The second story is a useful concept for improvisers that I first learned at The Spontaneity Shop.
The idea is that because improvisation is made up on the spot, you’re always telling two stories to your audience.
The first story is the one that you are providing to your audience via the fictional content of your show. It could be one long story or a series of unrelated scenes, doesn’t matter. Think of it as the film, TV channel, or sketch show that you are producing, which the audience has sat down to watch.
At the same time, the fact that the audience are aware you are improvising means they are paying some attention to the second story: the story of a bunch of people trying to create things for you on the spot.
And there are different ways to play with this.
One: Keeping the second story in focus
Some styles of improvisation foreground the second story. That’s the purpose of a lot of improv performance games: they highlight the challenge and the players taking part in it.
For instance, when someone is playing your arms in a scene, and you as a player are struggling to make sense of a bizarre gesture, the audience are enjoying the story of your struggle and success (or failure).
This can be really explicitly dramatised, as in competitive formats where you see the players taking risks to get ahead and making unwise challenges that they have to carry out. It can be seen directed formats like Gorilla Theatre where the director announces a goal for their scene and the players may go along with it or mischievously undermine it.
You can also see in contexts that normally stay away from games and heavy set-ups: think of all the late-night bit shows at the Del Close Marathon, or at the recent Hoopla Marathon.
If you’ve ever watched the Muppet Show, you’ll see how much mileage you can get from playing the second story. We’re only watching to see what goes wrong!
Two: Keeping it on the back-burner
Some styles of improvisation push the second story to the background. Less interaction with the audience, perhaps just a few words at the start. More emphasis on staying in character, more focus on quality of content, to aim for the illusion of a scripted show.
But the second story is rarely totally gone.
One way for it to peek out is when a mistake or anomaly occurs, and the ensemble turn the action to incorporate that mistake and even make it the focus of the scene. Those moments are enjoyed a little more because the audience reads that this is something being figured out in front of them – they get to see the sausage being made – and even if the group prefers to gloss over these moments, we read those moments differently than if we would for a scripted piece.
Three: Somewhere in the mix
A lot of improvisation sits between the two poles. Maybe Joe’s character gets given a terrible health prognosis in a scene, and then it happens later to another of his characters. Now, there is a show-wide pattern about Terrible Prognoses, but it’s also a bit more than that: it’s the Second Story of whatever Joe gets into, the ensemble have permission to throw a terrible prognosis in.
So maybe Joe plays into that, and plays a little toddler, to dare the others “you really want to do this?” and they find a clever way to do that without being tasteless, or they are tasteless and he acts horrified and jumps back into his own scene as a police officer warning that this prognosis was faked, and then another player jumps in to give the police officer a terrible prognosis.
The scenes are fun anyway, but we see the players messing with each other through the action of the scenes. And even if the idea isn’t hugely wonderful, the play of the second story can also elevate it.
The story of a wandering wagon man
I did a show a few years back with a great cast including Lisa Rowland and Kevin Scott, two US super-pros from both coasts (pictured below; other shots here, rights reserved Patty Varasano).
When Kevin announced his side-character, turning up to push my protagonist and the story along, he tried to define what he was pulling by saying “I’m the wagon man.”
Instead he said: “I’m Magon Wan.”
Man, you should have seen Lisa’s eyes light up when he said that. She didn’t laugh or break character, but there was a flash that said “I’m so going to get you now.” I can’t remember the number of times we all had to say “Magon Wan the Wagon Man”, all while continuing to play the story we were in.
There is no pride in writing that line and putting it in your show. It’s stupid. But having to own your stupid choice, and having your ensemble tease you for it and then themselves get caught in a trap of their own making because they also have to reference the character without breaking, creates all these levels to appreciate the moments on.
There’s a wonderful knife edge you can find yourself on, where you’re truly playing both stories together. You’re hypercommitted to the craft, the scene, the moment – but you’re also aware of the play, your players, your friends on stage. You’re teetering between the two. And it’s poetry.
So, that’s the second story. When has it really shown up in your improvisation?