This idea is lifted nearly directly from Finite and Infinite Games.
Improv shows approximate a garden, a machine, or something in between these two.
A perfect machine is one that responds with complete accuracy to the inputs given to it by its operator, or operators. A powerful machine, one that is well-designed, needs only a nudge and an iota of information before it practices its task and does all the work for you. Plenty of great improv groups can be described as functioning “like a well-oiled machine.” And still, no matter how much thought went into the design of an improvised show, the operators, the improvisers, still have spontaneous imagination and free will and the power of choice. Because of this, no two shows are ever identical.
A perfect garden has no walls and surprises us with its power to cultivate itself. The less attention we pay to it, the more nature takes its course, and hardy plants become plentiful while fragile plants are overtaken. Look away from the garden for any amount of time, and upon looking back you’ll find that not only has the garden itself changed, but the character of the work that will be needed to exert any influence on it has also changed. A garden is a model for life itself. Garden groups in improv get described as “organic.” Though they may train their skills, they can begin a performance with no plan at all about the form of the show and see where the show takes them.
There’s the crucial difference. “Where are we going to take the show?” versus, “Where is this show going to go?” Of course no improvised show is ever perfectly planned out, otherwise it wouldn’t even be improv. And no improvised show is ever allowed to run its course perfectly wildly, without measured input from its performers, or it wouldn’t exist to begin with. A garden begins because a gardener plants a seed.
When your coach asks you to consider what the voice of your group is, factor this dichotomy into it. Are we operating machines or growing gardens? Neither way is right, and both camps have their heroes.
I’m pretty excited to be a member of this new team at the Peoples Improv Theater. Check out this lineup:
Justin Akin (BBC, Action Pals)
Scott Eckert (BBC, Scott and Ellie)
Chris Grace (Cold Soda, The Faculty)
Sarah Nowak (The Baldwins, SidViscous)
Greg Portz (Mrs. Esterhouse, In a Polynesian Mood)
Steve Soroka (Senator, BoF)
Ashley Ward (BBC, Baby Wants Candy)
Phil Wells (Senator, Sidviscous)
For the uninitiated, this is a squad of killers. This show will be laffs galore. Pick up a ticket and check it out, please.
Friday at 9:30
I hope the archived version linked here never goes kaput. It’s essentially a fable which explains how improv theaters could build a better community for themselves by sharing resources rather than by jeering each other and remaining separate.
Maybe I’ll be excommunicated for saying this but in New York improv the leaders seem to have been at war for a long while, and the people are weary of it. If I was going to draft a peace treaty, some of the terms would include these:
Students of the art do an okay job of intermingling and checking out each others’ work regardless of what side they’re on in this war. But there is still a stigma and an institutional level of discouragement and stubborn theater nationalism that’s stifling progress. Meddling with the art in this way is good for business in the short term. But cooperation, which is good for the art, will ultimately prove better for business in the long term. You don’t need to brand improv to sell the best version of it.
I’ve seen it a million times. A group will “invent” a new form or game, practice it (or not), then throw it up on stage. Then they’ll keep throwing it up on stage whether it worked the first time or not. The assumption is that the group has to get used to the new form and that it’ll improve itself simply by being played through a few times without any conscious attempt to make significant changes. Of course, this is doing things the hard way.
Game designers are great at using iteration in their work. They’ll toss together some rules, crank out a prototype, and playtest it as soon as possible. Really, when it comes to designing a game, what could possibly replace the value of actual players interacting with this system you’ve set up for them? And, naturally, a game designer’s job isn’t complete once the game enters playtesting. In a way, that’s where the real craft begins. If it isn’t fun, it goes back into the workshop and tweaks begin. Too often, improvisers would be content to release the game as-is, no matter how tests went, and rely on the players of the game to just get used to it. That is no way to improve a game, and it’s no way to improve the structure of an improv show.
Improvisers: your form will not figure itself out. That doesn’t mean you need to trash it altogether. It means you need to critically evaluate what went right and what went wrong, and use your time wisely promoting the right stuff and excising the wrong stuff. This is true whether you’re playing Party Quirks or Harolds, Freeze Tag or Deconstructions. Test it, refine it, repeat.
Even a game has to hit the shelves at some point. Your brand new longform structure spends itself as soon as it’s implemented. It’s never complete. And so improv groups should never assume that the form is set in stone. If your second beats aren’t working, change your second beats. If your group just can’t do organic edits, don’t do them. Stop treating the form like it’s sacred. Only success is sacred.
It looks like my partner J Hobart B will be out of town for the next round of the Queen of Sharks CHOMPetition, which is SATURDAY, JULY 18 at 7 PM.
That being the case I am going to perform a solo improvisational piece that will make you laugh and laugh and laugh and vote and laugh, but ONLY IF YOU ARE IN ATTENDANCE.
I’ll sum it up thusly: If you want to see me perform my one-man improvised show, you must catch it at the Chompetition this Saturday, because it will never be performed again.
Five bucks, pals. Five measly bucks.
And my mom will be in attendance. You get to meet my mom.
Miss this if you’re a schmuck.
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.