Act Mapping And Creating a Story Line and Tension


With a few newcomer courses just finished, and another one just to start, we know there are a lot of potential new performers just raring to go, but where to start? Here’s our tips on act mapping, originally posted on the blog page in 2013… 

Like every good book, film or theatrical production, when you are creating an act for the stage, you want to hold the audience’s attention from the beginning right through to the end. Unless you intend to improvise right the way through the piece (not advisable at all, unless you are a very accomplished performer!), the best advise is to map out your act. 


Things to consider first: 

  • The story – what are you trying to say?
  • The emotion – what do you want the audience to feel – and don’t forget, as well as the usual responses of laughter, wonder at the beauty of the act, attraction, excitement, you can also invoke sadness, sympathy, political questioning, revulsion and horror – plus more (although if you go for the more ‘controversial’ or questioning side, you will have to think who will book the act? And how would you cope if the audience were offended?)  
  • The delivery – how will you tell your story? What are the key points you will get across and through what medium? Are you a performer who relies on strong character work? Are you more of a dance act or do you combine with a skill. 

Like writing a book, the easiest way to come up with your story is to have the beginning and the end in place first. You want a strong resolution to what you are trying to say, whether that is a clever punchline involving a merkin or pasties, a strong tassel twirl segment or something entirely unexpected that will make your audience laugh, cheer or just be in awe. But you will need to think about how strong your act starts and how you will arrive on stage. How does that energy carry through the act? It’s no good arriving boldly on to the stage and throwing all your best bits in here if the act peters out towards the end as the audience will lose interest. Similarly, it’s no good having an cracking ending if your act was a wishy-washy start as you’ll have lost their attention and they may not have stuck around to watch the best bit.  

So to recap, on the storyline, consider: 

  • What is your strong start?
  • What will let you go out with a bang? 

Now you’ve got your beginning and end, you just need to fill in the journey in between. What are the key pieces of costume you will remove to tell that story and how will you hold the tension and the audience’s interest? What is the catalyst that causes the clothes to be removed? Is it subtle or is it an obvious character change? And what ‘pictures’ will you make on stage. By this, I mean how will you present yourself, how will you fill the stage, how visual will you be? If you were to video your act, every frame of that should read like a still photograph.  


Mapping it out. 

So, assuming you already have your music, the easiest way to do plan your act is to break your soundtrack into lines or phrases (if your chosen music is instrumental) and to match your storyline to the various parts you’ve broken down. This is an example of how I (Lilly Laudanum) usually do it: 

(Victoria’s Secret steps)

(Music: ‘God Save The Queen’ Royal Choral Society and BBC Concert Orchestra, ‘Fight For Your Right To Party’ Beastie Boys and ‘God Save The Queen’ Queen)

“national anthem”                                Queen stood rigid, proud, nodding at subjects. Slightly arrogant, but very royal. 

“guitar kicks in” (8/8/8/8)                    Queen glide-steps to right, holds skirts and turns / glide-steps to left, holds skirts and turns

“you wake up” (8/8/8/8)                      Bold step to R, posh hand, survey subjects on R, horrified/delighted by the state of undress, points a few out (leg and wrist are ‘disgusting’)

“You miss two classes” (8/8/8/8)         Bold steps to L, posh hand, (if points at someone who is well-dressed they get the royal nod…”, point at someone, disgust and then pull out handkerchief, revealing ‘lewd’ at the stop.

There is no right or wrong way to map out a routine, just as long as it makes sense to you. I usually write the attitude of my characters into the movements so I can see what the motivation is. 

Changing your Routine

Here’s a very valid point, if a routine isn’t working properly with the costume or the music, even if you’ve performed it a few times, there’s no reason why you can’t change it just because you’ve mapped it out. Often you will come up with better ideas having performed it to an audience (and you can see what works and what doesn’t – and often the plot doesn’t quite have the expected or desired response, but a move done by accident will – so by all means write this into the act).

Rehearsal Tips. 

  • Rehearse your routine as often as you can – with all the costume, props and the shoes you will wear on stage. This can’t be said enough.  
  • Video your rehearsals if you can – you will then be able to see what the audience sees. Remember that every frozen frame of the video should look like a photograph; your actions should be deliberate, and if performing with a troupe everyone should be in unison.  
  • Show it to a few fellow performers of friends whose opinion you trust (those who are not just going to say, “yeah, it’s great”). Get some feedback on which parts work and which parts don’t. 

Don’t forget: 

  • Your face! It’s surprising how many forget their face is there to tell the story too through expressions. There’s no point having a cracking routine if you have a blank expression – build some facial expressions into your routine. Similarly, if you are just smiling, all teeth and eyes, it will look fake if the routine doesn’t call for it. And warm up your face as well as the rest of your body before you go on stage (a simple facial warm up is to exaggerate a silent ‘a-e-i-o-u’, screwing up your face and opening wide with each vowel as you go through them).  

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