When Ted Flicker saw the Chicago Compass Players in 1955, he said, “I knew improvisation had great potential, but I saw that they were doing it wrong.”
He went on to open the St Louis Compass Theatre, ushering in a louder, faster, funnier style of improv. But when Chicago founder David Shepherd saw it, he said, “You’ve turned it into entertainment. You’ve ruined my dream.”
Now, few improvisers would say they’re against entertainment. But the debate persists. Is improvisation art? Comedy? Unscripted theatre? Is there a right or wrong way to do it?
It’s like religion. Some people worship Del Close, others revere Keith Johnstone, while others are staunch followers of iO, UCB, Annoyance, or The Groundlings. Which is cool. The problem is when you try to convince someone their religion is wrong.
And it’s not just theatres that have differences of opinion. Even tight-knit teams or instructors at the same school sometimes disagree.
My friend Alanna Cavanagh says “Creative people are brats.” When you tell them “No,” they rebel.
These days you can see fast, game-focused improv, slow comedy, musical improv, improvised Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mamet, ComedySportz, and even a mix of short and long form in the same show. Different theatres use different techniques, but the end result is the same: laughter and satisfied audiences.
But isn’t there “good” and “bad” improv? Sure. You can see a crappy improv set any night, even with seasoned performers on stage. Most likely it’s because the players weren’t committed or connected, not because they weren’t following rules.
TJ and Dave are at the pinnacle of this art form, and they’ve said that you don’t “master” improv. Great improvisers – great artists – are constantly learning. How then, can there be one right way to improvise?
We asked some people who consistently knock it out of the park to weigh in with their thoughts.
If I try to think of people who thrill me, I can’t think of one who I would describe as always having done something correctly. “Oh boy, were they right!” doesn’t even sound good.
But I have been thrilled by both improvisers and other types of performers who I would describe as unique, unafraid, generous, interesting, fun, truly themselves, or free. All of those states are very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, if there is a chunk of your mind in some deliberation over whether you’re doing it right. What is right is what your partner needs, your scene needs, your show needs. Do it right that way.
Since improv is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.
We said in Improvising Better that there is only one way to improvise: yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.
Rachael Mason and I did a four-parter for Second City called I’Mprovising RIGHT, which totally sends up those who insist that there is a right way to get there – which is so ridiculous. To me that’s like having sex right. Isn’t the job to get off?
Are there suggestions that I could offer as a teacher to support you in getting off sooner, and your partner as well? Sure, but the ultimate responsibility is to have more fun than anyone else, and if your partner’s having fun that’s even more of a turn-on in terms of this work.
And then you win and the audience was in the moment with you, so they got off, too.
The audience, guaranteed, will never look at your show and say, “Hmmm. They are doing correct improv.”
However, they will see the insecure, overlooked, overbearing, condescending, judgemental players and immediately disconnect from the scene because they are either worried about the performer, or hate them for their in-scene judgement.
The Improv Police needs a hobby: like getting off more onstage, and stop worrying about the “rightness” of it all.
I’ve heard all the rules. I play major nice with my friends. Our assumption is we are respectful to each other in terms of basic agreement, et al. That said, I’m going to get off and it is contagious, and I don’t overthink it, because ultimately it’s simply getting to play like kids but with grown-up sensibilities, and if we’re lucky, maybe a piano player. The end.
We turned this shit into rocket science/brain surgery/physics/chess because we wanted to give it so much integrity to match the joy we felt when we did it. But this does not need to be as complicated as many have made it.
As a matter of fact, I am quite sure that if I can be a fucking improviser, anyone can, because I just didn’t give up.
There are so many schools of thought and all of them I have worked for or with, and they’re all only opinions.
And they’re all great.
And it might infuriate you because one day you’ll be given a note, and the next day you will receive the equal and opposite note from someone else, and that will drive you crazy.
But you’re an improviser and are malleable, and ultimately you’ll be the kind of improviser you want to be, doing the kind of work you want to do with who you want to be doing it with. But you will be able to do everything, and hopefully evolve and not be a tiresome, closed, right-minded little shit.
A quote from my Dad:
“If someone says their way is the only way…run the other way.”
You can’t do improv wrong.
You also can’t do improv right.
You can, however, improvise.
Doing something right or wrong denotes a failure at achieving a final goal, and there’s no final goal in improv. There’s no princess to be saved or sunset to ride off into if we get to third beats in a Harold or defeat The Hepatitis B-Boys (last week’s shortform champs).
Improv is a process. It’s about the current moment, and this moment now, and oops-ya-just-missed-it-but-don’t-worry-it-was-behind-your-ear-the-whole-time moment right here.
So my question is thus: What fuels you through each moment? What’s pushing you off the back line? What’s truly driving you into the unknown?
What would happen if you tried Joy on for size? Not the kind of joy you get when meeting a puppy, but the Joy and excitement of tapping into your true potential. To be driven by the pleasure of exposing your love and your pain. Show us your laughter and show us your tears.
Don’t be right and don’t be wrong. Just be You.
Anyways, that’s the only way to improvise.
