An interview with Edinburgh-based improviser Will Naameh about dramaturgy and improvisation. Originally published as part of talking dramaturgy, a research project into dramaturgical practice in Scotland.
I really want to talk to you about dramaturgy and the work that you do as an improv comic. Can you tell me about your work as an improviser, and the work that you’re making at the moment?
Right now, my main work is with two improv troupes, both fairly big-scale shows in Scotland. One is called Spontaneous Sherlock, which is an improvised comedy play, where we get a title suggestion from the audience – a ‘Sherlock Holmes and the [something]’ – and then we make it up as a comedy play with a full Victorian band, who improvise along with us.
The second is called Men With Coconuts, which is an improvised musical, which is five people improvising a Broadway-style stage show with improvised songs and piano accompaniment.
I also teach improv as well. Anything from one-day beginner intensives through to long courses in an advanced technique using Chicago and New York style relationship and pattern technique.
And what is it that attracts you to long-form improv, as opposed to short form?
I just love it. I absolutely love it. The biggest thrill for me, the thing that gets the adrenaline pumping in my body, is being able to create something together in the moment with a group of people. This would not be anywhere near as fun if it was just me doing it by myself, it is being able to bounce off my friends, or sometimes complete strangers. To create, in the moment, with them. To have something that is an emotional connection on stage. This attracts me more to long-form than short-form, because in short-form, so an improvised sketch, game, Keith Johnstone-style stuff, often once the scene is over it is done. You don’t have a lot time to invest in actual emotion. I enjoy, particularly in the longer sets I do with strangers, I enjoy the feeling that comes from acting out a line by line emotional discourse. That is created right there on stage. Connecting emotionally with your scene partner is incredibly rewarding, and a challenge.
What would your understanding of dramaturgy be?
As much as I understand it is a practitioner that helps oversee every stage of the process in taking an idea to stage. As far as I understand it is someone who has creative input on every single aspect, and then facilitates the working of those aspects together?
That’s a really good definition! In in the work that you do onstage, are the structures you employ pre-planned to some extent?
Some yes and some no. There are some incredibly set-out structures that we play with, and some that are totally free-form. Spontaneous Sherlock for example, has absolutely zero structure. There are some improvised plays I used to do that had an eleven-point structure. Which was challenging, and I’m also sort of glad I don’t do that now – it sort of limited the creativity, rather than channeled it.
But, yeah. I think what is interesting to me now as I articulate this out loud, is that in improv you say you have to be the director, the actor and the writer all at once, in that you have to know what your character is feeling at the same time as understanding what the audience see. You have to be able to play with your visual staging whilst acting as your character would. You have to think about the overall structure of the story, and take care of that to some extent, and also be totally in the moment, reacting as your character.
So, in a sense, improv is in-the-moment dramaturgy
Yes! When watching your work, I’m struck by how much dramaturgical work you all seem to be doing, and how successful that work is. The stories are satisfying, they make sense and they have a pay-off for the audience. You are self-generating these stories in the moment and they are very well put together.
Yes, and the structures in the free-form long-form improv kind of reveals itself in the moment if that makes sense. What’s going through my head as an improviser is…Let’s say we do an hour long improvised play, and what makes it very seamless and very satisfying to watch is, in my view, not seeing anything wasted. Let’s say there’s a character in scene two that we see very briefly. It is wonderfully satisfying to have that character tie into the end, and bring him back into the narrative. The idea that everything we have created is used, and then remembered. In improv we call that recycling. Every single thing has a purpose. When we work with that in mind the piece almost has a message, or thesis statement, by the end of it.
