Lessons from directing Cloud Atlas
Of all the things I created, I have a special place for CLOUD ATLAS. I like having a bit of cultural touch to my improv scene. Most of them have been of Asian culture, given who I am, with teams like Monosodium Glutamates, and Herring and Chopsticks, and the online version of Aree & a Friend. But Cloud Atlas feels like a wide-reaching recap of the world’s history in a comical way yet enlightening. Inspired by Ignobel Prize’s motto, I like “Improv that makes you laugh, and then makes you think.”
Just so you know what I’m talking about, Cloud Atlas is an improv format I have polished since 2019, and have had several iterations: Norway, Estonia, India and soon enough, again in Oslo and in Wurzburg.
On surface level, the setup is dastardly simple: 6 scenes, 2 beats. Like the acclaimed book of David Mitchell. A-B-C-D-E-F, F-E-D-C-B-A. But an improv format is not just a format. An improv format is a skeleton on which different muscle groups are strengthened. In Cloud Atlas the skeleton is the setup of different time era and place through humanity, which are uniquely brought by whoever is in the cast. In different iterations of Cloud Atlas, the DNA of the players imprint the scenes.
- In the Norwegian show, one scene takes place during the heyday of ABBA, and its global impact on a traditional Swedish family.
- In the Estonian show, one scene takes place during the Space Race of the Cold War, but decidedly through the eyes of Soviet mission control.
- In the Indian show, one scene takes place during the 1975 fall of the Bombay Stock Exchange, with the character of future billionaire Dhirubhai Ambani.
And each one brings a different flavor than the “standard” improv I normally have seen on stage. Pop stars? Not Elvis, but ABBA. Astronauts? Not Neil Armstrong, but Yuri Gagarin. Billionaires? Not Bill Gates, but Dhirubhai Ambani.
Improv Boost asked “Is there culture based on which region we play improv?” (link). Definitely yes. Trading name for another in another culture is not just swapping names. The names carry something else; whether it’s the stoic nature of Scandinavians, the quiet celebrations of Soviet mission control knowing they beat their rivals, or the sense of powerlessness in 1970s Indian politics. When you place your improv scene in another region, or played by people in another region, there’s definitely something of that culture that get absorbed into the scene.
But playing in not your home arena, obviously has its ticking bomb. How can a cast of 8 players represent the world? Is it a no-no to play in another culture? (and keep that side of the world unseen on an improv stage?). Cloud Atlas has been a learning experience for me to direct and it comes from understanding the player’s background and the exploration. So here are a few things I learned from creating Cloud Atlas:
- Know more than your audience.
You should know about the culture in your scene more than your ‘average’ audience. This creates nice safe margins between a teachable moment and an offensive remark. Otherwise, if you are stretching into sparse knowledge you start grabbing stereotypes and play along with the audience to “other” the culture. Which is, basically, bullying.
- Be nice.
This could be rule number one, but I have disclaimers*. If you don’t know something, make nice assumptions. It’s better to be oddly random anyway, than to be provocative. If you don’t know Indonesia and had to play a scene in Indonesia, just say we like lychees, rather than say.. palm tree deforestations.
(*If you are rule #1 though, and knowledgable about Indonesian society, you can speak about our palm tree deforestations. Not everything in the world is nice, thus not every improv scene has to be nice. But do it in a non-ignorant way.)
Once you have #1 and #2, you find a bit more freedom to explore. In fact, it’s good to explore during rehearsals and find the boundaries where you don’t know more or cannot say nice things. That’s actually when you realize you need to a better human to be a better improviser. Hit the books, talk to friends, google questions.
- Humans are humans.
At the end of the day, I start realizing that humans are humans no matter WHEN they are. In one practice at Ancient Egypt, it’s still at heart a scene about a father and his sons even with the Pyramids background. We may talk about pharaohs and hieroglyphics, but an improv is not about the backdrop but about the scene. Something connects us as humans, that travel in and out of time. Like David Mitchell said of Cloud Atlas,
“The clouds being like souls and the breadth of humanity, all of the souls that are constantly shifting and changing through time. Clouds shift their color and size and shape and come back.”