Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Prognosis: Death! - Lessons in Long-form


I have been privileged over recent weeks to work with the Impro Mafia folks on a long-form show, Prognosis: Death!. Described as medical drama meets schlock horror meets the X-Files, the show centred around the characters of St Love's Hospital. Prognosis: Death! resembled a TV show in that each episode stood on its own, with recurring characters that grew throughout the season.

Most of the long-form I've done has been of the 30-minute variety; the show might have short games for the first half, and the long-form for the second. Prognosis: Death! was a departure for me - no short-form at all, just Act I and Act II of that night's episode. The audience supplied written offers for whatever was affecting St Love that night; the cast would choose one and quickly sketch out some ideas backstage before jumping in to the first act - during which they took more offers affecting the main characters, and the stories grew from there.

The show taught me some new things, and reinforced some other lessons from the past.

Strong theme music

For a recurring show with repeating characters, very strong theme music is important. The first time you hear it, it should somewhat set the tone for the show; if you're a return audience member, the music will help to re-immerse you in the show again, and provide more of a common thread.

Our theme music was written and recorded by Tim Wotherspoon, a friend of the group. It was very 70's medical/cop drama, primarily background music suitable for sitting under a voiceover or a character getting offers from the audience. It also featured a wonderful riff/melody line that rose out of the background a few times. The moment I heard the riff, I loved it; I heard variations in my head that could be used as love theme music, sad music, or grand-season-ending-resolution music, and I played off of that quite a bit during the show. The two main characters (Dr Burton Mangold and Nurse Lotte Buble) had romantic tension that carried through the season, ending in a proposal on the final night; the theme music riff nearly always underscored the scenes those two shared in one way or another.

If you can hook yourself a great theme song that is more than just a good chord progression, that's a great start for underscoring the most important moments of a show.

Piano is king

I hate the use of tricks for a real story-centred long-form, so piano was the only choice for a show like this. Lots of expression and control, lots of subtlety or drama. Plus it brought a lovely consistency to the music throughout the show.

Sticking to piano also meant I could use the venue's electric piano, and I avoided bringing any equipment whatsoever! Usually I'm the only one with equipment, and the actors just bring themselves, but for these shows the actors were carting costumes and medical props and buckets of fake blood, and I just brought myself!

I did use some of the other goodies in their piano for the start-of-show teaser, like dramatic strings to set up the time-travelling Nazis show, or a horrifying choir to underscore the devil-summoning cultists; these were almost stand-alone scenes, and they were followed by the pre-recorded theme music, so I think it still fit quite nicely.

Movie music cues

I love to rip off well known tv-show or movie music when it's appropriate. In a short-form scene, I'll go crazy and really copy those themes quite closely; it's a quick blast of scene setting, at the cost of stealing some individuality from the scene.

In a long-form, I'd rather not rip off movie themes exactly; to me that cheapens the story. Instead I found myself reusing chord progressions from movie themes and leaving the melody out. For example, a tomb-robbing scene had Indiana Jones undertones, and a time travel scene featured the chord progression from Back to the Future. The objective was still to get that recall from the audience, but instead of "Ooh that's from Back to the Future!", I was hoping for more of a distant familiarity to evoke thoughts of time travel and impossible science.

Theatre vs short-form

Another big difference in this show's production was that the lights went down in between scenes. While the narrator called the scene change ("Meanwhile, in the office of Medical Superintendant Harold Dean, Doctor Mangold was about to make a terrifying discovery"), the actors in that subsequent scene placed themselves on stage, then its lights-up again. On occasion props made their way on to the stage in the dark as well; the operating/post-moretem table got at least one workout a night, and it took a little while to maneuver it on to the stage.

While the lights are down, the only thing to hold the audience is the narrator's voice, and music to transition from the previous scene to the new one. I'm not familiar with playing music for theatre, so it took me a little while for me to realise I should be assertive in those moments.

Character theme music

Because the characters were constant from night to night, it was possible to write themes for each of them. For example: Dr Ludwig Le Strange was the hospital's mortician; thanks to Dr Mangold's surgical prowess, Dr Le Strange had very little actual work to do, so he lived a pretty solitary life, and appeared (at first) emotionless to the audience. His secret love of Nurse Buble went unrequited. Dr Le Strange's theme music was a nice minor arpeggio with the occasional discordant note, on a sad descending chord progression. In moments when he was on stage alone, or when his character experienced a major change, his theme music was quite a strong presence. It was easy to modify his theme to suit the moment - happy music for playing a happy child in a flashback scene, dramatic madness as he goes mad and opens a time vortex to bring an army of Nazi soldiers to the present, softer melancholy redemption as he comes to his senses and sacrifices himself to save the hospital.

Most shows don't feature recurring characters. You can still set up character themes - you just have less time to set them up, and because they have a shorter life, they don't have quite the same payoff.


My compliments to the very talented cast, the crew, and the director Greg - the show was artistically (and commercially!) successful from start to finish. I had a great time, and learned a lot in the process. I hope to be involved in more of this sort of Improv/Theatre hybrid in the future.

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