There’s a practitioner who passed away in ninety-nine, called Del Close who created an improvisation technique called The Harold and found ImprovOlympic in Chicago with his partner Charna Halpern, who is still alive. With The Harold, they wanted to create three different strands, and then tie them together at the end of the piece, and in doing so, not only show these worlds colliding but prove/disprove a thesis statement. The only way to do that is to have an eye as a performer both to the relationships to your character that you create, and to the meaning of what you are doing. Once you have that self-awareness you can really play with it. And it’s not just you, you have improvising musicians who can help tease that meaning forward, and you have improvisers on tech, who through the use of lighting states can help the meaning of the piece which is coming through in the moment. They can help it develop and coalesce into a single idea subtly, and without ever mentioning it.
They support it. It sounds quite intuitive, but that’s an intuition you’ve trained. How did you train that ability to create these structures in that moment?
You said it yourself. Support. The best improv I’ve seen all has blind support. That means that if one person improvises something, the other person immediately joins in and either mimics it or compliments it, without understanding why. To see that blind support, people doing the same thing together, gives it purpose, gives it meaning. And then you have x amount of time later, to justify it.
Do first, justify later.
If you think first, then you’re not doing anything. Act, then justify.
So I think, the ability to work together just comes from blindly supporting the shit out of your other partner on stage, and making them look like a genius in the process.
It is really interesting, because there are schools of playwriting, with ideas like three-act-structure, five-act-structure and so on. I find your ability to improvise these structures, seemingly organically, in that moment, awe-inspiring.
For me, when I see newer improv groups attempt longer plays, you can retroactively analyze it and clearly see these different act structures. I think that’s because they are innate to us, we’re so spoon fed them in the culture and media we consume. I’ve seen so many stories end in a happy ending because it is what we are used to.
There is a state of affairs -> something changes -> The situation is resolved, although things are slightly different
From A to B to A again
When I teach improv I use the example of Finding Nemo, which is the most basic story in the world:
HE HAS A SON
HE HAS LOST HIS SON
HE’S FOUND HIS SON
…but their relationship is stronger because of it
And, in improv, because we don’t start the show with any promises about what the story is going to be about, then you have the ability to really play with that. I had an improv teacher called Patti Stiles, who is a very famous improviser who lives in Australia, and she’s Canadian. She used the example of improvising a fairy tale, and she was playing the princess and another improviser was playing the prince, and it was an improvised musical in the style of Disney.
Now, the ability to create a Disney film on stage improvised, plays with a lot of tropes, and it kind of demands the idea that you will start off with a state of affairs, something will go wrong, and that will be resolved. And without ever practicing it, if you just told an improv group to go without any rehearsal, that is probably what it would tend towards because we have that structure in our brains. She used the example that one day when she was doing it, she did a very emotional scene, revealing via a monologue that she didn’t love the handsome prince, and the idea that he would just come and whisk her away is unfounded, baseless, not good. And so, still they progressed with the story, and they improvised this big Disney-style musical ending, building towards ending with a romantic kiss. But again, not wanting to waste that emotional monologue she had done in scene, at the final moment as the lights went down on the kiss, they turned away from each other.
And I think you have a license to do that kind of thing in improv, in the moment, because you are aware of both the tropes you are playing with, and the structure as a whole of what a Disney film is about, but also what your character wants. Of course, you can write that, but, the fact that you are able to improvise that comes from seeing both levels, from being a dramaturg, I think.
Dramaturgy is very much about process, and about what happens to a work over time. In your work, that process is happening on stage in front of an audience, in a very condensed amount of time.
Just the length of the show, yes.
Yeah. That’s fascinating! I suppose when you do Improv Sherlock, for example, you guys rehearse a lot, but you don’t rehearse particular shows, or particular kinds of shows.
We practice but we never pre-plan
Everything is then condensed into that live moment. Because there’s no real prep you could do for it?
Absolutely. That’s why the call improv the lazy man’s sport. We just turn up and do it.
But it doesn’t sound lazy at all! You do so much when you get there!
So much of it is technique. Interestingly, there’s an improviser, called Roy Janik. He’s in an improv troupe called Parallelogramophonograph, he wrote this thing online once, or maybe he spoke to me in person? Anyway it was definitely his idea. He said that when people review improv they always say ‘Well, it wasn’t a great show, it is probably because the suggestion was bad.’
