(7/30/02 6:39:18 pm)
| Improvised Fairy Tales|
Hi, this is my first post. I just stumbled across your board while I was looking for info on my topic. I am an improviser/director at an improv theater. We do long form improv, which is basically a 75-90 minute show on a set storyline.
I'll spare you and not go into too much detail about the improv world. Basically, I had an idea for an improvised fairy tale. I've taken classes in German Fairy tales in college and do have a rough idea of what I want this to be like, but am looking for some refresher books, websites, etc. that will help me get more detail on the structure. All we need is a set structure to follow, and we are able to totally improvise all the characters, dialogue, scenes, outcome, etc. In other words, we're not going to act out "Little Red Riding Hood," we're going to take a suggestion from the audience and come up with a completely new fairy tale. Right now, I am thinking that this show will NOT be for children, and will keep some of the traditional elements of sex, violence, etc. found in many of the original tales but that are often edited in the versions most people know. The audience we cater to is mostly adult, so I would prefer to keep the fairy tales that way (most of our shows are about a PG-13 I'd say).
So, I guess my question is one, have you ever heard of other theaters doing shows like this, and two, what recommendations do you have for putting on a show of this nature, and three, what resources would you recommend I check out. I guess that's more than one question, huh. Any info would help. Thanks. :-)
(7/30/02 7:08:16 pm)
| Morphology of the folk-tale...|
Well, I haven't heard of anyone doing anything similar, and I don't have any performance experience (unless you count the improv group that *I* joined in high school out of immense hamminess before I realized that I did better as a critic than a participant) but this sounds really fascinating. One text that should prove invaluable is Vladimir Propp's _Morphology of the Folktale_.
First published in 1928, in nature it was similar to Antti Aarne’s _Index of Types of Folktales_, first published in 1910, which, incidentally, was translated and enlarged by Sith Thompson in 1928. However, whereas the Aarne-Thompson index was intended for the purposes of classification and research, Propp’s work provided an analytic tool helpful in the actual examination of various folktales. The academic situation in the field of folklore when Propp penned his theories was, as he saw it, somewhat bleak; Propp said,
Scholarly literature concerning the tale is not especially rich. Apart from the few works that are being published, bibliographical sources present the following picture: mostly texts themselves are published ; there are quite a number of works concerning particular problems; there are no general works on the tale. Such works as do exist are of an informational rather than an investigory nature. Yet it is precisely questions of a general character which, more than all others, awaken interest. (Propp 1)
Propp saw a gap, and he filled it. His gap was not descriptive, but scientific; he argued in favor of what he termed as "correct classification." (Propp 5) In nature, Propp preceded the Structuralists; he is considered by some to be a seminal thinker in semiotic theory. He applied a scientific strategy to what had previously been treated in a purely humanistic fashion. He believed that "the majority of researchers begin with classification, imposing it upon the material from without, and not extracting it from the material itself" (Propp 5), an apt comment when applied to works like the Aarne-Thompson index, which was discussed particularly and at length. He, rather, felt that "though classification serves as the foundation of all investigation, it must itself be the result of certain preliminary study." (Propp 5) This preliminary study led Propp to reject the typical divisions ascribed by folklorists (i.e., animal tales, tales with fantastic content) because of the high degree of overlapping motifs and interweaving themes. The further division of tales into themes was equally unacceptable, due to what Propp saw as the sweeping subjectivity of that system. Propp felt that it was not the content of the tale that placed it within one category or another, but its structure.
Instead of following the more inaccurate model of external classification, Propp developed a system of fundamental analysis based upon the internal functions, "the small component pats" (Propp 11) of the tales. Propp was concerned with forms of structure; his classification depends upon the fundamental characteristics of the tales. His resulting masterwork provided a careful narratology for the folktale, categorizing the thirty-one stages he saw as typical of the genre. Propp worked primarily with Alexander Afanasyev’s collection of Russian wondertales. The overall form, however, is applicable to most Western stories.
