- Information about the theatrical artform known as improv.

Improv style - Improvised theatre vs. improv comedy

I don't know anyone who would say, "Oh movies. I've seen one of those before. I don't like movies ." Yet I've heard that about improv time and time again from strangers I've met while I'm out handing out flyers on the street. Contrary to popular belief, improv is not just one kind of show. Improv is a medium like clay, or painting, or film. It's a way of creating theater, television, or comedy shows, that just so happen to not have scripts. Not having a script gives improvisors an advantage over actors using scripts by not having to pretend that their performance is happening for the first time, because it actually is. As a result, improv automatically tends toward a feeling of aliveness that every scripted show strives (and sometimes struggles) to achieve. But if improv is just a medium and not a particular show, why then do so many people think if you've seen one improvised show, you've seen them all?

It’s our fault. We’ve miseducated them.

Part of the seductive nature of improvisation for actors is the audience reaction to an improv show. When audiences don't know what improv is and are seeing an improvised show for the first time, they think anything performed in front of them is simply amazing. Just the sheer fact that someone can go out on stage in front of an audience without a script and not die, seems like some sort of amazing magic trick. And because most actors are seduced by laughter, most improvisors are tempted to never move past standard improv games or a sketch comedy style of performance. Many see no need , with their shows always getting large laughing responses from the simple fact that their performances are improvised. The positive audience response for the improv actor from early performance on, lends it's self to a stagnation of the art form and a sameness of performance no matter where you see improv around the world. It's one of the few art forms that can feel successful almost right out the gate.

But the progress of improvised theater doesn't need to stop at getting out on stage and not dying. If you can improvise within the rules of a theater game, you can improvise a sketch comedy scene as well. And if you can improvise a sketch comedy scene, you can improvise a typical scene in the style of a play or a movie. And if you could do one scene in the style of a play or a movie, why then could you not improvise a string of scenes from that same story. And if you could perform a few scenes in a row, why can't you then also tell a serious 2-hour story. Why can't we perform the same kinds of stories plays or movies tell in their entirety, just improvised! It's no harder to do a scene in the style of a playwright as it is to perform a theater game in front of an audience. It just takes slightly different acting skills. It's no harder to perform one scene that tells a story for 5 minutes than it is to perform a string of scenes in a row for 2 hours. It just takes slightly different acting skills.

Unfortunately, I've heard the same arguments against my line of reasoning on the direction to push improv, time and time again: audiences won't come to see a show if it isn't promoted as the funniest comedy show ever performed; or, my town or city isn't as culturally accepting as San Francisco is and my audiences don't like to watch things that aren't similar to sketch comedy or stand-up comedy shows. But I ask you this, when your audience isn't at your show, what are the other kinds of entertainment they enjoy? Do they ever watch TV? Do they ever go to the movies? Do they ever read books or go see plays? Who's making more money and drawing more viewers, you or these other forms of entertainment? Improvisors always think that other improv troupes are their competition, but the real competition is the rest of the entertainment industry that is drawing millions and millions of audience members every night (not the 10 to 150 audience members the other improv troupe in town is pulling). No, we should all be getting rich of the skills we bring to the stage as improvisors, but the common perception of our art form is that of cheap low -ball comedy.

The only reason the general public thinks that an improv show is something somewhere between a magic show and stand-up comedy, is because we treat our shows that way ourselves. If improv shows were as popular as movies, I would say fine, but our shows aren't. The way we treat our art form is not doing us any favors. Audiences who don't like the standard comedy improv performance, won’t come see anything any more if it's improvised. We aren't growing in popularity as a movement in relation to other forms of entertainment. And the audiences that do come to our shows think that yelling out things like “Proctologist!” is how we want them to act (and even that they're making our shows better by being disruptive). We've accidentally taught the world what an improv show is, but we've only just begun to push improvised performance into new areas. It's time to stop calling every show “Crazy kooky laugh 'til you vomit funny ” improv, and start marketing them for what they actually are: Shows performed through the medium of improvisation.

Look, everybody likes more than just one kind of food, more than just one kind of music, and more than just one kind of movie. Improv shows should be the same way. When someone says to their friends, "I'm going to go see improv tonight," the next question should be, "Really? What kind of show are they doing?" The world should be full of improvised dramas, musicals, adventures, horrors, comedies, etc. Whether or not as an actor you feel like performing comedy theater games or a 2-hour improvised Shakespeare play, you need to be honest with the general public about what your show actually is.

Every show isn't the funniest show ever, so don't say that it is on your poster. Bending the truth in your marketing is tantamount to suicide for the long term viability for everyone involved with improvisational theater. You need to make people understand what to expect if they came to your show, but not by promising things that may or may not be true. The only reason one would want to call their show "the best comedy show out there" is if they actually thought that there competition was other comedy shows. Well they aren't. People staying at home is. And if you want to move beyond quick jokes, you need to help educate people in your promotional material. Promotional materials aren't ads (even if they happen to be ads you place in a news paper), they're ways to disseminate information to people looking for your show, but didn't know about your performance. You are letting people know you exist and what the experience would feel like if they were sitting in your audience. Don't tell them what to do, tell them what you do! If we want to, we can take back the public perception of what improv can be. If we do that, the next time someone goes and sees an improvised show that they didn't enjoy, they won’t blame the medium, they'll blame the performance. And we'll all benefit form that kind of thinking.


About the improvisor Christian Utzman

Information about improv classes taught by Christian Utzman
Improv style - Improvised theatre vs. improv comedy

How the human brain is able to improvise live theater

How the skills you learn as an improvisor can help your dating life

How to improvise in the style of William Shakespeare
Tips on how to audition for the Un-Scripted Theater Company
Information about the Un-Scripted Theater Company in San Francisco

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