He got quite angry about that. Justifiably so, ‘Yeah it’s the suggestion that makes the show, not the years of practice put into the mechanics of this.’ And the mechanics of this are, can we authentically respond in the moment, and can we train the ability to see what we’re doing from the audience’s perspective while on stage? An awareness of the effect this is having. And to agree on that together, silently, in the moment.
There seems to be this tension in that it appears quite organic, but it is also quite machine-like. You being, as a troupe, like a really big computer. You ask for an input from the audience, you put it through the system, and then this output emerges.
Yes. I completely agree. The only thing I would add, to make that analogy a bit more terrifying I guess, is that a computer is a motherboard with a hard drive, with wires connecting to it, with RAM, with screen, mouse, and everything. It is built a certain way, and when you feed an input into it, it comes out a certain way.
But because everything is improvised. Even the way the computer is assembled is created on stage in the moment. That is both a combination of the actors, their life views, perspectives, the way their brains operate but also the way the stage is set-up, in a sense the suggestion, and also the mood the actors are in. That completely changes everything. Even what I had for breakfast could, by chaos theory, change it from a…Mac Book Pro to a Linux Laptop. You know? Completely different things. Completely different inputs and completely different outputs.
There are so many factors at play, that the mechanics are roughly the same, but the way it is assembled every night is completely different…if we want to run this analogy into the ground
Is that why you enjoy working with strangers then? Because none of the computer is pre-built before you get on stage? So, I guess, then this is a question I have about you and your work with Sam Irving, is there a worry there that it becomes more like sketch comedy? Or is it just a different quality? Does it become a different kind of improv when you know each other so well?
I’d say the latter, absolutely. It becomes a very secure and stable form of improv. We switch it up a lot by messing with each other in the moment. Because we are two very close friends, who have improvised together for five years, and we also do a two-person show, Pint and a Half. In our two-person show, I know exactly what he is going to say at the end of every line – most of the time! Which makes the machine run very smoothly, but because I’m quite devious, and aware of the machine running too smooth, I often throw spanners in the works. He does the same thing. We like to curve-ball and tilt each other.
But. Yes. The reason why I’m improvising with strangers is that it is a brand new computer, and I have no idea how it works! And no idea how it is going to work until we are actually doing it! And we’ve jumped off that cliff into the venue with a live show. And it is thrilling. Because any good improviser will support your ideas, and as long as we agree to agree, everything will always be fine.
And on a higher level…
If I know that you know we agree, that’s fine
And if I know that you know that I know that you know we agree, then that’s fine.
And if I know that you know that I know that you know that I know we agree, then…
But yes. If we agree to agree, then it is fine. That’s why it is fun, not scary.
The figure of the dramaturg, or at least thinking dramaturgically, is often concerned with asking how a work relates to an audience, what relation it has on the night, but also what relation it has in a broader context. When you are on stage, do you view yourself as having that similar role in relation to the audience? As a kind of negotiating presence?
Yes. Most improvisers say it is their show, the audience’s show. A show about what they want. That can be as contrived as they shout out dildo for every sketch so they get a dildo scene, or in, what I would consider richer and more interesting forms of improv, the piece can make a political statement based on what the audience put into it and the way they are reacting. So if the audience applauds an idea that emerges on stage then we follow that, if they rally against an idea, you still might develop that idea, not to antagonize them, but to create an interesting piece based on that.
You were talking about the figure of the dramaturg. I think in improv. The most interesting point I can raise on that is there is an improv format called the director format, where one player doesn’t actually play in the scene, he stands downstage right or left, talks to the audience, and changes the scene as it goes.
The most famous example of that is Showstopper: The Improvised Musical, which has just finished a run on the West End. They stop the action as it is happening, and twist and turn it based on what the audience suggest. And often that can be arbitrary suggestions, or based on whether they are like it or not, or what reaction it is getting. Often they will do a scene and they will stop and go ‘Stop! That didn’t happen! What do we want to see instead?’
