New improvisers, picture a scene as a fairly small rowboat. One person is standing in it, they’re joined by another performer. I’m not saying you shouldn’t join in but be very careful if you do, control your energy, keep an eye on what the other two are doing and leave when you’re not needed anymore.
I’ve been many robots in my life. I’ve been a bear telling people about sales at The Bay. I’ve been Party Popple a pink creature that likes the party. I’ve been Georgie GM the General Motors’ safety bear (not very safe, it’s head once caught on fire) and I was almost a fish on a bicycle for the Vancouver Aquarium. In all those cases I controlled the robot with a remote and provided the voice on a microphone while hiding a few yards away. I was also one of about a dozen people providing the voice and controlling Expo Ernie, the mascot for Vancouver’s world exposition.
During the auditions we were told not to ask any questions about Ernie’s accent. We were told to do an upper class British dialect. This was odd since it was the mascot for British Columbia’s expo and even though we have the title in our name, we’re not British. At all.
But you don’t want to rock the boat at an audition so we all just rolled our eyes in the waiting room and then went in and Britished it up. When we were hired no one wanted to get fired so they didn’t bring up the accent as we practiced it over and over. Then Expo 86 began and Ernie rolled out to greet people. All of whom had the same question, “Why are you British?”
My take on it is that months to years before someone said, “He’s like C3P0” and meant in personality. Those people hearing this thought they meant the voice had to sound like Anthony Daniels the British actor and not wanting to make trouble went with that. The over months they just went with this voice that made no sense with no one wanting to cause a fuss and stressing to the actors to do the same. Any voice of Ernie that brought it up was shut down for not being a team player.
So because no one wanted to make trouble our Canadian mascot was British confusing tourists and annoying residents. I’ve seen this kind of thing in many improv companies, no one wants to say anything when a bad idea starts then over time it becomes harder to stop it and this mistake that could have been shut down quickly isn’t discussed because people would get angry and it goes out in front of your audience.
When no one in a company says anything when shit happens then shit happens. Or even worse, Brit happens.
I auditioned once for Up With People! Not to be confused with Down With Humanity! which fortunately does not actually exist. It was a touring variety show with a bit of a Christian bent to it (didn’t know that part at the time). They’d just done a show for the Pope and mentioned it many times during the audition. I sang a song, did a little acting and was told that I could join the touring company. All I need was $5000 for expenses.
Wait, I needed to pay them? Wha???? I told them I didn’t have $5000 and they asked if I could borrow it from family or friends so I didn’t miss out on this great opportunity. The experience I’d get would be invaluable. I couldn’t not afford to do this. But I couldn’t not not afford it more so I said no.
I’m sure Up With People! makes money from their shows but they clearly make it from people who want to be part of the group as well. In this way they’re not too different from a lot of improv companies. I don’t begrudge companies from wanting to make money from people wanting to learn improv, it’s an extra source of income for them and the performers who work as instructors. Where it goes too far for me is if that becomes the only way to audition for the company or if they play up the end goal of being a company member over the learning aspect.
As a new improviser you’re looked at maybe as a potential boon to the company as a future performer but realistically you’re a source of income to them as a workshop taker. It’s easy to take more and more classes and again that’s fine if you’re doing it for the education but if you’re doing it because politically it might help you to get to know the instructors and get you into the company then be careful. You are a cash cow and the company will be milking you for as long as they can.
I’d say look at your finances and decide what you’re willing to pay in the long run for your improv education. As a performer you’ll never stop learning but that’s different from paying for workshops forever. Once you’ve reached what you think is a fair amount of money for training maybe use that money to rent a space and train with other improvisers, put on some amateur night shows or pool your funds and ask an improviser you respect to coach your group for a fair rate.
One of the main differences between doing stand up comedy and improv comedy is you don’t have to bleed money for years to do stand up. It’s good to take some classes and get feedback but your real investment over the long term should be time, not money. Don’t be the cash cow, they seldom get to see the outside of the barn.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
I do not like the dark. Used to hallucinate as a child and whenever we had an unexpected blackout I saw pirates crawling out of the ceiling and things moving in the walls. There was a full moon with a face on it that would be at the foot of my bed but that would choose to leave whenever I called my parents into the room. So I slept with the lights on well into my adult years.
