Eight twenty-seven and fifty two seconds

Eight twenty-seven and fifty two seconds

Parent: How many times have I told you to wash your hand before you come to dinner?
Child: (sighs) Six hundred and thirty four.

There are some improv moves that irritate me more than they should. Now, in fairness, I am by nature a little grouchy and it is only through the ongoing practice of meditation and improvisation that I present to the world the blissfully calm and collected exterior that I do. But there are limits, and too-precise numbers is one of them. They annoy me really quite a lot. You should know that if I am in the audience of your show, and you use one, you have probably lost me for ten minutes minimum. I’m not proud of it, but there you are.

Because people don’t say that. No one in their right mind tells you that they got together with their partner five years, seven months, three days and four hours ago or that they are thirteen hundred and seventy-six miles from home. And if they did, and that character said it in a scene, you would need to deal with it. With the specificity of knowing that specific number. It would feel weird otherwise. And of course you can play characters who are not in their right mind, just not all the time. And escalated character game starts to look like an obsession really quickly.

The heart of the problem is that if a number, distance time or similar quantifiable gets too interesting, there’s a danger you get distracted away from emotional truth, and that’s the opposite of the way you want to go. Consider Phillip, who is as tall and handsome as you:

Phillip: I have told you six thousand and hundred and twelve times, I don’t love you.
Petra: Oh, but you will, one day you will.

Phillip: I have told you a thousand times, I don’t love you.
Petra: Oh, but you will, one day you will.

You must never universalise, but most of the time, I want to be in the second scene, not the first. In the second scene, Petra’s line is a direct response, whereas in the first scene, the number has (for my tastes) slightly broken the reality of the scene, or rather asked something of Petra which she has not answered. Phillip has, in the simplest terms, tried to be clever. Silly Phillip.

Now, (don’t get me wrong), I do understand the origin of the move and (don’t get me wrong), I have some sympathy with those who make it. When you start to improvise a scene, you build facts on top of facts to make a world and people and then you smash them against each other and maybe, just maybe, it is funny, or interesting and involving or at least better than sitting alone in your room blowing spit bubbles. And, don’t get me wrong, I get that. The demon-snake of fear and inadequacy doesn’t go away when you get more experienced. You can never predict what of what you are doing is interesting, so the opportunity to be definitely interesting with a REALLY PRECISE NUMBER has to be a boon, no?

No. See above. I get why you would think that, but no.

Scenes aren’t built (or saved) by a single interesting detail, but by an accumulation of detail and emotion that cyclically support and interact with each other. Over-precise numbers are understandable, but they are very rarely helpful. I am not normally this didactic in blogs, but just stop doing them, or if you do, excuse me while I get a drink at the bar across the road.

Jules Munns

Jules is the one of the founders of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is also the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a member of the Maydays, as well as one half of Ten Thousand Million Love Stories.

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