So, that relationship to the audience can be unspoken, or it can be direct and literal.
Quite cool I think
Do you find that a work will change a lot during it? How much are you listening to the audience, or is the focus so strong on the relationship to the other performers, that it is sort of like, “we will see how that went afterwards”?
It depends. I’ve seen and been in both scenarios. I feel like the improv that seems easiest for me to watch, and easiest for me to perform, and easiest for the audience to watch, and so in that sense, better, I guess – if that’s a very arbitrary definition of what is good! – has had that awareness of what the audience is thinking, has heard their murmurs, responded to the vibe of the crowd and reacted accordingly.
I mean, the show that you do in the National Theatre at 8 pm to a very middle-class audience is going to be a very different show to one at 1 am in a small venue at the Edinburgh Fringe, where everyone is drunk. They are going to be incredibly different shows, even if it is the same people making the same promises, whether it is a series of sketches or if we improvise a play, those two are going to be incredibly different based on the atmosphere the audience give to the performers. The performers will feed off that energy. That energy can be something fairly psychic like that, a mood in the room. If the audience are restless, drunk and more energized, your improv will be bolder and more daring. If it is less that, if the venue is grander, or has very different sociological connotations, then your work is very possibly, going to be more formal.
So in a sense, the audience are part of the dramaturgical process in making this.
The show, in a very genuine way, could not exist without the audience being there.
And it is why people don’t like filming improv, why improvisers don’t. They say that it goes against the spirit and ethos of doing it. This was the audience’s show for that night, and it is never going to be repeated again. By having the camera in the room in sort of sucks the energy out of the room. Now I personally have no strong opinion on that.
I’m interested, following on from that, on improv’s relationship to other art forms. Improv seems to not get the same critical respect that, for example, theatre does.
Absolutely. I think that’s also very justified. I’m not saying when improv is done well it isn’t very good. I’ve seen improv that’s moved me to tears, have received standing ovations, have been some of the most beautiful pieces of work I’ve ever seen. But. Most improv is shit. There’s probably more bad work than good work. As with anything, I guess.
Also, improv in this country is a very new and nascent art form. In the US, where it was founded in the Midwest in the 1950s, it has grown to a place where some theatres, such as iO in Chicago, put on improv pieces that take on a much larger meaning. They are not afraid to do, what they call, theatre of the heart, to lean into more theatre rather than comedy.
And you look at something like Showstopper. It is an entertainment show, but I have also seen shows of theirs which have been very beautiful. They are not afraid to play around with props, they are not afraid to create beautiful images on stage, they use sticks and curtains to great effect to make scenery in the moment and make it a visual spectacle.
It is troupes like that, doing groundbreaking work in this country, who will change the stigma around improv from Whose Line Is It Anyway? to an art form in its own right, that has existed in other countries for years and done very, very beautiful work. It doesn’t have that reputation here, for good reason, it hasn’t been done. It doesn’t receive funding for that reason too.
It is a chicken and egg situation. Someone has to put trust in you, and give you some money, so you can go and do these ideas.
I have heard anecdotes about a troupe that received funding by altered their show to include the director format I was talking about because the director could literally stop a bad idea and make it good. Now, any improviser will tell you that it isn’t the format that makes it good, but the improvisers connecting with each other that makes a show enjoyable to watch, but it is that weird jeopardy created by having the relationship between what the improvisers do and what the audience want to see made explicit, that somehow makes a huge difference. Under the surface, it really doesn’t.
Because ultimately, if the performers don’t have an awareness to what the audience can see, it isn’t going to be a good show, and if they do have it, it is irrespective of the format.
Improvised dance is recognized and respected. It is subjected to academic scrutiny, there’s critique, there’s a big artistic context, and its practices are tied into universities and funding bodies. It is definitely part of a wider art-making culture. Yet the improv you do is definitely operating outside of that. And maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but as a playwright, I feel there is so much I can learn from watching improv. I’m interested in what exchanges of knowledge there could be.
