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Bad Improv is Bad For Improv
Improv is suffering.
Not just in Utah, of course, but all over the world. An epidemic lack of respect, money, talent, and professionalism is facing us all. Improvisational theatre is suffering. Improvisers are suffering.
And, all this suffering is due, in large part, to the work of directors like me.
I started directing improvisational theatre in 1996 when I founded Knock Your Socks Off Improvised Productions (then, "KYSOff Comedy Improv"... but we'll get to that in time). For quite a while, KYSOff was just one large troupe. Nowadays, thankfully, it's more of a production company with several smaller projects. I still love all the old KYSOffers, though. We had some great times and some great shows. There was a ton of talent and potential in the group of actors that made up KYSOff's Performance Troupe. However, I have to say that all throughout the last nine and a half years, I've made a buttload of mistakes. Some were minor, some major. But, they all made our beloved art form suffer. These mistakes contributed to the mediocrity (or even absolute failure) of many performances. These mistakes have injured the reputation of improvisational theatre as a viable art form. These mistakes have cost money. And, above all else, these mistakes have added to the rallying cry, adopted by improv's many critics, that "improv sucks!"
Google the words "improv sucks" and you'll see what I mean. Several individuals have already chimed in on this topic, citing what improv's problems are and (hopefully) how to solve them. Now, as an act of atonement, I thought I would take a stab at it and share some of the lessons I've learned from a few of my many, many mistakes. And thus, this column is born. I'll be doing my best to publish it biweekly, on the first and third Mondays of every month. In it, I will be discussing the act of directing and producing improv (both short and long form), and how to (hopefully) make the whole debacle that is a local improv community better, stronger, and less painful. Sound arrogant enough for ya'?
Well, keep in mind that I'm not saying I'm an important figure in the worldwide improv community, or that I have some incredibly unique insight. In fact, it's the opposite. I'm a small time improv director, working in a small market, trying to figure things out on his own without moving to Chicago. There are countless other improv directors out there in this same situation, and I have a feeling that many of them are making the same mistakes I've made. Heck, if they weren't, improv wouldn't suck so much! So, while I'm far from perfect, and I'll continue to screw up far into the future, hopefully I can help you avoid some of the disasters I've gone through. Even more importantly, maybe we can both help improv avoid disaster at the hands of jerks like us. After all, Bad improv is bad for improv!
That said, I'll be starting with my ten favorite lessons I've learned the hard way.
LESSON #1: Better Yourself!
Okay, this may seem like an easy one to start with. But, you may be surprised with how many improvisers out there haven't even taken the time to read Truth in Comedy. In fact, let's start with the books. There are several online lists of good improv books to read. This site has one, and yesand.com has one, too. I recommend reading as many of these books as possible, even if it's just to see how much you disagree with them. For those truly short on time, though, here is what I consider to be the absolute bare minimum for any improviser:
Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation by Charna Halpern, et al. This is the first definitive book on long form improvisational theatre. In fact, it was written before the term "long form" even existed. As such, it is dramatically out of date. In this book you will find the now infamous "Rules of Improv," including the motto of the international improv community, "Yes, And...." It is my belief, of course, that these rules are frequently misapplied and misinterpreted. However, if you're going to apply or interpret them at all, you need to read this book. (That includes you, too, short form improvisers! And, don't just flip through it, looking for new games. No good can come from that.) Best of all, you can read it all in one sitting. So, don't be a lazy slob. Read the d*mn book!
Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier. If Truth in Comedy is the established thesis of improv, then this book is the antithesis with which all modern improv theory can be synthesized. I have seen a definite increase in the quality of improv performances across the country this past year, and I believe the long awaited publication of this book is responsible. Again, this book is useful for all improvisers, regardless of format preference. It deals with the basic improv scene, and contains an appendix chock full of useful exercises for improvisers to use on their own. Napier even cleans up his legendary dirty mouth, just so that all you prudes out there can read it, too! Read the f*cking book, already!
The Art of Chicago Improv: Short Cuts to Long-Form Improvisation by Rob Kozlowski. Consider this book the sequel to Truth in Comedy. Mainly a history book of long form, it is absolutely required reading for all long form improvisers due to all of the "short cuts" mentioned in the title. Short form artists may not find it as useful. However, no one is off the hook for the next one.
Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. Er... at least, no one is off the hook for the first three chapters of this one. The last chapter on masks is... bizarre... to say the least. Brilliant... but bizarre. The rest of it, though, has some wonderful theory as well as practical advice for improvisers of every kind. Plus, if you read it you won't sound like an idiot when people mention Johnstone, Theatresports, or status. Don't sound like an idiot. Read it.