When I’m with my niece and nephew I can’t be scared of the dark. If I am, then they are. This is the case for anything creepy. My niece tells me a story about a ghost she saw and I’ve got to act like it’s fine and normal and I’m totally cool with it. If I’m fine, they’re fine or at least less scared than they would be.
The same holds true as an improviser. Sometimes we’ll get a suggestion that’s in a dangerous area. The group I was in would almost always take what we got even if it had the potential to be sexist, racist or homophobic. Our feeling was there are no topics that are off limits and everything had an angle that could be used. The only time things went South was when we had someone in the group that looked worried. If the players seem afraid the audience picks up on that and now they’re uncomfortable too and you have to work a lot harder to keep things above water. If you approach a scene with confidence the audience might not be totally on board since they’ve got their own ideas where the scene will go but they’ll at least usually give you some time to see where you’re taking it and when they’re proven wrong all is well.
We ended up with a lot of scenes I’m proud of, some that later became scripted sketches. Most of those suggestions would have been out and out rejected at other more mainstream improv companies I’ve worked with, usually with a bit of a dig at the person who gave the idea for suggesting it. I don’t like the idea that there are bad or stupid suggestions and normally the problem is the tone that’s been set in the room by the performers. Almost any suggestion can be taken if you do it fearlessly. And if you are scared here’s the thing, you’re an actor, act like you’re not.
The interesting thing is much like with my niece and nephew I’ve found that pretending not be scared leads to not being scared. Unless there’s a pirate coming out of the walls. That shit is terrifying.
The only thing worse than being alone is being with the wrong person. This also is true for improv companies. Some people stay in groups they know aren’t healthy for them artistically and personally because they don’t want risk not doing shows. What if this is the best things get? If you’re in a group you don’t connect with you’re not doing yourself or them any favours by staying there and you’re burning precious time you could be using to get where you need to go.
Something I do as a writer is after I’ve finished a script, if deadlines permit is I put it aside for a week or so and read it again later. When you’re too close to something you can lose perspective. “Why is that character an alcoholic juggler?” “They just are okay?!!”
As a stand up, you constantly go over your set between shows, trimming what doesn’t work, adding to other bits and leaving room for new and topical material.
Perspective is something new performers naturally bring to improv. When they’re learning a game, style or handle for the first time they can see what makes it work and what flaws it has in a different way than someone who’s been doing it for years. If you’re the kind of group that’s open to new thoughts this is great. Often the new person doesn’t want to speak up and rock the boat, they just want to fit in so it’s up to the rest of the group to create an environment where honest feedback won’t be used against them or resented.
As an improviser you should go over your regular line up of handles and games at least once a year and talk them through with your fellow performers. Break the format down. If Freeze Tag always works then talk about why that is. What aspects do the performers enjoy doing and what connects with the audience? By doing this you may be able to create a new format that also have the same elements that you can make your own and that plays to the strengths of your group. You might also find things that don’t work for you. Perhaps they did once with performers years ago and they’ve just never been dropped, maybe times have changed and the modern audiences don’t go for that type of material anymore due to oversaturation or because tastes change over time.
As a stand up and writer, I regularly edit and it makes the work stronger. In improv you create on the spot so there’s no place for editing on stage but if you want your formats to stay fresh and to evolve, breaking them down and building them back up is the way to go. There’s always the old fear that by dissecting a frog you might find out how it jumps but you stop it from doing so ever again. Don’t worry, improv isn’t a frog, it’s like the Canadian superhero Wolverine, it heals quickly and comes back even stronger.
We spend a lot of time in workshops talking about fear. How to get over stage fright, to not be afraid to fail. Fear stops creativity and keeps us trapped in our safe zone. We say “No”, to protect ourselves from what happens if we say, “Yes”.
