We have all been there; an out of town troupe is performing in your local theatre or you’re visiting an improv theatre in another city, and a group takes the stage that resets your improv excitement barometer causing you to say, “I want to do that”. For many, what ensues is a short lived adventure is trying to replicate the magic that you saw on stage. But it fizzles out as the magic isn’t there. Until the next shiny thing comes along. Rarely do we ask why.
Improv is a deceptive art form that allows for laziness, procrastination and ego to fester. Outside of cities where improv standards are held high and performing opportunities are limited, many performers have a casual relationship with improv. People commit to the art form at varying levels. That’s one of the pros of improv, the accessibility. However, if we are seeking to enhance our performing skills and create audiences outside of our improv bubble, we need to set higher expectations of ourselves.
There are improvisers who will train with one teacher or at one school and take the occasional extra curricular workshop and never feel a desire to expand beyond that. (Think of it like a guitarist learning and listening to only one guitarist.) That of course is fine for many who have a casual relationship with improv or just want to grow basic skills but if we have desires to grow and develop our own performing skills and that of our troupe, we need to go above and beyond that. Our limitations here are self defined. There was a point in my improv journey where I believed I had no interest in musical improv, I can’t sing and at the time I felt that dancing on stage would make me look silly. To reaffirm this self imposed belief about musical improv, I took a class in musical improv. The very thing I believed couldn’t do anything for me and that I had no interest in actually did 2 things. First off, I realised I loved musical improv. Second, and most unexpectedly, it taught me so much about scenes of a non musical nature. So while nowadays I only occasionally get to dabble in musical improv, the impact of taking that class and the many afterward is far reaching.
Now that we are aware of how we can limit our learning and development journey, let’s talk about something that often becomes a improviser’s fixation – formats.
Lets talk about Formats
There is a time in every improviser’s journey where we obsess with format. Its an unhealthy obsession. To some format is the holy grail of improv. As if out there somewhere, there is a secret format waiting to be unlocked that is going to revolutionise their talents and change improv forever. But just like the religious holy grail, its nothing more than a myth. External factors like format don’t make us shine, its our own abilities to perform that create the shiny factor. Which means we already possess it, or have the capability of unlocking it.
Format means nothing in improv if the scene work is weak. Format is more like a picture frame that houses the beauty of the art work. However the path to learning a new format is far easier than the path to good scene work. What’s the difference? Hard work. As Craig Cackowski once said, “The difference between good and bad improvisers is about 6,000 scenes”.
But if this is so obvious, then why is there is still that obsession with format? The answer to this will vary from community to community, but arguably its mostly because there isn’t someone holding standards to task leaving self-regulation to dominate. Cities that have established theatres and hold auditions will by default be setting standards and raising the bar, requiring improvisers to work harder to get on prime time troupes and shows.
But fret not, there are some things we can do start to make positive changes in our journey. It’s not a quick fix but it will bring greater satisfaction to us as we continue to grow.
• Commit to an attitude of needing to work harder
• Take classes and workshops with as many teachers as you can. (I’ve personally taken classes with over 50 improv teachers be they workshops, courses or programmes since I started my improv journey. I still take classes and workshops whenever I can.)
• Get a coach If you’re in a troupe. There are many options for coaching, from local performers to online coaches. There’s no excuse. (I’ve spoken about coaching in a previous blog post)
• Watch as much improv as you can. Not just the local stuff either. Many international groups and festivals put their shows online, seek it out!
• Rehearse (or practice if that’s what you prefer to call it).
• Stop putting too much emphasis on formats. Formats do not make your improv shows better. The general public doesn’t know what formats are, and doesn’t care either. Given a choice between a workshop on format or scene work, scene work should always triumph.
• Experiment and be humble throughout. Improv is a never ending journey with highs and lows. Enjoy the highs, learn from the lows and take time out when you need to.
Embrace what makes you different and be authentic
When Susan Messing first visited Dublin a few years ago she talked to the community about the rich Irish culture and how we had an opportunity to bring that to the stage. But her words in Dublin are unique for Ireland. Finding your improv troupe’s personality can have a huge impact on differentiating your troupe from others. European groups like France’s La Carpe Haute, Italy’s Teatribú and Ireland’s The Sky Babies (to name but a few) all demonstrate a unique personality of their group that highlights their culture and backgrounds. While this in itself doesn’t make a show fantastic, finding that authenticity among the troupe brings something special to performances. Coupled with the hard work those groups already put in, and you can see why they headline festivals around Europe.
Make the Change Today
Take a look at all the workshops, teachers and festivals you have access to. Start making a plan. Talk to your troupe about getting a coach. If you want to do a particular format, then do that format over and over until you have nailed it and the scene work is strong. Be the change you want to see!