcoming, the director calls out, demanding the next element. Some lovely stories came out of this.

The Premise and The Low Point
With a Routine, a Desire and a Flaw, we have our Character. With a Character and a Catalyst we have the Premise.

The Premise part of the story is where we play with our Hero. We know what s/he wants, and here is where s/he must face his / her fears. Here is where we show the story of the hero, we place obstacles in the heroes way, building up and making things worse and worse, until we eventually reach the Low Point, where everything looks entirely unachievable.

N.B. The Premise can have both high and low points. The premise is about playing, having fun, and it all leads to the final part:

The Triumph
Here our hero finally gets their desire, having been through the whole emotional adventure, the hero wins, and this is the end of the story.

We did another exercise of “What happened next”, taking it all the way through the journey and directed as and when required. Finally we finished off with improvising full shows on this narrative structure.

Build a strong platform for the scene. Take the scene slowly, determine what the routine of the scene is, work out where they are, why they are there and who they are to one another. What is the desire (we need to know why, make sure it is emotional, maybe to do with a relationship, so the audience can emotionally invest too); what is the flaw preventing the desire; what is the catalyst, the bombshell that changes the routine and forces our hero to act. Then, within this premis, take our hero on a journey, a bumpy ride with high points an low points before the lowest point; finally, after the lowest point, we can start to give our hero what they want and have them triumph

The narrative structure

Play with the premise
Low Point

As you can see in the video below (a speech I did for Toastmasters), it turns out a cracking story.

This was a hugely rewarding session, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I’m sure did we all. Brent and Marc were excellent teachers, the pace was just right and everything was geared towards us being able to do this ourselves, which we did the Monday after – the course show was great fun and we managed to put together a heroes journey to be proud of. Well, we were proud!

A few days later I went and watched Brent and Marc do a show at the Miller. Massive amounts of energy, great fun to watch and really got the impression that they themselves were enjoying it too. If you get the opportunity, definitely go and see them perform and take a workshop with them, well worth it.


How to improvise a bedtime story

Brent and Marc, Montreal Improv

The Nursery, Arch 61, Great Suffolk Street

Wilmops improv troupe


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