Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Agatha Holmes - Destroyer of Walls

Serves me right. I go and pronounce to the world that Breaking The Fourth Wall Is Always A Bad Bad Thing... and then I am shown the error of my ways.

We recently wrapped a season of Impro Mafia's Agatha Holmes, an improvised murder mystery. The show revolved around the five residents of Cadsworth Manor, a very proper 1940's English countryside estate. Each episode saw a visitor arrive, only to be murdered by one of the residents. It was up to the great detective Agatha Holmes to solve the crime, ably assisted by his sidekick Wastings.

Agatha Holmes followed the usual Impro Mafia convention of getting offers before the show, then (in the minutes before the show started) selecting several that seemed to give the best basis for an entertaining story. (More about the mechanism we use in a future post.) This way the audience provided both the murder weapon, and a clue that would help to lead Agatha towards the solution. Each audience member also voted for the resident they wanted to see as that night's murderer. (Sadly, there was a clear winner each night. Would have loved to see two murderers.)

One of the handles for the show was that Agatha Holmes himself (Greg Rowbotham) did not leave the audience's sight all night. He milled around with them before the show, entered the theatre with them, jumped up to perform in the first half, (excitedly) went with them for a drink at interval, rejoined the show with them in the second half, and eventually at the close of the show retreated backstage. Greg genuinely did not know who had been selected as the murderer or what the murder weapon might be. Sound familiar? It's basically a long form murder endowments game.

The fact that the great detective Agatha Holmes spent most of the night with the audience immediately means that illusion of an on-stage reality wasn't really a factor, for his character, anyway. Most of the characters couldn't see and didn't acknowledge the audience. Greg (as Agatha Holmes) would quite frequently turn and talk to them, or otherwise bust the bubble by somehow alluding to the fact this was a play instead of a reality. He did this. A lot. And you know what? It worked a treat. That character, because of the way the show was constructed could get away with it just fine.

Now, what tenuous connection am I trying to make between this and improvised music? Greg/Agatha did something no one's done to me before; I've never had a character stop the story to tell me to change the music! Harumph. Seriously, I don't know too many actors or characters that could do that and still have it make sense.

There are lots of good moments from the show where we broke the fourth wall. Agatha discussing how a will looked like a prop. Agatha getting in an argument with the audience as though it was a pantomime. (In fairness, everyone else started getting in on the act too.)

We had a custom theatre set for this show! It was complete with bookshelf-with-secret-passage and painting-that-slides-so-you-can-spy-from-behind. It was also only marginally structurally sound, and Agatha had a tendency to be rough with the set. I'm sure he remarked about the flimsy manor more than once.

One of my favourite happenings was when Agatha and his sidekick Wastings (David Massingham, the director of the show) were on stage reading a newspaper. The prop newspaper David grabbed from backstage was a local paper, which just happened to have an article on the show, along with a picture of Greg in costume as Agatha Holmes!


Dan Beeston said...

You can definitely break the fourth wall but you do need to be very careful. I think the reason that this worked so well is because there was only one person breaking the fourth wall. If everyone does it it's quite indulgent. If one person does it it's subversive.

The only reason it worked so well with Holmes is that everyone else committed to the reality of the scene around him.

You'll notice Cocksteady doing it to great effect in Prog: Death as well. This probably works well because he plays an outsider.

Girl Clumsy said...

To be perfectly honest, the character of Agatha Holmes, and the mysterious entity that is GregR, have a lot of charm and presence.

He also has "happy high status", mixed with a fair bit of impishness and cheekiness. He contrasts the very self-involved persons of Cadsworth Manor, who are all worrying about their relative positions in life/the house/society etc. Agatha/Greg needs the audience to trust he doesn't know the murderer or motive; so he entrusts them with his inner thoughts. Ergo, the fourth wall breaks only to establish a stronger rapport with the audience.

Having said that, I have seen some examples of very poor fourth wall breaking, that I personally found disrupting as it was out of character and unrelated to the story. Of course, other audience members may have enjoyed them, it was only that I found them disconcerting.

I guess it must be judiciously done.

For myself, in shows like Prog: Death and Agatha Holmes, if I want to communicate with the audience, I try to do it in character, so it's more like an aside.

Wow, I'm rambling. Somebody stop me. :)

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