Improv is a (beautiful) Pyramid Scheme

by Wells

Big-house improv has its detractors and I was one of them for a few years.  I, too, saw organized improv as a sort of buy-in pyramid scheme.  It certainly is pay-to-play.  And after you’re part of the system, even if you start coaching other players as I’m trying to do more and more, it seems we’re all just spending each other’s money.  You pay hundreds, thousands of dollars to teachers and administrators who end up becoming coworkers and friends.  My expenses have supported the drinking habits of the very people who demand that I go out and drink with them every week.

This seems like madness, doesn’t it?  Well, it isn’t, really.  Any community demands a certain amount of buying in.  People pay to join bowling teams, congregations, scout troops, colleges, fraternities, dojos, congress, and street gangs.  Only prison is free to join.

The fraternities angle in particular rubbed me the wrong way for some time because I joined a fraternity at school.  People like to throw around the attack “I don’t need to pay for my friends, TYVM.”  But, yeah, you kinda do.  If you’re in college you’re paying tuition to stay there.  If you join other clubs you’re paying dues to them.  If you just stay friends with your buddies back home you’re commuting to be with them or trading Magic cards with them or paying to ride their sisters.

Improv is quirky because if you want to get sanctioned by a theater and put up shows under that theater’s official banner, you have to take their training courses.  That makes it less like a bowling team and more like a conservatory.  You go to shows at performance schools to watch students trained there put on shows.  Is that a pyramid scheme?  Well, yeah.  But the shows are good.

The difference between someone who forgoes the system and just improvises independently is that free agents miss out on a lot of great training, get far less stage time, and perform to slimmer audiences.  And in the end, it’s financially zero-sum either way.  No one is making any money at this.  We pay at first because we want in on the fast track.  And we keep paying each other with each other’s money because after a certain amount of time you get to just break even.  If you’re good enough, you can climb to the rank of “at least I’m not leaking cash all over the place for this anymore.”

And if product is the excrement of action, the effect of all this is a wonderful industry of hilarious and interesting people staging once-in-a-lifetime shows at the top of their abilities.  It’s expensive, it’s just a hobby, and leads nowhere productive.  Just like bowling.