May 28, 2009

Improv – the rules of engagement

John Smythe      posted 25 May 2009, 05:36 PM

This thread has been transferred from the Comments below John Smythe’s review of WellingSIN City

Penny Ashton – posted 11 May 2009, 11:48 PM / edited 12 May 2009, 12:00 AM

In long form improv on a genre theme certain character archetypes and settings do indeed recur. Eg in Austen Found there is often a woman of a certain age looking to marry, or a silly sister or an overbearing mother and we rehearse these a LOT. The dialogue, plot and character stories are however entirely improvised around the rules of the genre according to the information we get.   It’s how you make the genre authentic and the audience responds to what it knows and the delights come from the parody of these archetypes.

It’s essentially a compliment to query the improv because they must be so good as to think it was rehearsed.  That’s a common question too; “So how much of that was improvised?” when it all is.

I don’t usually jump onto comment on here BUT I think it’s a valid thing to point out to our audiences that there is a lot of skill and rehearsal behind improv, but all the action is truly made up on the spot.

John Smythe – posted 12 May 2009, 08:12 AM / edited 12 May 2009, 10:12 AM

Thanks for that clarification, Penny. I’ve always felt a key component of live improv is that the audience is let in on the game. It is the spontaneous invention based on offers supplied by the audience, the interweaving, the referring back to pick up elements established early and the bringing it all together in a conclusion/ resolution/ dénouement that amazes, impresses and entertains us.

To have archetypes on standby – characters in search of a story – is fine. I’m just wondering how much of that could/ should be revealed in the introduction.

Tommy Honey – posted 12 May 2009, 09:34 AM

My best friend at primary school was Noel McManaway.  His father was a fisherman.  When we had fish and chips at their place, Mr McManaway would lean over, take your fish, pull it apart with his fingers and pronounce” hmph, snapper”, to the protestations of his wife.  John, your obsession with how improvisers improvise and devisers devise is ruining our fish and chips.  Just sit back and squeeze your lemon…

John Smythe – posted 12 May 2009, 09:51 AM

If Mr McManaway was a fish ‘n chip critic and didn’t identify the components of a package he was reviewing he would not be doing his job. If I leaned over to another audience member as we were watching a show and started to dissect and analyse it, I should be booted out and banned for life. That, I think, is the apposite comparison, Tommy.

derek flores – posted 12 May 2009, 11:06 AM / edited 12 May 2009, 12:00 AM

after 20 years as an improviser, in countless festivals and various tournaments all over the world, i have grown tired yet accepting of reviewers who can not seem to accept that if a show is labled “improvised” and then is funny, tight, and with narrative that somehow there must be a controlled aspect to it;  like it is a surprise that an improvised show can actually contain all the aspect of a written show.

we rehearse to create a format not to create scenarios to use and re use.  we use archetypes but do not plug in characters in pre determined scenes.  we improvise. all made up on the spot.

john i understand your point of wanting to let the audience in on the process, and it is one i grapple with, but world wide there is an improv movement to use suggestions only as a stepping stone and not as the rule to ‘inspire’ scenes.  i, and many other NZ groups, are working here and abroad to bring a respectability to improv as a viable form of theatre, and to call into question its ‘made-up-ness’ hurts.  yes it is a compliment in a way, “so good that it seems written”, but there is some written stuff i don’t want to be linked to.

i am an improviser.  everything i do within an improvised show is 100% made up on the spot without any forethought or pre determination.  this is my career and my passion.

Jenny Wynter – posted 16 May 2009, 03:32 PM

All the more reason for audience members to make repeat trips to see the same improv show multiple times! Seems to me that’s one way to make everybody happy. 🙂

Pete Lead – posted 19 May 2009, 12:12 PM

I understand the improviser’s desire to make the process transparent for audiences; to prove to the audience that what they are doing is improvised. I imagine that some audiences want to see that – want to be in on the process because they find it funnier or more impressive that way. It happens, and that is one type of improv show. It can go horribly wrong, however, as improvisers put more and more unnecessary elements in the show just to prove they are making it up.

It sounds like WIT were going for a different type of show this time; a show that is good on its own merits, without relying on the schtick of “it’s improvised” or “let’s ask the audience to throw something in to make it more difficult.”

Reviewing an improv show must be hard. As an improviser I have read many reviews of improv shows that just don’t get the point. Some of these were written by improvisers, who couldn’t see past the particular format of the show, or a particular moment in the show that they would have done differently. Then again, I’ve read many reviews of scripted shows that equally don’t get the point.