Those are the big four. Of course, there are others. Improv teachers would be well advised to read Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin. (Just make sure you actually read the introduction, rather than flipping through it looking for new games!!!! The exercises are pretty pointless without her theoretical framework from the intro.) Musical improvisers now have two great books by Michael Pollock to read. And, Asaf Ronen, founder of yesand.com, will be coming out with a new book on directing improv soon, as well. Read these books! Read, read, READ!
"It is not enough to just better yourself. You must demand that others better themselves, as well."
It's bad enough that there are improvisers out there who haven't read these books, yet. What is absolutely sickening, though, is that there are improv directors who haven't! If you haven't read these books, then you have no business directing or teaching improv! If you haven't read them, then you haven't educated yourself. You have naively assumed that you have nothing to learn from the work of those who came before you. You've assumed that this work is easy, simple, and just comes naturally with a little practice. Not reading these books is an act of the utmost arrogance (even more arrogant than me saying I'm better than you because I have read them). But, worst of all, if you haven't read them, then you are encouraging other people to not read them.
And, in a way, that's where I made my mistake. Now, don't get me wrong, I've read a ton of books. In 1996, when I decided to start a troupe, the first thing I did was clean out the Marriott Library's supply of improv books. I read all summer long. And, as the years went by, I read more, and I went back and reread. I've taken workshops, too. I've traveled the continent and taken every workshop I possibly could. I'm still reading, and I'm still taking classes. But, it wasn't enough. I was still teaching, directing, and working with other people who were not taking their education into their own hands.
It is not enough to just better yourself. You must demand that others better themselves, as well. When I was directing at Trolley Square Live, I easily could have bought copies of these books for everyone. I could have demanded more from my students. I could have impressed upon them the importance of their education more than I did. But, I didn't. And, now the local improv community is paying the price.
So please, let's fix this problem together. Even if improv is just a hobby for you, at some point you're gonna end up working with someone who is staking their livelihood on this artform. Do it for them. Educate yourself. Better yourself. And, don't work with people who refuse to do so. I don't care how good you are. Stagnant improv is bad improv. Bad improv is bad for improv. If you don't feel the need to better yourself, then you have no right to perform in a professional theatre.
Here are some other ways to better yourself, above and beyond reading and taking classes:
- Stay up to date in the improv community. As I said before, don't sound like an idiot when you talk to people about improv. It embarrasses us all. Check in with the message boards every now and then. Do some google searches on the following names: Del Close, Charna Halpern, Viola Spolin, Mick Napier, Joe Bill, Mark Sutton, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, Asaf Ronen, Armando Diaz, Noah Gregoropoulos, Martin DeMaat, Avery Schreiber, Andy Eninger, Stacey Hallal, TJ Jagadowski, Bob Dassie, Peter Gwinn, Jason Chin, Jill Bernard, Zach Ward, Shaun Landry, Upright Citizens Brigade, ImprovOlympic, Theatresports, Annoyance Theatre, Brave New Workshop, Neutrino Project, Bassprov, and Pimprov. Then, do some google searches on names you see associated with these names.
- Stay up to date in the world. A former Groundling, Dann Fink, drilled this lesson into me. Read/watch/listen to Time, Newsweek, newspapers, local news broadcasts, The Daily Show, VH1's Best Week Ever, late night talk shows, and morning radio shows as much as possible. Follow both politics and pop culture. Watch the most popular tv shows, movies, and music videos. Read the Harry Potter series. Play Grand Theft Auto. If it's popular, know what it is. If it happened, have an opinion about it.
- Train as a performer, not just as an improviser. These last three are also mentioned in Napier's book. Take acting, dancing, and singing classes. Try your hand at stand-up comedy. Audition for a play. A dramatic play. Write a sketch. And, of course, don't even get me started on all the books out there on non-improvisational theatre!
- Expand your frame of reference by studying academic and vocational subjects. Read a non-fiction book. Take a free online math tutorial. Take a continuing education class. Go camping.
- Get physically fit. Exercise. Stop smoking. Healthy people are just as funny as fat people. Don't argue. Just f*cking do it.
Well, that's enough for one day. Doesn't it feel better that you now have one less mistake that you need to make? I sure feel better. But then, I love telling people what to do. Next time I'll be talking about the importance of being honest -- but not on stage. So, until then, remember: if you're gonna disagree with me, fine. Can you just go do it somewhere else? People here are trying to make improv look good.
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