Propp classified the components of his tales scientifically, as constants and variables. These elements consisted of functions, defined as the actions or events which produced the plot, dramatis personae, defined as the characters or figures who enact or react to the functions, and spheres of action, the interaction of the two, which shifted relative to one another from tale to tale. As Propp puts it, "The actual means of the realization of functions can vary, and as such, it is a variable … But the function, as such, is a constant." (Propp 20) As a result of this observation concerning the interplay between fluctuating and consistent elements, Propp observed that "the number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition." (Propp 21) This led him to the conclusion which would be both the source of his influence on, and notoriety in (not to use to strong a word) the field of folklore; he concluded that " All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure." (Propp 23)
After providing a painstaking exploration of the study, theory, and formulas which have led him to this conclusion, Propp admitted that "This most important general conclusion at first does not coincide with our conception of the richness and variety of tales" (Propp 105), admitting also that this idea shocked him as well at first, but that the results of further research only confirmed his initial impression. He presented the question, which, naturally, will occur to his readers at this point, asking, "If all fairy tales are so similar in form, does this not mean that they all originate from a single source?" (Propp 106) Propp does not attempt to provide any definitive explanation of the phenomenon that he has discovered; he admits that "The morphologist does not have the right to answer this question. At this point he should hand over his conclusion to a historian or should himself become a historian" (Propp 106). He also notes that "The single source may also be a psychological one." (Propp 106)
Propp’s belief in a universal archetype is fascinating, and, from a psychoanalytic perspective, possesses a certain validity. However, there are problems with the methodology which led him to his conclusions, primarily with the breadth of the material which led him to his concluding thesis. The problem is this; Propp has not proven the similarity of all folktales across the board, but rather the similarity of a small cross-section of tales originating from a single culture. As mentioned before, Propp worked primarily with the tales collected by Afanasyev; of those four hundred odd variants, he limited himself to one hundred tales. He justified this approach by saying that,
Since we are studying tales according to the functions of their dramatis personae, the accumulation of material can be suspended as soon as it becomes apparent that the new tales considered present no new functions… We have found that 100 tales constitute more than enough material." (Propp 23)
This is true if we restrain our study purely to Russian tales. However, bearing in mind Propp’s own admission concerning the innumerable tale types present among the myriad nations of the world, a hundred tales seems insufficient for such a sweeping generalization; even if one were to approach his work from a psychoanalytic point of view, it would still be excessively broad, Bettleheim and various Freudian thinkers to the contrary. For this reason, while subsequent thinkers have admitted Propp’s influence,and admired his groundbreaking approach, they have at times found his theory inapplicable to folklore across the board. Examples of such individuals include scholars as varied as Claude Levi-Strauss, Alan Dundes, and Peter Gilet, to name only a few of the many later folklorists who have suggested modifications or expansions to Propp’s methods and theories.
Propp’s theories provide an excellent approach (occasionally in conjunction with those of his academic descendents) for the scholar concerned with the different tale types originating within a single culture, or for the scholar attempting to track those elements common to many cultures in their common folklore. However, for the individual concerned with examining tales of a single type as they appear across cultures, his work will serve as a starting point, but perhaps no more; other approaches, and other theorists – Bettleheim, Dundes, Greimas, Zipes, Von Franz, Warner, etc. – must be invoked. Even as their theories are added to his, it must be noted that, without him, none of them might have come to exist; for, truly, Propp’s contribution to the field of folklore has been invaluable.
Now, that contribution can spread to improv! Some of the other names ought to come in handy, depending on how deep into fairy tale theory you wish to go, but you could probably just work with Propp for basic structure.
Sorry for the long post - I think that I've been doing waaaayyyy too much research... Now, it's habit. Grad. school should come with a warning label ....
(7/30/02 9:32:41 pm)
| Re: Improvised Fairy Tales|
Great post by Helen.
There are some basics that are used in screenwriting when fairy tale form is used that may also be useful to you:
The problem and need of the hero/heroine come almost immediately.
