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For the Love of All Humanity
I have a secret: I know how to make an improv show better.
Since I started performing improv a year ago, I have repeatedly said things like, "Last night's show was terrible," or "Last night was the best show we have ever done." It happens all the time. Shows fluctuate from night to night affecting everybody's level of enjoyment.
Improv shows, by their very nature, are unpredictable. That's what makes them so much fun. To ease some of the uncertainty and risk, improv shows can be packaged in a variety of ways. These formats can be broken down into two categories: competitive and non-competitive (or collaborative). So is the secret in the format?
I should tell you up front that I change my mind a lot, but I know one thing is certain:
A competitive format is the best way to present an improv show! Competitive shows are very structured. There are usually two teams and they take turns playing games, with group games intertwined. The audience is part of the show because they get to judge these games based on which team they think does a better job at entertaining them, or making them laugh. The end result is usually a fast paced show with an underlying feeling of playful tension between the teams.
Hahaha, mustard and whipped cream... the audience loves that!
Unfortunately, actors in competitive shows sometimes get caught up in this tension. I used to get upset when the opposing team used one of my teammates to get a laugh. Was this because it made the other team look better? Was I jealous that they didn't use me instead? Do I have a deeper, major psychological problem? It's probably a combination of all three. Laughing Stock's Mike Brown has some words of wisdom for jealous psychos: "If one [actor] looks good, they all look better."
The competitive show can also limit the actors' choice of games. Performers have a tendency to fall back on the comfortable, "high-laugh potential" games, which are often hilarious but full of gimmicks and temptations of relying on what has worked in the past. Hahaha, mustard and whipped cream... the audience loves that! If you're going to do the same thing every time, why call it improv? Where's the challenge there?
Come to think of it, maybe a competitive show isn't the best way.
A collaborative format is a much better way to do a show. Collaborative shows are much less structured. In my experience, these shows have the same amount of actors on stage as competitive shows. The difference is the actors are all playing on the same team, to put it as cheesily as possible (yeah, I made that word up). There are a wider variety of things the actors can do, mixing competitive style games with shorter games and longer games.
However, the collaborative format can distance the audience. Without the active participation in judging, the actors have to work harder to get the audience feeling that they're part of the show. Also, it is very difficult to get all the actors on the same level and working together to make the show better. With the competition show, actors are practically forced to participate. In a collaborative show, an actor can feel obligated to perform. And this should never happen. It's just too hard. Maybe we should all just stop doing improv all together.
Here's the secret: The actors determine the show's success, not the format.
Look... I fooled you. I knew where this was headed the whole time. And maybe you did too. But the bottom line is, the packaging of the show isn't the sole determiner of if it will be a total suckfest or a bundle of glory sticks. Here's the secret: The actors determine the show's success, not the format. The shows that are among the actors' and audience's favorites have something in common. The actors in these shows know their role. They all are aware when they should speak up and shut up. They all let the audience feel that they are in on the jokes. And most importantly, they all have fun.
This is where I start ranting: It should be every actor's goal to make each improv show better. They should pass on their enthusiasm and support to others on stage. If you chose to be an improviser to "get noticed", or to win the audience's favor, I do not want you on stage with me. A person with that mentality, no matter how talented, is sucking energy away from his or her fellow actors and the show. I'd rather be on stage with someone who realizes that when they support another actor on stage, that support will be returned right back to them. If you need to be a park bench, be a park bench. I love getting back to my chair after a scene and sharing that little high five and smile, and hearing, "Ryan, thanks for letting me sit on you. Great park bench!" That's where the fun comes in. Do what is needed and make everyone else look good. If a show is better when one actor looks good, imagine what would happen if it was a group's goal to make EVERY actor look good.
Some may think that because they are in a competitive show, they only have to be on the same level as their teammates. While this approach can "work", the show won't be at its best unless both teams (every actor on stage) are working together. This can be achieved with a simple, "Good job!" Support is infectious. The actors feel it, and the audience sees it. The resulting smiles will make everyone forget what kind of show was just performed. If you start to take it too seriously, listen to Paul Weinberger of Quick Wits: "For the love of all humanity, have fun!"
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