Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Improvising Myths for the Future by Michael Golding

David Shepherd believes that our expectations of the future can be explored through a myth from the past.  These proto-stories, which reside in every one of us, become relevant when improvised by a group and shared with the community.

In early 1981 at Pace University in New York, David developed “Faust in the 21st Century,” which projected the myth into the future, to explore what use Dr. Faust would make of the Devil’s powers in his relentless search for pleasure and knowledge.  Each scene was a separate improvisation, often based on an Improv Olympics event, such as Time Dash, Space Jump, Emotional Hurdles and Sound Swim.  Players remained in the same character throughout, but they had to create a new “where” each time they walked onstage.

Later that year, in a loft in the South Street Seaport district, David worked with a group of teenagers from the Bronx to discover what Don Juan meant to them. Out of that, sprang  "Donna Juana." Encouraged by two successful experiences, David returned to Chicago to work on his next project, "Jonah Complex," where the part of God was played by his new co-producer, Charna Halpern.  Again, David employed events from the Improv Olympics to explore these myths and performances were frequently shaped by audience suggestions.

Improv Olympics events

When David returned to New York in 1983, he composed several improv manifestos, including one on exploring myths for the future, which I’m sharing here.  He is convinced that any group of committed individuals, whether they are professional improvisation players or not, can develop in detail any myth for the 21st century.  All they need is a skilled improv coach.

I hope this encourages you to create a myth for the future with your group.

By David Shepherd

In the past, myths helped people to understand where they were coming from. But, as Walter Benjamin points out in “Illuminations,” news has preempted the function of story. The 21st century will arrive any day now, and neither the news media nor Hollywood seems able to prepare us. I see a need for myths today – this time to find out where we are going.

A man is asked by God to warn a city that it will soon be destroyed. The man refuses to carry out this mission until God forces him to confront the leader of the city. Its inhabitant’s reform, but the vengeful prophet continues to look forward to the city’s doom until God finally sends him home.  This is the story of Jonah, a public myth.

A woman believes that her family or the “system” will take care of her and takes steps getting involved in the legal and social structures that support her. When the “system” collapses, she suddenly discovers she has only one real support – herself. This is also the story of Jonah, a private myth.

I believe that myths are not legends about times past but prophecies about our lives today and tomorrow. The beginning and end of the world, transformation, conflict and resolution, the striving for a new level of consciousness – these are all myths for the future, each spotlighting an area in which our culture will either continue into the 21st century or be transformed.   

David Shepherd (center) in Jonah Complex - Chicago, 1981.

Handbook for Faust in the 21st Century

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.