Fear has a twin brother named Comfort. Comfort shows up later in your creative process. When you can go on stage and succeed more than you fail, when you’ve surrounded yourself with people you trust and enjoy working with and when you’re doing a format you know inside and out.
Sounds good and it can feel great. But in your development as an artist it can do the same things as fear. You say “No” to changes in the format and structure of the shows or to working with new performers with new ideas. What you’re doing is succeeding, the audience is giving you love, you’re having a great time, what more could you want? And honestly what do these new performers know what you don’t?
As an artist you have to want more. You need to keep evolving, to keep changing the form and the easiest way to do that is to be open to the ideas of new performers, to value them even above the tried and true.
Any art form that stays the same will stagnate and get stale. People might still enjoy it, people like predictable sit-coms and there’s nothing wrong with that. But even the most predictable sit-com is different from one from ten years before. I don’t know if that’s the case with a lot of improv formats.
People complain about The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live not being as good as they used to be. The shows are very different than when they started out and how they got to where they are now is by taking chances. They might not be ground breaking anymore because they were the ones that broke the ground in the first place. If they had even the same pacing as they did when they started they’d be very difficult to watch. And as much as you love a SNL performer, after they’ve been around for too long it’s hard to watch them. Art needs the new.
Instead of trying to make things comfortable for yourself, make regular attempts at developing new ideas and learn to enjoy that process. I’m not saying make your audience uncomfortable all the time, but push their boundaries a bit as you push your own and welcome new ideas and new people into your work. It’s nice to be comfortable but after a few too many years that comfy couch you love so much is going to start getting a bit gamey.
After I left my old improv group I really missed it. I’d been with the company for fifteen years and it felt odd not having shows to do on a Friday and Saturday night. I went back a couple of times for some free benefit shows, and a few shows that turned out to be free retroactively (they decided they wouldn’t pay guest performers). I enjoyed being with old friends and the audiences were good but it just didn’t feel the same. Over time I’ve realized I didn’t miss being with the company, I missed what the company meant to me when I was in it.
When I started it was a place to prove myself to the mainstage performers, my improv heroes. Shortly after that I was involved in a show that was a surprise hit to everyone involved and I became a regular improviser with the company. Over the years I performed in and created different formats and shows. When I hosted I always tried to make up at least one new handle. I took another show that was a surprise hit and turned it into a TV series for the company.
But soon it felt like I was going in circles with both the budget and rehearsal time getting less and less for new shows. I decided it was time to move on. It seemed like an amicable split at the time. It turned out it wasn’t but that’s a different story.
What I was missing when I left was having a stage that was open to the creation of the new. Now when I wanted to do a show I needed to start from the ground up. There was no momentum and already existing audience. What I miss the most from my old days was having the car already gassed up.
But the nice thing is over time I’ve learned that I can still work with the people I admire on new projects. The challenge is still there and that’s what I really was missing. A bit of comfort and cushioning is lost and it means some shows have small audiences because I don’t know how to work the advertising angle yet. But those that do come seem to enjoy what they see. I don’t know what’s going to come next and I like that too. Not all the time, but in the long run, it’s been great.
I can understand why some people decide to choose comfort and stay where they are. But at some point ask yourself if you’re getting what you want out of where you are. What’s really important to you? Are those needs being met? Does it look like there’s a real chance of things changing for the better? If not there’s a whole other world our there and it’s less comfortable, riskier and probably more difficult. Just know that you’ve got options.
I like making lists. My favorite app on my phone is ToDo. A while back I made one about what’s important in improv. This isn’t a top five it’s just five that came to me. No ranking just ideas.
Making money. Improv is something so fun that we’d do it for free. But like a hybrid car sometimes one type of fuel runs out and it’s good to have a back up. Making money doing your craft is rewarding and can allow you have among other things, the freedom to travel and experience improv around the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living doing improv in the past and those times allowed me to concentrate on the work and focus on the craft.
