Adam Meggido – Improv Beyond Rules: A Practical Guide to Narrative Improvisation
Nick Hern Books 2019, £14.99pb, ISBN 978-1-84842-731-0
Book review by Mark McKergow
With this experienced-packed and well-written book, Adam Meggido instantly raises the bar for everyone involved in long-form and narrative theatre improvisation. Every page has a multitude of ideas to explore, and with 284 pages that’s the basis for a lot of exciting, fun, daring work in the rehearsal room and on stage.
London-based Adam Meggido is probably best known as the co-creator and director of the Olivier Award-winning Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. He has also worked with improvisers all over the world, teaches at LAMDA in London and also in scripted drama (directing the West End hit Peter Pan Goes Wrong amongst others). Here he sets out to explore how to create great improvised drama (reminding us of his mentor Ken Campbell’s exhortation that improv must aspire to be better than scripted shows), with a strong focus away from the quickfire Whose Line Is It Anyway type of format and onto longer, more sustained and ambitious work.
Meggido has performed in over 1000 Showstopper! performances, along with years spent in practice sessions (yes, you DO have to practice to be spontaneous), and this wealth of experience shines through in every paragraph. The main part of the book splits into three sections: the Moment, the Scene and the Story. The secret of narrative improvisation (and its cousin long form, which has a pre-determined structure) is to be able to work on these three levels simultaneously. Taking each element in turn, the author explores the practice and dynamics involved and presents a multitude of exercises, games and ideas to build more compelling and vital threads on stage.
The title of the book – Improv Beyond Rules – is revealing. Fromm the outset Meggido rails against the simplistic rules which are routinely offered as the basis for improvising. This of course makes for a spicy read from the off. The author implores us to take these rules not as rule per se to be kept at all costs, but as guidelines which can be varied in service to the unfolding story. For example, the well-known rule of ‘Don’t Say No’ is morphed into a more subtle context-dependent idea where there are many levels of saying ‘No’ which may come into play as the character, relationships and emerging storyline develops. Everything is context-dependent, and it is this realisation which makes this book such a valuable source of potential in the world of narrative emergence where nothing is (totally) fixed, things change and appear all the time, decisions are made, relationships forged, broken and retrieved, and nothing is ever the same twice. (Meggido is quite explicit about this, talking about the time he started with the ‘same’ performers, characters, location etc and ended up with three different stories.)
The book really flourishes in the sections about the Scene and the Story. The sections about Status, Rank and different ways to combines these endowments open up vast possibilities. Likewise the description of Ken Campbell’s ‘Numbers Grid’ opens up another set of new angles on using space, as well as personality, to create relationships and direct audience attention; this section is worth the price of admission on its own. Meggido is full of ideas for practicing narrative improvisation out-of-sequence, with (for example) the ending done first, before the beginning and middle are added. Every new idea is explained concisely, illustrated with a couple of relatable examples (Macbeth, Legally Blonde and Star Wars are all used on multiple occasions), and then the reader is encouraged to try things out for themselves.
So why am I, a leadership consultant, coach and jazz musician, writing about this book? To start with, I’ve been interested in improv since watching, videoing and then wearing out the tapes of Whose Line some thirty years ago. The energy and thrill of great improv, even in short form, is addictive, and I get it in the jazz club as much as the Comedy Store. I think improv is a great coaching skill ((and life skill too, come to that). But seeing Showstopper! took my awareness of this skill onto a whole new level. I’ve seen it more that a dozen times over the past six years, and it’s always amazing, in a way which is very hard to pin down.
Adam Meggido is addressing some of the fundamental questions about how we live (and can live) our language-saturated lives. Science writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart posited some years ago that our species, rather than being called homo sapiens, would be better named pan narrans – the story-telling ape. The story we tell, live and make constitute our lives in ways which overarch and embrace mere physical, genetic and physiological qualities. I’d like to pull out three points from this book which are worthy of wider consideration.
Firstly, Meggido shines a light on the minutiae of how we enter and participate in relationships. This is not the kind of light you read about in psychology texts and problem pages, it is (to me anyway) a much more fundamental and practical look at how we present ourselves, how we react to others and how that can change and turn as time goes along. Want to know about how to _do_ (as opposed to ‘be’) high status and yet engaged with people. There are clues in here. Want to know about (and therefore be able to recognise) the difference between someone who’s a trickster, a helper, a guardian and a nemesis? That’s in here too (again with helpful examples).
Secondly, he is quite clear that as human (and in particular as pan narrans), we as the audience can follow the developing narrative as it emerges. We don’t need it explained. We don’t need a helpful psychiatrist to assist us in ‘joining the dots’ of the story, even if it comes out of sequence. It’s a great human quality to make sense from a series of scenes, and we routinely do it effectively. (Whether the sense is always the most useful sense is of course another story). This is a key aspect of my work in Solution Focused coaching – our coaches describe a series of scenes in their lives (from past, present and future), often in an ‘out-of-time-sequence’ way. That’s it. As coaches, we don’t need to explain the new narrative, join the dots for them, interpret their words in a clever way – as fellow members of pan narrans, that’s precisely what they CAN do for themselves. It takes patience and professionalism not to jump in – but that’s the art of our work.
Finally, Meggido touches on what is for me an even bigger question. Is the improvised story revealed, or is it created? Lots of people like to think that it’s revealed – it was always there and the performers have now made it clear. One might say the same about Michelangelo’s statue of David- it was always there in the marble, all that the sculptor had to do was remove all the extraneous bits and boosh! There it is. It’s a tempting thought – but wrong. Clearly (and it’s particularly and starkly clear in the case of narrative improv theatre) the story is created, a step at a time, by skilled performers paying close attention to one another and carefully using the possibilities that emerge on the night. It seems to me that a good and satisfying story has the appearance of being revealed – it all hangs together, it all makes sense, how could it possibly be any different? And many people seem to take comfort in the illusion that it was ‘ever thus’, that it was all predetermined, that the gods always had this in mind, that finally the truth will out. Except that it’s only the truth with this precise sequence of events, and other truths were (and are) available.
Does it let you do a Showstopper! show right off the bat? No, that will take a great deal of time, trust, calamities, rehearsal space, tea and biscuits. Also there’s nothing here about how to improvise songs, learn about different musical styles, organise a band to improvise an accompaniment and keep going for more than a decade. Whether you’re buying this book to explore the nature of life’s performance or, at least, to be a better narrative improviser, you will find it absolutely packed with stage-tested wisdom, activities and possibilities. Adam Meggido shines a light on narrative improv and a whole lot more. This book is surely worth a place alongside Keith Johnstone’s Impro and Viola Spolin’s Improvisation For The Theater on the improv bookshelves of tomorrow,