Comedy Feature

Improv Corner – FEATURE – Adapting Different Media For Stage…

The other day, I came across the panel interview that Sony released about the Last Of Us, where the actors, the Directors and the game creators all sit around and discuss the production of the television show and bringing the game to life on screen. I haven’t played the game, I am a huge fan of Naughty Dog games (The Uncharted series and Crash Bandicoot Warped are my all time favourite games) and but I am not a fan of games with a lot of gore so I have always avoided it, but I always knew that it was a huge deal as a game. It is the same reason that I have not watched the television show but I know that it has been getting a lot of praise about the way that they have tried to replicate it as much as they can on the screen. This is the reason I have started to become fascinated with the show because of the dedication and sensitivity to bringing a much loved game to life. When I was watching it, there was a discussion that happened that I think is really relevant to improv.

The first part talks about trying to bring the computer game to life on screen and the way that they have to adapt the scenes to work on the television. It is a fascinating discussion, especially since the game producers are talking to the Directors and actors and how they worked together to make it the phenomenon that it has become. It is evident when you look at the scenes of the game and the television show side by side just how closely the cinematography has been focussed on. At times it is actually pretty difficult to tell what is real and what is the game, blurring the lines or animation and reality.

When I was watching this interview, it made me think of improv acts that dedicate their time to doing a very similar thing for the stage. There are so many improv groups that take the ideology of an already successful format whether it is a book, television show, film, game or podcast and then decide to spin it on it’s head and turn it into an improvised format. Whilst these look seamless on stage, there is a lot of hard work involved to bring the ideology to light. I am fascinated by this subject and I have spoken to many teams about this and always ask the amount of work that they have to do to bring the idea of the show to life on stage in an improvised way.

In February of 2023, I asked a few questions about this very topic to the team Impromptu Shakespeare. I wanted to know just how well you had to of studied Shakespeare’s work to present it on stage – this is part of the response that I received:

“…Some knowledge and shared reference is essential, but we’re a diverse company and we approach his work in different ways…Being a genre improviser is like being an AI language model: the better the training data, the more convincing the result… also reading the output of the greatest English-language poet shouldn’t really be considered a hardship…”

Impromptu Shakespeare, February 2023, The Phoenix Remix

In December 2019, I got the opportunity to interview Austentatious and knew that the one question I had to ask them was about the preparation it takes to adapt the books of Jane Austen into an improvised experience. Whilst it was fascinating to hear about the amount of books that the team have read, I think my favourite section was when they show their dedication to the themes by going really in depth with their research to make sure that they can adapt but also improvise accurately to the audiences that come and watch them.

“…We’ve had study nights and shared notes on the language, the manners, the pastimes, what was invented and what wasn’t, even the military history. But that is only ever at the back of your head while improvising and we try hard never to refer to specific quotes or characters from the real books as that would create a big confusion in the story we are creating...”

Austentatious, December 2019, The Phoenix Remix

I found it truly fascinating that even the fine details of learning the language and the history can play such an important part when adapting to stage, it just shows the dedication that improv teams can have when they are working with medias. I never really thought about the fact of how much detail you have to understand when you adapt for the improv environment.

When it comes to shows such as The Last Of Us, the detail is in the way that it can mirror the original, however when it comes to improv it can be a lot more complex then that. It is not about copying, it is about learning and understanding the world you want to become a part of and understanding it to a degree that you can then go ‘off piste’ and then create your own stories in the world and that it is still believable and relevant. Another really important point was raised by the Austentatious team:

…we try hard never to refer to specific quotes or characters from the real books as that would create a big confusion in the story we are creating. If you are playing an invented character called Lord Carmichael, and he suddenly quotes Captain Wentworth, it’d be incredibly distracting […] but it’s crucial that all our characters are free to go where they please – otherwise it wouldn’t be improvised!

Austentatious, December 2019, The Phoenix Remix

In July 2019, I had an interview with the team Spontaneous Players about their show Spontaneous Potter and discussed the format of the show and the work that is done behind the scenes. There is so much content available with the Harry Potter series, that it was interesting to find out more about transferring it into an improv environment. The first important quote that I got from this interview was that the ideology of the show was:

” [to]take the characters you know and love (and some that you don’t) into wild new scenarios...”

Spontaneous Players, July 2019, The Phoenix Remix

Without the in depth knowledge of the books and maybe even the films, this sort of show may not of been possible because it is playing with the characters that the fans know and altering how they are seen in a show format to create the comedy that goes hand in hand with improv. However, through the interview that I had with the team, it is evident that a mix batch of knowledge can work in this format and sometimes can create a fun twist on the show. It can also mean some of the team can go to extreme lengths to read absolutely everything and anything about the topic so that they have a really broad knowledge as well as a really niche one as well:

“…Some of us grew up devouring and rereading the books, some had only seen the movies until recently, some have explored the wider universe and even read fan-fiction. We also have regular guest performers who haven’t read any of the books, which adds a further layer of chaos and hilarity…”

Spontaneous Players, July 2019, The Phoenix Remix

This sort of mixed knowledge was also very evident in the interview that the creators did for The Last Of Us. Right from the beginning of part one, you discover that the talent Bella Ramsay and Pedro Pascal had limited knowledge of the games before they got cast and whilst that may be a negative for some projects, it ended up working well because it meant that they went into it without any expectations. This meant that the creators could meld them into the format that they wanted to present the strongest content for the show as they knew that these two actors were going to be perfect for the emotion and the characters placed before them.

The difference between the conversation with Sony compared to improv is that in the comedy art form, the players are ‘technically’ the authors and directors of the shows and content that they decide to put on the stage meaning that whilst some can have no knowledge of the meat and bones, these type of shows only work if you have the research before hand.

This highlights again, a section of the interview from Spontaneous Players, I asked them about their favourite characters to play from the Harry Potter and it lead to some really fun discussions. It also was really interesting to understand that due to their knowledge of the content it meant that they can alter the personalities whilst also mimicking the original:

“…So much of the enjoyment comes not from the characters we play but how we each play them. Playing Dumbledore as a neglectful, bumbling old man, a badass McGonagall or a ridiculous pantomime villain Voldemort is so much more fun than trying to emulate the actors from the films...”

Spontaneous Players, July 2019, The Phoenix Remix

This is such a fascinating topic and I could spend ages writing about it as there is so much to explore. I am really glad that I took the time to watch this set of interviews as it inspired me to write about a topic that I really enjoy and got me thinking about it in a different way. The next time you go to an improv show where it has been inspired or based on a different media, take a minute to appreciate all the work that is happening behind the scenes.

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