Derek mentioned passion, and I think that’s what it’s all about. Improvisers improvise not to impress (or fool) an audience, but because they love improvising.

John Smythe – posted 19 May 2009, 12:35 PM

What are the terms of engagement? That is the key question for me. Audience expectations at a production of a scripted play which has been fully developed, designed and rehearsed are completely different from expectations of, or responses to, an improv production. It is fundamental, then, that the audience needs to know what kind of show they have come to.

Improvisers are very clear (I hope) that when a long form improv goes very well on the night, that is not their cue to transcribe it into a script and put it into full rehearsed production. It wouldn’t work, because the terms of engagement have changed.

Mac – posted 24 May 2009, 12:18 PM

In many ways for me, it matters not whether the show is “really” improvised or not – what matters is whether the actors on stage can invite me into the story they are telling and hold my attention there.

It’s whether the characters are 3D and interesting, whether the actors believe what they are doing onstage at any given moment.

Improv gives performers a chance to be 100% in the moment, because they literally do not know what is going to happen next. If they are convinced by what they are doing, then I will be too.

This principle applies for me whenever I attend theatre – whether the show is scripted or not.

Whilst it might be briefly funny to see an actor get multiple complicated offers from an audience and jump about like a monkey onstage, I feel it takes the focus away from the possibilities of story and character and into quick laughs. Whilst the audience might have a giggle, do they leave changed by this theatrical experience?

When I see a show, I want to feel it. That’s what matters to me.

nik smythe – posted 24 May 2009, 01:02 PM / edited 24 May 2009, 12:00 AM

In my review of Mark Watson I mentioned his spontaneous riff on the water bottle commented on by the audience.  It was so ingenious I was already suspicious, and this was confirmed reading Scott Kara’s review from a different night.  He faked the improv, which sure it takes a modicum of magic away, but i quite simply do not mind because he obeyed the singular golden rule (be funny).  Anyone belly laughing at any routine like I did at that and then criticises the authenticity of the work needs to look at what they regard as important in comedy, and perhaps life.

As far as improv shows go, the level of slickness and skill in Pulp William made it evident they had rehearsed a range of possible scenarios based on the conventions of Shakespeare and Tarantino, and it’s even possible various routines were to some degree repeated from earlier evenings.  Again, it was generally hilarious and probably much more so than totally cold improv would have produced – all very well in theatresports but liable to turn to custard in a single 1 1/2 hr thematically driven story.

Often one thinks  ‘that would make a great ‘real’ show!’ of appealing improvisations but as John points out, this changes the terms of engagement and as such would require more substance for an audience to embrace it.

Dane Giraud – posted 24 May 2009, 08:13 PM / edited 24 May 2009, 08:18 PM

I have no problem with people faking improvs – if it makes a piece funny, and THAT to me should be all the audience is concerned with anyhow. Many of the great comic performers through time, like say the Benny Hill and the John Inman’s of the world would carefully rehearse, for instance, the moment in the show when the supporting actors (Bob Todd and co.) would crack up and not to able to carry on with the routine due to the wit of the lead performer… We, as audience members, see it and think ‘wow, what a cut up it would be to work with that guy!’ but at the end of the day it was just schtick!

Let’s be frank now, improv and theatre sports sucks out loud 99% of the time. So much so that it should really be banned and its repeat offenders shot and thrown in mass graves. In light of such, a little bit of fore-thought, surely, should be welcomed!

derek flores – posted 25 May 2009, 11:27 AM

perhaps i am being a bit precious when it comes to improv, as it has been my career since i was a teenager and it has seen me able to travel around the world and perform in various festivals, but when any of my shows are advertised as improvsied they are just that; improvised.  fully created on the spot.  no scenarios or bits rehearsed or choreographed.

the format may be run through to fully service the improv, but the stories themselves are unique to each and every night.  some themes may reoccur especially if a genre long form is being played, but the dialouge and actions are as new to the performers as to the audience.  and yes, to a certain extent the bottom line is if the show is funny-especially when included in a comedy festival, but improv can do so much more.

improv to me represents the joyful acceptance of failure.  this is what keith johnstone bred into me as neophyte improviser over 20 years ago and it is what still drives my work.  the audience is in on “it”, that they are privy to moments that will not, can not,  ever be reproduced again.  we don’t need to get audience suggestions for every scene to prove we are making it up.  when a company gets it right the audience knows its made up, the improvisers know its made up-everyone is buzzing on the energy when it all clicks.  and that’s what keeps me coming back.

and lets face it 90% of people named Dane are dicks with their broad sweeping generalisations of a genre of comedy theatre.  just because you may not like the show doesn’t mean you should write off all of improv.

