Primal Truths

When­ever I lead a rehearsal for one of my improv troupes, there’s a great sto­ry­telling exer­cise I like to include. Pri­mal Truths orig­i­nates from Carol Hazenfield’s Act­ing on Impulse, which is a won­der­ful book for impro­vis­ers, direc­tors and teachers.

The pur­pose of [Pri­mal Truths] is two-fold: 1) to let play­ers note how it feels when they’re telling the truth about some­thing impor­tant to them (and to note changes in their bod­ies and voices), and 2) to observe truth telling in oth­ers. This gives us an insight into what the audi­ence feels when they see truth­ful behav­ior on stage.

In the exer­cise, impro­vis­ers aim to tell per­sonal sto­ries that relate some key char­ac­ter­is­tic of them­selves. The exer­cise works best when the sto­ries are very impor­tant to the speaker and/or deeply per­sonal in nature. As a result, this exer­cise is best per­formed with groups that really trust one another with this infor­ma­tion. Hazen­field sug­gests pair­ing off impro­vis­ers and hav­ing them work out of earshot of other groups. If a troupe is per­form­ing this exer­cise, I find it valu­able for each impro­viser to speak in front of the whole group.

Pri­mal Truths con­tains three rounds of sto­ry­telling. In round one, the impro­viser tells her story in a fash­ion that takes some­where between one and two min­utes. When in doubt, instruct the impro­viser to flesh out some details to fill more time. After round one, the impro­viser must boil her entire story down to a few sen­tences. Only the most impor­tant facts and details should remain in this sec­ond round. In the final round, the impro­viser must tell the story in as few words as nec­es­sary, in an effort to drill down to the emo­tional core of the story. Unless a word is vitally impor­tant to that final round, it should be excluded. It’s not sur­pris­ing for the final round to look some­thing like, “I’m scared I will die alone.”

Observers should be able to note changes in the speaker’s body lan­guage, voice and appear­ance as she reaches the emo­tional core of her story. Addi­tion­ally, the speaker her­self should feel many of those changes as she reaches the ulti­mate goal. This illus­trates the dif­fer­ence between relat­ing a benign anec­dote and a very per­sonal story. Audi­ences will notice your impas­sioned nature when you speak about some­thing impor­tant to you, espe­cially if they can detect some rad­i­cal hon­esty from you. It’s a very pow­er­ful tool to have at your disposal.

Speak­ing the truth requires that we lis­ten to our­selves first, and then respond.

Impro­vis­ers who per­form Pri­mal Truths should also find them­selves in a period of reflec­tion between each round. Hazen­field refers to this as “lis­ten­ing to your­self” to deter­mine what is most impor­tant to the story. The improviser’s inner voice can lead to some huge dis­cov­er­ies about the mean­ing of her story. The voice may even give advice that seems con­trary to instinct or the nature of the story, but that advice is usu­ally quite rel­e­vant and accu­rate. It’s sur­pris­ing how often peo­ple for­get to stop and lis­ten to them­selves before mak­ing an impor­tant decision.

Finally, I’m a huge fan of word econ­omy and rhythm in sto­ry­telling. At times, it can be great to tell a long-winded epic story that lasts for min­utes. At other times, it may be more appro­pri­ate to tell the ultra-condensed ver­sion. When you are able to tell a five-minute story equally well in five sec­onds, you gain a solid grasp of the fun­da­men­tals of good sto­ry­telling. You can find ways to hit only the high notes of your sto­ries and avoid get­ting bogged down in the extra­ne­ous details your co-workers don’t like.

I love SMITH Magazine’s six-word mem­oir col­lec­tions. Some of the mem­oirs are absolutely breath­tak­ing. The best part? They’re all glo­ri­fied exam­ples of Pri­mal Truths.

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