For about the past year, I’ve been going to a lot of shows at a local improv theater called Village Theatre in the city of Atlanta. If you don’t know, improv comedy is a form of theater where all the scenes are improvised. Sort of like that show Who’s Line is it Anyway. I really enjoy going to shows and hanging out there so I wrote a little bit about why I like it so much.
The most important aspect of improv is that it’s all made up on the spot. A show starts out with a suggestion from the audience, usually a word or phrase from a question from the improvisers. The suggestion serves as a kind of random seed that gets the performers thinking about the same thing. The show starts off with someone telling a story or starting a scene based on a free association of the suggestion. The spontaneus nature of an improv show is what makes it unique.
There’s just something cool about watching people do things live. You are watching unplanned events unfold before your eyes. There is a sense of danger and a feeling that anything can happen. Each new scene may succeed or fail spectacularly, and you get to see the raw unedited events as they unfold. This makes being part of the audience a social experience. When everyone is sharing the same moment, it connects everyone together. This is the reason why sports are broadcast live. Watching a rebroadcast of the Superbowl is just not the same experience.
Improv comedy takes this experience to the limit. Normal theater is something like a “rebroadcast” of an initial inspiration. The success of the production depends on recreating the moment that inspired the piece. Doing this takes an enormous amount of effort and skill for the performers and nobody can do it perfectly. The greatest actors in the world cannot reliably recreate the kind of spontaneous behavior we are all capable of in our everyday lives. You can always tell the difference between a speech given extemporaneously and read verbatim. When you make something up on the spot, you have perfect delivery almost by definition. You did it exactly how you would do it, and that’s indistinguishable from perfect acting.
This affects the content of the shows too. The fact that everything is made up on stage does limit the complexity of the content that can be performed to whatever the group can store in its head during the performance. You won’t see a perfect three act play with a twisting plot and deeply written characters. But interestingly, I’ve found there is just as much variety in improv as there is in normal theater and maybe more. Without an editing process, ideas can be explored that would normally be cut off early. An off-the-cuff remark may become a full blown bit or recurring gag. Shows are unique because they only exist in that moment. The shows are sort of like what friends do when they joke around, which has an infinite possibility for entertainment.
When you watch an improv show, it’s more than just theater. You are watching something truthful actually happen on stage. You may not get to see a complex plot, costumes, or special effects but those things aren’t really the point of the experience anyway.
When you think of audience participation, you might think of the performers inviting some people on stage to do a dance or sit in a chair or something. That sort of thing happens in improv too. One improviser named Mark Kendal is pretty famous for this. One time he led the whole audience out of the auditorium to go interrupt another show just for fun. But there’s a deeper level of audience participation that is achieved during these shows.
Improv is an extremely simple artform. There aren’t any sets, costumes or props. The simpler an artform is, the more of yourself you are required to bring to it as an audience member. In the audience, you have to bring all of these things to life with your imagination during the performance. This is a really cool thing because it allows for lots of creativity. If the scene takes place in a police station, everyone in the audience will have something different in mind. When scenes get crazy, it’s a lot of fun to puzzle over the insanity of the circumstances.
When worlds can be created and destroyed in the imagination of the audience so quickly, a level of abstraction can be achieved that’s very difficult for other dramatic arts to get to. Scenes can take place in dreams or fantasy settings where the audience is given very little to go on. The performers rely on physical comedy and clowning techniques to create a funny “stage picture” to explore. In one show I went to, a performer announced that the stage was now “the dice world” and the rest of them rolled around the stage like dice. In another scene, the performers formed two lines that spoke to each other like they were two people in a serious conversation which gave it a feeling of generality, but the concept had just enough of the element of the ridiculous to be comedic. These ideas were very successful with the audience, but if these concepts were fleshed out and put in a film production, it would completely fail. This sort of theater is only possible when it is within the imagination of the audience.
Another great thing about improv comedy is that the people who are in the shows are just people from your community. They aren’t big shot millionaires who live in California. They’re just the local theater people and they’re hanging out in the lobby and you can have a drink with them after the show. When I first started going to improv theaters, this was really shocking to me because I was so used to having a lot of distance between myself and the people on TV. Knowing something about the performers in a show makes me appreciate the performance a lot more because I can relate to it on a more personal level. And the theater is also just a really fun place to hang out. The people I’ve met in the improv community are some of the nicest and most supportive people I’ve encountered in my life, and I like to think some of that energy is rubbing off on me by spending time there.
What’s more is that the audience is local. The performers and the audience have so many shared experiences living in the city of Atlanta that a lot of things become accessible that would be impossible to do in a national act. When I go to the improv theater, I get to see scenes about my own local culture and the things that affect the people of the city I live in.
Improv theater just feels like a bunch of people from the neighborhood getting together, expressing themselves, and working through their issues. This is the proper role of art in society and something that’s completely lost in other media like film and television. There’s just something about the whole thing that’s really magical to me.