At first, Merf didn’t let on that she was once just like them. She was no longer a homeless addict. She was a powerful lawyer. But then she realized that the people she was working with didn’t need another person of authority telling them what to do; they needed someone they could trust. That’s when Merf finally opened up and started sharing her personal story with her clients. That’s when she became an amazing lawyer.
In my interviews on KUOW, this theme comes up time and again: Someone faces a challenge that prompts a change, becomes a “new person” on a new path, and tries to escape or hide the “old” version of herself that represented everything she wanted to change. But the real change comes not from a clean break, but a synthesis of what we were and who we’re becoming.
In improvisation, the simplest term for this is reincorporation—picking up something from the past, something you may have discarded, and reviving it in a new context. Looking back often propels us forward.
To illustrate reincorporation, we have a game called Walking Backward Into the Future. While you’re looking away, other members from the workshop find five random objects and place them in a single line behind you, each paced one step apart. You step backwards, look down, and pick up the first object. This is where your story begins. Then, after you’ve established the beginning of the story, you place the first object down, step back again, and pick up the next object to incorporate into your story. As you keep stepping back, picking up new objects and discovering where they propel your story, you’re also looking at the trail of objects and story points in front of you. That way, you’re prompted to refer back to these objects and the narrative elements they represent, even as you weave them into the latest development.
The next time you’re stuck in a story, instead of reaching blindly for non-sequiturs or untethered associations, walk backward into the future for a moment. Pick up an earlier offer again and see where it fits now. If you properly honored the offer in the first place, this should be easy, and your reincorporation will help strengthen the cadence and cohesion of the story for both you and your scene partners. Like Merf did, remember what you left behind, look closely at where you are now, and reach back to carry forth the resources you already have. That’s when your story will finally recognize itself.