I used to say that every 2 years, I learn that everything I thought I knew about theater was completely wrong.
My pace of improvisation epiphanies has been similar, but recently they are at least trending in the same direction. At the core of this is a solidifying understanding of what sort of work–to use Susan Messing's nomenclature–gets me off. I'm going to attempt to put into words what improv I strive for these days.
Improvisational theater is an art form that is capable of doing something that no scripted performance art can: it allows 2 (or more) performers to enter a blank stage with blank minds. Neither they, nor the audience, have any idea what the scene or show that is about to be performed will be about yet the lights come up and immediately something is happening. Something engaging. Those actors rather than needing to invent a story in the moment can just play the moment. They use an almost monastic level of control to allow their thoughts and ideas of what the scene is and where it is going to come into their head and flow out. And moment to moment, the scene unfolds before them. This allows for unique and beautiful creations that would not be possible in sketch or plays.
In a YETI workshop (more on this soon) I taught recently at The New Movement in New Orleans, a player began with a strong posture choice–slumped shoulders, legs wide, very masculine. Her scene partner crossed the stage cautiously. I asked her if she felt her partner came too close or stopped too far away and she said, "I felt my character was on a bus, sort of a creepy unsavory dude." This is the default for a lot of improvisers: what is the narrative? The plot of the story. I asked them to replay the scene and focus on just what information was in front of her. Make that great choice but try to hold off on figuring out where she was and who she was and just listen to her scene partner. How was she holding herself? How was she regarding her? To use TJ and Dave's terminology1, what was the "heat" between them?
With little training, this is something we can all instinctually learn to pick up and react to. And with some training, we can become quite good at it.
And in improvisation, the process is the product. The audience is along for the ride. They watch this with us. They are on the edge of their seats. They discover as we discover and get surprised as we, often genuinely, get surprised.
So, what are the implications of this way of thinking? I will list a few of them here, though I am definitely still exploring this:
- If approaching improv this way, comparing your work to its written counterparts 2 (sketch, plays, etc.) is a misguided endeavour. We should study those counterparts in our effort to become better improvisors, though as critics of our work and others', I do not believe we should hold up written work as the standard. It is perhaps more akin to other improvised collaborative art such as improvised jazz.
- This way of viewing improv does not discount the other ways as invalid. I do believe there are some truly funny people (one referenced in this article) who are very talented at more premise-based approaches. Perhaps there should be different names for the two ways of improvising. We currently distinguish between short form and long form improv, and I think maybe this distinction is more important. Maybe call that "Writing on the Spot" or call this "Collaborative Scenework."
- With great power comes great responsibility. With written work, if I want to explore or wander into dangerous/taboo/offensive territory, I can run it by a friend who has more experience than I do with mysogony, abuse, addiction, racism, etc. to ensure that I am handling the issue appropriately and being funny for the right reasons. Even if I am improvising in a premise mode or planning ahead in my mind, I can run a quick broadcast delay. The approach I am describing here relies on the performer to have that responsibility in themselves.
- In their new and incredible book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book, TJ and Dave define the "heat" and "weight" of a scene. This is an incredible way of looking at opening moments, and the whole book is great too!
- Matt Besser in an interview with SplitSider: "We always comp are our scenes to sketch comedy because we believe a great improvised scene is something that you can write out and it’s a great sketch."