I think it should have that academic critique. To my knowledge, there’s only one person in the world who has a PhD in improv, and he lives in Tokyo. But, I think this is because there isn’t a huge body of work out there that isn’t able to be subjected to academic scrutiny just yet. As more people do it, it might become possible. I think it is a growing art form, with an entire spectrum of possibilities that hasn’t really been explored yet. By subjecting it to academic critique, we might be able to create very interesting work very quickly, by giving it that outside eye.
A fresh academic perspective into it would be very welcomed, certainly be my anyway
Would you ever consider working with a dramaturg? As an outside eye in a rehearsal room for example?
Yes. Simply because as improvisers we are supposed to operate on every single level at once. To have someone doing that in the room, who is not performing in the show, would be a very welcome eye. We get so caught up in doing the show, and in some cases promoting and marketing the show ourselves, we get lost in the beauty of the show, and the non in-the-moment mechanics. We don’t pay attention to them so much, we think it is okay to rock up and just do it. But, in terms of how it looks visually, the communication between lights and actors, the communication between everyone. To refine a piece to give it a wider meaning. These are things an outside eye could do, or at least feedback on these things show after show to let us think about what could be done differently.
I don’t know if that dramaturg would need to have a working knowledge of improv or not. I’m not particularly sure it matters. But it would depend on what the piece is trying to do. I think if it is late night Whose Line Is It Anyway?-style sketches, a dramaturg would still be as useful, just to understand what you are trying to do with that, to give them a good time, then a dramaturg can be looking at lights and sound, how the audience enters the venue, our character choices, our scenery, the way we move. That can all be fed back on to achieve our goal.
Weirdly as improvisers we don’t tend to think about our goal is. Thinking about it just now, I could say our goal is to the improvise a show about Sherlock Holmes, but I suppose our real goal is to play on the jeopardy with the audience of improvising a mystery backwards, and making it seamless. Our techniques in doing that may as well be our own business, but it would also help if someone were to watch it and work with us, so we can work out how best to achieve that by articulating our goal to us.
Yeah. That was rambling.
The short answer is yes.
I’m interested in what you are saying about documentation. That improv doesn’t like to be filmed. That’s interesting because, thinking dramaturgically, having a perspective on what work you’ve done is crucial. Some dramaturgs might just sit in a room and take notes on everything they see, for that moment when the director or actor or improviser turns to them and says “what did we do last Monday?”, or “What was that exercise?”, or “When did that come up?” That’s really valuable, a knowledge of the history of the work you are making. It means that if you don’t know what to do next, you can look at where you were two years ago, and perhaps that will help. Even if you just go, oh look, lots has changed, I feel better about my life.
Yes, even if it just to keep reminding yourself of that goal.
I think the role of the dramaturg, or this could be shared across a troupe, can take accountability for these long-term concerns, and just hold onto them for a bit. The people on stage can defer it this person, and go ‘I can’t do this right now, please don’t drop it, I’ll need it back later’ And ideally, the dramaturg should hold it and then give it back at the right moment, when it is most useful.
Yes. Stuff like that would be hugely useful because so much improv is purposeless, which is fine, but I’ve been in so many shows where it has been like, you’re in town, I’m in town, let’s have fun. Maybe the goal is just to have fun as a performer, great. Celebrating that is wonderful, that element of enjoying being in someone else’s company, is very much a part of this art form, because it is so much about support, and liking what the other person is doing blindly.
And yet, if we had a figurehead who could see and articulate a goal beyond ‘two actors are in town, let’s do a show tonight, in front of some people, that was fun,’ then I wouldn’t dare to say we would take this art form more seriously, but we would take the art form into a place that few people have the daring, or arguably resources, right now to do. Maybe if we do it, the resources will become available, a wider acknowledgment of this work and its conventions.
