Creating the story arc
After we’ve done enough scene improvisations to generate material for the play and developed stable characters, the facilitator puts the scenes together in a kind of scene map. This consists of scene titles followed by a series of prompts that identify which characters enter the scene, what they talk about, and how they leave the scene. Brought together in this way the previously autonomous scenes create a story arc for the play. The style of story arc for each of the four plays we’ve produced has been quite different. This is because each play was trying to show different kinds of contrasts between layered stories that made up the overall story arc.
In some groups we worked with, most of the members pretty much agreed on what was wrong in the City for people in their situation. There was also an overarching consensus on what needed to be done, though the problems affected them differently. In these cases, repetition with variations allowed us to show the audience that a trouble-shooting approach to each individual issue wouldn’t solve the underlying structural problem and conflict of values. Seeing a problem repeat with variations encourages audiences to question the broader social values and beliefs that support the current situation. When this happens, an opening is created to consider that there may be another way of understanding these events and this, in turn, opens ground for actively listening to the people who want to tell the story of what those events mean in another way.
In other groups, participants had different experiences of the City and consequently they had different understandings of how to improve the situation. This often led to story arcs where characters found ways to build some kind of unity despite differences of approach. For instance, when we were working on When My Home is Your Business a disagreement emerged during scene improvisations. Many of the scenes were about trying to build a sense of neighbourliness in downtown high-rise buildings. One participant’s experience of dealing with unruly and disrespectful neighbours, however, helped us think through a real difficulty of tenant organizing in situations that are already tense because of conflict with the landlord. In creating the play’s story arc, it was important that we not ignore the different experiences, concerns, needs, and desires of tenants. Including these different narratives allowed participants to bring attention to the complexities of building solidarity.
On the scene level, we’ve found that combining elements from different improvisations in order to reflect more than one issue in each scene is crucial if we want to avoid coming across as telling the audience what to think. This can be as simple as having one character struggling with an unreliable elevator while another looks for her lost cat. Social life is complex, there is rarely only one thing happening in a public space at a time. When the structuring of our storytelling reflects this, it encourages a kind of public discussion that recognizes that solutions must take social complexity into account.
Unlike the narrative arc of a book, theatre is a live art. This means we can’t rely on the audience’s imagination to transport characters from one scene to another. We need to think about how characters will physically move into and out of scenes. Though we’re not married to a ‘realist’ style that tries to reflect life ‘as it actually is,’ we do find that transitions need to make sense within the world of the play.
Transitions also need to be relatively quick in order to keep the flow of the action going and community participants often find this easier to do if they understand the logic of the movement. The set and props further supports the logic of the movement between scenes by providing physical and spatial anchors for both the performer-advocates and the audience. For example, the Waiting Room in We Need to Talk!, the bus in Choose Your Destination, the elevator in When My Home is Your Business, and the ribbons in All of Us Together, all provided the performers with a way to transition from one scene to another while also situating the different scenes in the shared world of the play.