In order to produce a polished improvisation for public performance (often as a conclusion
to drama workshops) or as the precursor to the development of one of my own plays,
a great depth of improvisation is needed. To achieve this, very detailed research
is needed for subject and characters. For the acting of them, intense concentration
is vital in order to remain absolutely in character, because at this stage there
is no written word to fall back upon.
Once the characters and situation have been established, then what is said is more
or less the same each time because the people—the characters—are real, and in this
sense there is no “acting” only “being” the person portrayed. Even after the dialogue
is written down there is always an element of improvisation which still lingers in
a performance. This can only serve to intensify the atmosphere created and hold the
The Heart Of Mary's Work
At the heart of all my work, in my teaching, writing and performing is the skill
of improvisation. This is far removed from role play, ad libbing or even “making
it up as you go along”!
All my work begins with the improvisation of the subject and characters and only
when these are fully developed are they recorded in the more formal written word.
I first discovered and practised improvisation at Bretton Hall and it has continued
to be an essential element in all my work ever since.
Rafael Sabatini, in his book, “Scaramouche”, said through his character Andre-Louis,
that his troupe of actors would:
“Show the world how superior is the art of the improviser to that of the actor who
depends upon the author for what he shall say, and who consequently says always the
same thing every time that he plays the same piece”.
Imagine my delight then, when I discovered a young filmmaker, Mark Money. Mark felt
as strongly about improvisation as I did. We soon began collaborating on film/drama
projects, supported by my husband Edwin Hunt, calling ourselves Sumare Productions.
Altogether in 16 years we made 20 films, including drama, documentary, music videos
and experimented with different styles and genres.
From Workshop To Filming
Our way of working would be that I would teach Drama workshops in order to develop
the storyline and characters using the technique of improvisation. Mark would then
continue my work in his direction of the actors whilst filming them. This rather
unorthodox way of making a film worked. If the improvisation had been insincere,
superficial and ever changing, it would have been a nightmare in the edit suite—being
impractical as well as extremely costly to re-shoot.
The History Of Improvisation
If any-one is still left in doubt as to the value of improvisation, either as a technique
or art form, may I turn them to the original improvisers, the “Commedia Dell’Arte”.
Commedia Dell’Arte was the name given to a troupe of sixteenth century Italian strolling
players. Their plays were improvised, not scripted, around a set group of characters.
The themes of the plays were varied; comedy, tragedy and romantic. Other troupes
followed suit and, although most popular in Italy, there were those who travelled
to France (considered a second home for the Commedia Dell’Arte style), Spain, Germany,
Austria and England. I am grateful to the originators of improvisation for such an
exciting, inspiring but very demanding way of working.