The idea that improv needs to take itself more seriously sounds dangerous. I’m sure improv does take itself seriously enough as it is. There must be a lot of rigor to the way you guys work.
Yeah, no one got good at this without dedicating themselves to it. It takes a lot of mutual understanding, speaking the same language, to get to a point where you can just rock up to a place and do something that works – where you can just make things happen.
It’s weird. I can’t think of another art form where the idea that none of this matters is so ingrained into the ethos and jeopardy of it. It helps me massively as a performer to think ‘none of this matters, we’ll never see this again.’ But yet, by thinking that none of this matters, we stop worrying about what people will think critically about this piece, and instead focus on connecting with our stage partner, and how the audience see this image on stage, rather than a qualitative judgment of what’s on stage.
That’s why I’m wary to say what is good and what is bad. We say what is easy and what is hard to do in improv. The stuff that is easy to do tends to get the best reactions, whether it is laughter or crying or standing ovation or whatever. On those terms, that stuff is easier, or ‘good’.
Maybe that’s then an advantage of the dramaturg, that they can make other stuff easy, rather than bringing stuff in that is hard, or someone to do the hard stuff. The dramaturg is more about finding new ways to do the easy things, or making new easy possibilities.
How would a dramaturg, coming into an improv practice process, be different from a director?
They aren’t necessarily that different. I think a dramaturg could work quite well as being attached to a troupe in a long term relationship. I also think dramaturgy is about thinking about how the work relates to the audience in that current moment, and then thinking about what are the other possibilities for that structure to support this, so in improv, how do you make a structure that is adaptable to the current moment. So I guess you, and the troupes you are in, perform improv all the time, but the environments you perform in are always changing, so I think a dramaturg can be a useful person to look out for what the effect of these changes might be.
A director might be more focused on the individual crafting on the show, or the staging.
A dramaturg might be thinking more about context, or looking at the wider development of the artistic practices of those devisers. Asking what is your artistic practice? What are the things you are interested in work with as an improviser?
Well at least, that’s what I would do.
In improv, there are only three people who might come into a practice and not be improvising. We have a teacher, a director and a coach. They are all very different. A teacher would run the exercises with you, the workshop, and not be concerned with the end product. A director would only work with the company for that production, and say this is my vision, this is what I want you to do. A coach, I think, would be the closest thing to a dramaturg. A coach works with a troupe long-term, and helps them realise their ambitions, and prods and pulls and gives them things to do. But they would not focus on staging for example. They would say, ‘What do you want to do with this?’ ‘Okay I’ll help you do that.’
So maybe a dramaturg is a combination of a director and a coach.
The dramaturg sounds very similar to that coaching role. Is that something you’ve worked with before?
Yeah I’ve had coaches, and have coached before. It is interesting to see troupes develop over a long period of time. You do have to take notes of what you were doing. It is very interesting. But I think nobody has really combined these two roles, and looked at the whole thing. That’s really interesting.
I mean maybe someone has done that, they just didn’t call it dramaturgy.
Of course. There doesn’t seem to be much crossover. Although in dance, improvised dance, there’s so much. There the role is often about helping to create structures in which possibilities can happen.
That’s a very nice turn of phrase
When you do an improv show, it isn’t that absolutely anything can happen on stage. Some things you’ve already ruled out. You are working within a set of constraints, and hopefully those constraints are as productive as possible.
Yes. There are some structures that I have found incredibly limiting, very stifling to creativity. Then there are some structures which seem, on the surface, to be incredibly throttling but actually allow us to thrive. It is about knowing the difference I think.
For me, the eleven act structured pantomime we used to do was incredibly limiting because you could never follow up on what had come up, you could never follow the fun. You would have situations where this idea had come up, and we want to follow it, and the audience wants us to follow it, but we can’t because the structure determines that we have to do a scene with the buddy now. That’s incredibly frustrating for everyone, including the audience.
In improv, we always say fun over form
Form can go f* itself if something more interesting comes up
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