In writing, we start with a blank page. Even if we already have a story in mind, that story started with an internal blank page constrained only by our imagination.
With the Freedom to bring anything into being, it can be daunting to choose which of those seemingly infinite things to actually create. No wonder there’s a thing called writer’s block!
So it is with improv. Stepping onstage without being given some starting point, the possible stories to tell seem infinite. Maybe that’s why so many improv scenes start with an audience suggestion or use a game structure.
At least with writing, we can take time to muse on a story, or we can just start writing and “discover” a story. Even if it takes three pages to get an idea with legs, it doesn’t matter because those three pages can just be deleted, never to see the light of day.
Not so with improv. From the very first offer, a chosen idea is out there and the scene is off and running whether it’s an inspiring one or not. Making up a story in real-time can be scary. The first time I was asked to go up and do an open scene, I froze.
Years ago I read The Everyday Work of Art by Eric Booth. In it, he talks about the value of “edges” or what I think of as Frames.
Limits make things visible. As soon as we know the limit of something, we can begin to form distinctions. […] Making distinctions is essential to perceiving; we begin to know what something is when we get clear about what it is not.
I take this to say that limits help us give shape to something. In writing and improv, they help us shape the story we’re telling. If I start an improv scene by endowing my partner as my wife, we then know the scene is not about, say, teacher and student, or coworkers.
With each offer, the story becomes more limited, and more distinct. It takes shape and becomes something.
Booth also writes:
We tend to resent limitations, succumb to them, or fight to overcome them. To artists, limitations are not liabilities, they are opportunities to find fresh, inventive solutions, to clarify key questions, to prioritize and go deeper.
This concept of frames as valuable (and even necessary) to the creative process surprised me at first. It seemed counter-intuitive to my view of creativity as unfettered and practically infinite. But I’ve come to see how useful it is.
Take (as a completely arbitrary example) the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Thousands of us have adopted a frame that shapes our blog posts for the month of April. Those limits could feel confining, but I’ve found my creative juices flowing in ways they often don’t if I’m just sitting here looking at my blank screen and wondering what to write.
How about you? What do you think about the value (or not) of frames?
Raise your hand if you expected my topic for today to be the F-word. It would have been, but that just would have seemed too predictable.
** I created the image in this post using stock photos by the talented photographer, mjranum-stock and textures by shadymedusa-stock, both on DeviantArt. Interestingly enough, I did this photomanipulation with the limitation that it had to use at least one image from mjranum’s gallery.