(please don’t run away)
“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” ― Walt Whitman (not my Dad)
Whatever works for me, works for me. Whatever works for you, works for you. I will be vocal in expressing what works for me. Please remember that my expression of what works for me has absolutely nothing to do with how much you should enjoy your approach to improv.
If asked what reaction I’d like you to have when you hear my enthusiastic rantings of what works for me, I’d tell you: “However you want to react, react that way. It’s how you feel. Knock yourself out.” If you’d like to argue how what works for you is the correct way, well, go right ahead. Please express your well-thought out opinion. The more you talk about it, the more you voice it, the more you understand what works for you and how best you can express that. Please don’t expect any reaction from me outside of, “Cool. Go knock yourself out.”
I get onto the stage, I look at my partner, I react in that moment. That works for me. Should I play with you and you don’t play the way that I play and I don’t care much about how our show went, please know that it’s very likely we’ll not play together anytime soon for I didn’t have fun, rather I had work. I’m not here to work. I’m here to play. Your play is your play and my play is my play. I’ll express my joy at having had the chance to play with you for I am grateful for that. I’m grateful for all chance to play.
Most likely I’ll walk off that stage and think, “How cool. We both have our own style. That’s what art’s all about.” I’ll then move on and knock myself out.
If we’re going to use religion as a metaphor, then I guess I would be a Unitarian/Universalist. I think the consideration of right or wrong within improvisation depends on the context in which you’re doing it.
I taught Harold for the first time in a couple of years at summer intensive last year at iO, and coming back to it after not teaching Harold for probably three or four years was really interesting, because of the perception that the kids in their 20s have now. Which is more rigid, which is more rooted in this proposition of what’s right or what’s wrong.
I don’t believe in my heart, in my artistic heart, that it does the players any good while they’re doing Harold to think about what’s right or what’s wrong.
I don’t remember Del talking about a right Harold or a wrong Harold. He just spoke of Harold and not knowing what Harold was going to be until Harold’s here. He DID say things like “Play to the top of your intelligence” (for my money, the most overrated note in improvisation) and “Wear your character like a veil,” which could lead people in the direction of assessing the rightness or wrongness of a move, in that moment.
I think what’s right or what’s wrong really is rooted in an objective point of view to what you’re subjectively engaged in. And if you’re being objective to what you’re subjectively engaged in, then you can’t engage fully to experience what the magic of the piece can be, because you’re in primary conversation with yourself, and you’re in secondary conversation with your cast mates and the piece that’s unfolding.
When I see UCB Harolds, like strict Harolds, it’s like watching nine or twelve analysts on stage, analysing their way through a living writing process, as opposed to, once you advance your way through UCB, you get to what Del claimed Harold was anyway, which is, “Eventually if you give a group of people a suggestion which they theatrically brainstorm on for five minutes, and then that group of people improvises based on that exploration for 20 to 30 minutes, you come to some type of conclusion You’ve done Harold.”
I’ve been with Charna where a perfect, textbook Harold happens on stage at iO, and they hit all the things and connections were made, and you look at it and structurally, that was a Harold. But it was like a zombie Harold because there’s no soul, there’s no heart; the acting within that – that is, the theatrical proposition that we are here to affect each other, and we are going on an emotional journey, or one or more characters in this piece are going on an emotional journey as much as they’re going on an intellectual journey – if that magic doesn’t take place and we don’t see a transformation of spirit within the piece, we don’t really care.
If you’re improvising with people that have gotten to a point where you know that improvisation is just a state of being, and it’s a state of mind, and it’s a state that you’re in, that there’s nothing that can be wrong. There’s nothing that can throw you off. There’s nothing that can violate anything.
There’s the academic exploration of improv, and then there’s the practice of it. And I think in the practice of it, right or wrong are built into some contexts [like short form], that serve the audience. And in the academic pursuit of it, there’s right or wrong that can keep us drinking beer or coffee together.
There’s a fork in the road when you’re improvising that quickly comes up, and it is, ‘Are you pursuing comedy, or are you pursuing truth?’ And the pursuit of comedy, psychologically, is a masculine proposition. The pursuit of truth is a feminine proposition, if masculine equals goal and feminine equals process. And regardless of what you’ve got between your legs, we all have both in us.
But we’re wired, we have synaptic channels in our brain that tend to wire us towards one as our alpha personality and one as our secondary personality. And comedy is goal; the goal is laughter. Truth is a string of moments. And comedy doesn’t exclude truth, and truth doesn’t exclude comedy, but they may come up in different ways.
A big cornerstone of my teaching is, “What’s organic?” And it’s just, “Discoveries are instantaneous decisions we make that are unencumbered by the day-to-day self-judgemental bullshit that we walk around with in life.”
I teach the idea that “Obligation and inspiration are inversely proportional.” And I think people want to see inspiration in theatre, so the fixation on right or wrong puts you into a state of obligation, and you don’t want to be obliged…unless you’re doing short form, where obligation is a color of mindset and behavior paint on the improvisation palette to help you deliver laughter.
But the other piece is, would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?