Dane Giraud – posted 25 May 2009, 11:54 AM

Oh, dear. Coming at me with such a quaility quip really drove my point home!

John Smythe – posted 25 May 2009, 01:47 PM / edited 25 May 2009, 01:59 PM

First, congratulations to Derek Flores for winning the Spirit of the Festival Wellington award – very well deserved as anyone who caught a show at the Fringe Bar will attest. Second, thank you Derek for your passion for improv, and your willingness to articulate its essence from time to time when the need arises.

Personally I think the ‘trust factor’ is key to our enjoyment of improv-based shows. As for ‘corpsing’ – I have a low tolerance for that at the best of times and the slighted whiff that it was contrived as an ego-boosting ‘star aggrandisement’ device (as suggested by Dane) would be a total turn-off for me.

Corpsing in a scripted and rehearsed show is pretty well unforgiveable. In an improv show, however, it is probably inevitable. When it happens, what interests me most is how quickly the actors can get over it and return to the illusion of ‘being’ their character in the magically evolving scenario.

niall jarman – posted 25 May 2009, 02:18 PM / edited 25 May 2009, 02:20 PM

dane, not so much with your point being proved, there.  i think you’ll find that derek left the door swinging open, but it was you who happily smacked yourself in the face with that crowing comment.  now that’s irony.  do you also go to the latest craptastic action blockbuster film and declare that therefore, cinema’s a waste of time?  maybe you do?  magic.

john – while you generously thank derek for his contribution, what of the substance?  what he’s talking about – to use your own terminology, the “terms of engagement”, have never involved the particular buy-in that you demand.  surely you think that work sets up its own terms of engagement and critical response tease out these differences, right?  so plays in verse don’t get attacked for their lack of naturalism, even while (to rework a phrasing you’re fond of), they quite happily distil something artistically authentic in their own terms.  jazz musicians may or may not respond to what an audience is “giving them”, and there’s often structures, patterns, but jazz critics would be pretty nonplussed by this whole problem with making the improvisation “transparent”.  i think it’s as simple as derek says: audiences feel included and regard it as transparent, and then it reads as unfolding right then and there.  if you decide it’s not transparent, then you might still enjoy the show, but i can’t really see how the process of setting up the show will simply change your mind. 

this discussion is especially weird because new zealand has great impro audiences, is disproportionately gifted with world class improvising performers, and i can tell you that their work stands up very well indeed internationally.

Dane Giraud       posted 25 May 2009, 05:43 PM


What’s so bad about rehearsed corpsing? All the greats have done it, I’m sure. I think it’s endearing, and is less about star-aggrandisement than satisfying a need in the audience… The illusion the comedian wants to create is that they ARE that funny character even off stage. It is about completing a fantasy and if I can relate it to the thread more, what is wrong with some pre-planning along these lines, if it is going to complete an experience for the audience?

And, guys, lighten up. You know yourselves that when improv shows go down, they go down large. Ironically, that’s what makes the good performers so good.

John Smythe      posted 25 May 2009, 05:51 PM

I am not as stuck on a position as you seem to think, Niall. My original question involved a “wondering” followed by a “maybe”, couched to provoke the sort of discussion that has ensued.

Derek and I seem agreed that knowing / trusting the unfolding scenarios are being improvised before our very eyes is fundamental to the rules of engagement. It is clearly a judgement call as to how that trust is achieved and maintained.

Dane, I may be alone on this, but the only thing most corpsing performers (who do not immediately strive to get back on track) prove to me is that they lack discipline and are probably ego-centric, especially if your theory (that they rehearse it) is correct.  It think it was Frankie Howerd who put me off that whole syndrome.  Call me old fashioned but I prefer performers who see themselves as the means, not the end.

Dane Giraud       posted 25 May 2009, 08:49 PM

Fair enough, John. I think it has its own charm, as daggy as it sounds. Remember these old comics were real pro’s who knew what worked. If you can recall, these rehearsed corpses brought the house down and, at the end of the day, there were in the laughs business.

Thomas LaHood                posted 28 May 2009, 10:40 AM

The ONLY performer whose corpsing is integral to the success of his comedy that I can think of is the immortal Tommy Cooper.  What a creature.

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