In the last post we looked at Kingdom and Fiasco for some different approaches to world building. We moved away from geography to look at relationships and communities. I mentioned that during your creative process it might be valuable to establish some objective realities that the characters know about their world. Alternatively, it might be more valuable to get some specifically charged locations brewing to jump right into more dramatic themes.
Today we’re going back to the conversation I had with Mark Kennedy (@echolocated) to look at the mapmaking process that he used in a recent rehearsal for an upcoming original performance. We’ll see some carryover from the games that we’ve looked at but also elements that are entirely his design. Mark’s approach is exciting, and I’m grateful that he’s been kind enough to let me share some of it with you. His rehearsal shows us ways that theatrical devices can explode our worldbuilding, and ways that the process changes when we put people up on their feet.
So if you’re not really inside the world of theatre, especially the world of devised / improvised theatre, you probably think of the warm up as something you do in gym class, something to get the blood pumping and the limbs much limber. In the theater we also warm up other things such as our listening, our responsiveness, our connection to each other, our imagination. Mark’s warm up began with some listening and voice work which also allowed the ensemble to begin their creation of spaces from the space they were rehearsing in. He also asked each of his collaborators to bring in some images that inspired them about the spaces that they wanted to create for their play. Some of them were literal, some of them were just abstract textures. Part of the warm up then is to take in the images that the others have brought in and to see what kind of movement they inspire. We’re interested in finding qualities and textures, the intangible atmospheres of the spaces. We work to explore them with our bodies so we can work past the limits of what we would describe with words.
Once the ensemble has warmed up creating space collaboratively, Mark started his ‘game’ which lead them through building the world of the play, in this case they knew it would be a small town with some uncanny qualities.
Mark’s setup for the game was a list of potential location prompts which he brought to his ensemble:
He wrote each of these on a piece of paper and taped them up on the wall of the rehearsal space to create columns. Then each of his collaborators could create potential locations under the columns by adding post-it notes to the wall with a location that fit the prompt. This developed a creative menu of sorts that folks could then pick from when they went on to make the map of their town. This echoes the “playsets” that Fiasco uses. Each game of Fiasco works off a list of potential Relationships and Details, and players choose from these when they build out their tangled web of intrigue. Mark put his own spin on the playset by enlisting the help of the whole group to populate it.
Playing like Pushpins
Once they felt good about the field of possible choices, one by one, each of the ‘players’ took turns to build out the map. Each turn began with a die roll that would randomly determine two categories that were available for the player to choose from. The player would then pick a location from one of those categories and move it from the wall onto a physical map in the center of the room. Using a randomizing mechanic to limit the creative options allowed the ensemble to focus their vision of the town while still being surprised throughout the game. The surprise of the die rolls kept the worldbuilding playful and impulsive. One fun wrinkle of this process that stands out to me is that the categories that Mark brought to the table weren’t necessities of the town. He didn’t dictate that the town must have a transportation hub, he created an open question about how people come and go in the town. The ensemble as a whole got to collaborate on the answer to the question.
I want to highlight how Mark used the rehearsal studio in this process. It’s a common practice for theatre makers to fill the space that they’re working in and make room for creativity to occur. This is a form where we use our whole bodies, so we try to make every step of the process activate our bodies. This means that when he wants to create a list of possibilities or a map of the town, they become large artifacts in the room that necessitate a full-body approach to negotiate or contribute to them. I offer this as an axis to think about when making new stories whether onstage or at the table. When you’re creating your next world, pay attention to what it feels like to imagine your entire body in that world.
Execution and Expression
With the map complete, and these different locations quilted together to form a community, the next phase was to begin to find expression for these locations through movement and character. Mark gave his ensemble some open statements to dig deeper into the spaces they’d made:
This reminds me of both “Add personal places” and “Share rumors and legends” from The Perilous Wilds. It’s smart to include some options that are character driven and some that are space driven. I think the best options are the one that allow you to invent a character in the answering. “I want someone to see me in the record store” is a character that I would love to improv.
Moving into performance work, Mark led his ensemble to create short pieces highlighting the spaces they had discovered. Some of these pieces focused on the atmospheres and dynamics of the spaces in the way they’d worked in the warm up. Others were character studies. In our previous discussions, Mark and I had talked about three creative layers to explore: the poetics of the spaces themselves, the way individual characters interacted with the space, and the way different characters met each other in shared spaces. Through improvisation and short creations the ensemble can play with these different layers and find what excites them or makes them curious. Out of these explorations they will discover the specific choreography or pieces of language that might move an audience. Eventually the map will fade into the background as a central character or image for the play emerges, but through this process the ensemble will have found rich locations that intrigue the creators and entangle the characters.