Audience enjoyment. The people watching from the audience aren’t separate from you, they’re part of the show. A good night of improv has the performers not just tossing the ball back and forth to each other but to the audience as well. Their intelligence needs to be respected, their suggestions treated like a gift and the more you try to develop an “us and them” relationship instead of an “us and us” the weaker you’ll become. The audience might not laugh at everything you do but if you respect and connect with them you’ll increase your chances for something amazing. They’ll also cut you more slack when everything isn’t puppies and fireworks.
Performers reaching their potential. As an artist if you’re in a situation where you can’t grow you need to change the environment or leave. Improv companies can feel very comfortable if you’ve been there for a while. You know everyone and feel safe. That’s great if you’re a house cat, not so good as a performer. When you feel safe it’s time to try something new. Don’t throw everything away but stretch those muscles. Many companies are locked into certain formats because their goal is consistency. As an artist you’ve got different goals, the two can intertwine but by being a good company man/woman you not only limit yourself but make yourself easier to replace with a younger newer version of you.
New shows. The last paragraph was about developing yourself. Along with that you need to create new formats, handles and concepts for shows. As much as an audience might love a certain show over time they’ll crave the new. If you don’t deliver that to them someone else will. A common complaint is, “Why are we losing our audience? We’re doing the same show we always did!”. It’s hard to abandon the sure thing for the maybe so you can do this is small steps. But give the new formats a proper chance. I used to be part of a company that would have the popular shows on weekends and try new formats mid-week. The new shows would seldom do as well because they were running in a race with weights on their feet. The new has to be given a fair shot and new ideas need to be encouraged, developed and when money is involved fairly compensated.
Social impact. If a show only makes people laugh, that’s good enough. Laughter is such a gift that if all you do is get the audience to enjoy themselves that’s great. Job well done. If you can add a layer to that and bring up issues that matter to you, maybe get people to think about things in a different way if only for a little while, then that’s good goal as well. The laughing brain is more open to new ideas. Programs like The Daily Show inform because they also entertain. There’s no reason improv can’t do that.
Those are my five, lots of room on the list for yours.
When I perform with new companies as a guest in other parts of the world there’s always that moment before we start where they’re not sure if I’m any good. Once you’ve shown you can cross the stage without tripping and still talk out loud then everyone can relax.
But in the times where that doesn’t happen and things don’t start off well or if I start slowly, often I’ll be swarmed by performers who’ll try and save the scene. Now there’s a big difference between trying to make the other performer look good and trying to save them from themselves. What usually happens is the other improviser like a lifeguard, dives onto the stage talking very quickly and tries to negate what just happened or at least deflect it and get thing going in a brand new direction. Basically letting the audience know that we know that the idea brought up had “FAIL” written all over it, but don’t worry folks we’re going to be okay now.
The problem is this kind of saving is actually bailing on an idea. Now there might be some cases where you want to do just that. Something racially charged or the scene got overtly sexual and you just want to pull the emergency brake. The stronger choice I’ve found is usually to take that idea you think needs saving and instead build on it. Think of it like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Don’t just throw it away and find a better tree, give it all the love you can. Take that dumb/wrong idea and go to town! Maybe you’ll fail but failing isn’t a bad thing. It feels like it at the time and it’s scary but pulling yourself out of that nosedive is a skill improvisers need to learn. If you do succeed you’ll take your scene somewhere you never could imagined and the audience will have come along for the ride with you. A lot of improv is set up by trying to demonstrate how risky what we’re doing is but it’s not really true. Show people real risk and you’re on your way to something special.
The person who brought up the “bad” idea will also feel supported. The audience might be more open in future scenes to letting things play out slower or not be worried when things aren’t all fireworks and puppies in the first thirty seconds. The big problem with the improvisers jumping in to save things is that it sets a tone for the show. If you look panicky the audience will pick up on that and be nervous for you when things don’t go smoothly in future scenes. If they see you fully embrace the shaky idea, odds are they’ll go along for the ride out of curiosity. And again if it fails, that’s okay. If you’re going to fail, fail big. Saving scenes seems like a kindness to the performer and the audience but it can lead to mediocre shows and you might just miss something new and different. A few scenes might drown but instead of dragging them to the shore, see what they’re swimming towards and join them.