An open letter about suggestions

I believe improvisers should give suggestions only as a last resort.

In the Death Show, Greg gets a volunteer from the audience to give us his or her wallet or purse and we rifle through it for our suggestion. Twice, that person has said to me after the show, "I don't know if anyone else enjoyed it, but I thought the show was hilarious!"

That person felt as though the entire show revolved around them. And the chances that they come back to the theater (and tell their friends to come) multiply.

I am not the biggest fan of suggestions in the first place, but if we are going to get them, please let them come from real audience members. Preferably someone who's there for the first time. It seems often when someone asks for a suggestion -- before they've even finished asking -- someone I know in the crowd shouts something clever or interesting or funny. Just like on stage, we can't handle the silence.

But this takes away one of the most valuable experiences for those people coming to the show. That experience of watching their suggestion turn into 20 minutes of theater.

This is on all of us. I've seen performers at UCB ask for a suggestion from someone who's never seen the show before. Maybe we could do more of that (esp on weekends). But I do think when we're in the crowd, we could sit on our hands, so to speak. If an awkward pause has gone by, sure, support! Throw something out! But first give those paying customers a chance to be a part of the show.



I talk a lot about accessibility.

I am currently in Singapore and finding myself talking about accessibility with my good friend Yu Hsien. He does some (amazing) set design here. But he struggles with the perception of theater here. What is popular is not good and what is good is not popular. 

Irony City and Hustlebot 11.15.07

The improv scene in the states is not all that bad, but I find that argument at the heart of why a lot of people dislike short form or narrative improv or any number of other forms. When Irony City first started performing, we did a lot of shows with a group in town called Hustlebot who did solely Harold. I would watch their sets and marvel at the simplicity and beauty of their games, the technical brilliance of their second and third beats. Then I'd hear people say, "Yeah those guys were ok but I enjoyed your games much more."

We were not better improvisers. But I think we did work that was more accessible to someone who's never seen improv. They could look at it and say, "Yeah, I know what's going on here." And that person is still a large percentage of the Pittsburgh audience.

When performing to non-improvisers, we have two options:

  1. Educate them to appreciate technically beautiful improvisation
  2. Be cognizant of the accessibility of our work

They are not mutually exclusive, especially since option 1 is a long-term option. Shows like Totally Free Mondays at the SCIT are in the option 1 camp. This is a free show where Harold has been performed every week for years. That gets students, friends, family, and the general public to learn the conventions of improvisation (edits, tags, pacing, etc.). FWIW Hustlebot was doing this too. My friends coming to see us did not  go regularly.

And while I love short form, you do not have to do short form to make something accessible. Give the audience some ground to stand on, something that they recognize from non-improvised work. Some shows follow a familiar format: LuPones improvises a musical or Midseason Replacement makes up a sitcom; others stick to a well-known genre: Crime Scene Improvisation. Even just telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, where the protagonist grows and changes will make the show more accessible to an audience used to written work.

Not that any of that is easy, but I think it's important for a community working in Pittsburgh where the average audience member has seen little to no improv.