The desires are extreme: all the gold, most beautiful in the kingdom etc
The conflict is usually within the family.
Shows extremes of good and evil.
There is frequently a kind helper.
Use of threes: try, try harder, try best
Turn on a crucial objects: slipper, apple, mirror
etc etc etc etc
Improv would be an interesting medium. If you set up the rules for maximum simplicity it can amplify the beauty of fairy tale.
A bag with crucial objects could potentially keep some very creative improv going in long form.
I don't think you'll find a better resource than this site. Heidi has transcended
Could you share what long form improv structure you were considering?
Good luck with your project.
(7/31/02 2:09:04 am)
| Hero/Heroine's Journey and Commedia dell'arte|
You may want to look into texts on the hero/heroine's journey.
(Amazon page for Heroine's Journey by Maureen Murdock, includes Index and sample pages)
You may also want to look into the Commedia dell' arte, one of the primary examples of improv performance.
(Forum article by our own Midori Snyder.)
Of course, you may want to create a fairy tale version of the commedia, perhaps with a Boy, Girl-Child, Mother, Father, Step-Mother, King, Queen, Prince, Princess, etc. Maybe like Into the Woods, but more generic. (Oooo, I'm excited just talking about it! My college improv group did the usual Who's Line kind of games and one serious scene re: the death or illenss of a classmate. This sounds like more fun!)
Just a start. Best of luck!
(7/31/02 12:38:09 pm)
| Earlier thread?|
I am trying to remember if it was on this board, but...I think there
was a thread last fall about the "elements" of a fairy
tale. Chris has touched on many of the ones that came up. Does anyone
else remember this thread? I am not sure how I would search for
it (and with Heidi's great site search engine it is probably possible
now). As I recall there were certain recurring themes as well -
i.e. riches to rags to riches. I'll see if I can find the thread,
but if someone else does first, all the better.
(7/31/02 1:45:53 pm)
| Links galore!|
Is this the thread you speak of, "Fairy Tales versus Myths"?
Or a post re: Helen's article:
Or "definition of fairy tales":
Which refers back to a post Heidi started, "Define 'fairy tale'":
Then of course there are the posts re: individual elements like apples, the number 3, masks (btw, Terri, did you end up writing your article on masks?), colors, death, gender, etc.
Hope this helps!
(7/31/02 2:21:48 pm)
| Old Thread|
Should have been threads! Kerrie, you are right, but those weren't the threads I was thinking of? Hmm. Having gone back through the archives, I think it might be interesting as in improv director to go through some of these topics. You might find: themes, devices, motives for characters (escape abuse, curiosity, revenge), "types" of characters (the wronged noble, the evil mother, the rebelling child).
One of the discussions I remember well that might be of interest to you as a director was about how the hero/heroine has a moral dilemma or something that isn't quite accepted that he/she must face in order to overcome the obstacle in her way (i.e. Donkeyskin). That thread was recent.
(7/31/02 3:51:42 pm)
| Re: Old Thread|
I think I found it:
This one is titled "Plots & Characters" and mentions
"rags to riches" plotlines.
(8/1/02 5:12:00 am)
Thank you all so much! This is really helpful. It's gonna take me a while to go through all those threads, plus the recommended books, but I defininitely will. I hadn't thought of doing it as a commedia fairy tale, but that is certainly a good idea too. It might actually be easier than what I was originally thinking since it is so structured. We did a show last fall called Commedia del High School, which was an improvised version of an 80's teen angst film (a la John Hughes). It built the story off the "commedia" characters, which included the nerd, the jock, the popular kid, the kindly teacher, the snotty rich girl, etc. If you've seen Say Anything or Pretty in Pink, you know there's a set formula to that type of movie. You're right, an improvised fairy tale could be done the same way, I'm just not sure I want it to be that rigid.
I'm going to have to think about this and then get my ideas down on paper and think about what will realistically work.