An explosive improvisation

In our acting class, one of the first forms of public exposure Ian subjected us to, was "structured improvisation."

I don't know about you, but I seem to have wandered through life convinced that everyone else has been here long before me and has been practicing for years everything I seem to be encountering for the first time.

It was like this all through school and university. People of my exact age seemed to have had double my life experience. Everyone, except me, was an old hand.

Now this either makes you resourcefully inventive - or it makes you give up. I prefer the former.

So here in Ian's class, without downright lying, I tried to give the impression that I've been indulging in structured improvisation since before I was born. I hazily chose not to mention that in fact it was totally new to me.

My reward was that I, and a young woman who happened to be standing near me when we were told to choose partners, were told to kick off.

"This," said Ian, "is all about aims, tactics, and blocking."

He whispered our scene to us. One was a teacher, the other a pupil. We agreed I'd be the pupil (though old enough to be my teacher's grandfather).

I was to accuse her of marking my exam unfairly. The teacher was to insist I deserved the poor mark she had given me. We were to stick to our guns by whatever means and methods might come into our heads. Ian said we should try different ways of breaking the deadlock, to get our own way, to block the other's determination.

She sat behind her desk, and I shrank (in my imagination) to the height of a 14-year-old.

I was not at all prepared for what happened.

Acting (it hardly matters how badly) is a strange business. I didn't find myself pretending she had been unfair, I just knew she had been. I didn't act trying to persuade her that she must mark the paper again - I knew she must.

There isn't really time to think up tactics; you just reach for ones you already know. Nor is there time to think "How should I perform this?"

Among the scenarios doled out to people after us was a parachute instructor and a panicky first-time jumper. A cashier in a store who has to tell a customer his credit card is unacceptable. A vacuum-cleaner salesman at someone's door who will try anything for a sale, and the customer inside equally sure he won't buy.

These scenes just went on, and on, and - well - on.

One in particular looked as if it would never end. It was done with a quiet subtlety and maximum obstinacy on both sides. It involved a teacher, once again, and a pupil.

The teacher had found drugs in the pupil's desk. The pupil had no idea how they came to be there. The teacher didn't believe her.

Finally, Ian had to break up that extended party. After 20 minutes, our audience interest did start to flag somewhat. But I have been to some plays over the years that extend themselves beyond all reasonable interminableness and enduring, so I guess the two women in this dialogue may have a great future ahead as playwrights.

My own scene - not to put too fine a point on it - reached an explosive pitch in no time. It ended with a bang as the pupil, as unexpectedly to himself as to the teacher, suddenly burst from the imagined classroom with an undeleted expletive. I heard the other students, watching, let out an involuntary gasp.

But none of them was half as amazed as the pupil. I couldn't quite grasp what had occurred. In ordinary life I am such a mild, unprotesting chap.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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