Improv: A New Religion with the Same Old Faults (Humans)

Originally Posted on // Author: Bobby McCosky

When you first get into improv, it’s very much like finding a new, wonderful religion. Everyone is super nice, supportive. You are learning all these exciting principles, and beliefs that make you feel like part of something bigger than yourself. It can truly be a cathartic experience. But soon, you start hearing rumblings, and attacks on other people within your own belief structure. You start to see that humans have found ways to make what you thought was “Us”, into “Us vs Them Who Are A Lot Like Us”.  In religion it comes as, “Those Lutherans are too obsessed with the Gospel, but we know glory to God is what is most important thing.”, or, “You know those Presbyterians say the Lord’s prayer in a weird way.” In improv you’ll hear, “Those UCB people are too obsessed with Game, but we know relationship is what is most important.”, or, “You know those short form people are a weird breed.”

Ahhh! Can I not escape the drama of life in this thing that is supposed to be my escape from life!?!?!?!?!? The answer is yes, and no. You will have opinions on these divides, and you should, but like religion, the fault comes when you let these minor differences of opinion make you feel superior, or that you have the “right” answer, instead of just what you have found works for you.

And I will not try to act above this. If you tell me you don’t, “Get into the philosophy of improv.”, I will scream (internally), “Than what do you practice! And why!?!?”, or if you tell me you don’t “play game”, but do a premise based opening to generate ideas, I will think, “Suuuuuure. You don’t play game.”

I’m not void of opinions, but I think where improv can go off the rails is when we get too distracted by these details, and forget to focus on the fact that we all want the same things in an improv community: Fellowship, friends, laughter, and seeing great comedy made up on the spot. So, with that, here are some things that we often argue over, but actually completely agree on.

1.) We want to see performers committed to what they are doing.

Whether you are playing game, doing a short form set, or building a slow relationship in a monoscene, we ALL want performers who are committed to what they are doing on stage. We don’t want to see people who are selling out their scene partners, dropping their character, not acting to their best of their ability, being ironically detached, or texting on their phones while on the sideline(yes, I have seen this). Regardless of your preference on style of play, I think you’d rather see a committed short-form set, than an ironically detached Harold.

2.) A rising tide raises all boats.

Even in Kansas City, we can get into the trap of thinking, “I do improv this way, and only this way.”, which, if you want to feel that way, do so, but know that getting outside of your comfort zone is the only way you ever learn new skills. No guitarist ever mastered the blues, and then thought, “I have nothing to learn from jazz.” Well, they may have, and I guarantee they stagnated as an artist. What we can agree on is if Theater A is doing well, Theater B gains from it. If someone got into improv by seeing a show at B, but then found out they dig Theater A more, you both gained a fan of improv in your community, who could go on to spread that joy exponentially. If Theater A is doing a lot better monetarily than Theater B, at least the love of improv in your city is growing, the amount of people who want to learn how to do improv is growing, and maybe one day down the road the popularity of the theaters flip (if the history  of Chicago improv is any example). No matter what, your WHOLE city grows from it, as well as the art form.

3.) What works for me may not work for others.

Language is a fickle thing. I am a super believer in Game style play the way UCB has worded it. It works perfectly for me in a way I understand. Some super talented performers I know, can’t stand it, but I will watch them play, and think they are playing game. They have a way of approaching improv that is different than mine, but ends up with a finished product I absolutely love. So, I have to understand that my way of thinking is just that. My way. Now, this can get a bit more complicated if you’re on the same team and using different terminology, or the same words with different meanings, and you may need to sit down, and ask each other, “What do you mean by relationship?”, “What do you mean you want to focus on character?”, but those things can be worked out(and honestly need to be worked out as a whole. A universal improv language has so many benefits, but that’s a rambling for another day). If you have the hubris to think you have a solution on how to do perfect improv every time, please share it. If not, know that not every great baseball player stands, and holds the bat the same, but you gotta respect what works for them when you see the results.

4.) Short-form is a vital part of this art form.

Now, this is my final, and probably most controversial thing to say we all agree on. The short-form vs long-form discussion is a question like Mary Ann or Ginger? New York style or deep dish? It is a matter of tastes, and what you want from your improv. Personally, I prefer long-form simply because the time constraints of a short-form set make it hard to do my favorite things in improv. Callbacks, characters that develop and get richer over the set, and the occasional slow, patient burn of a monoscene. Does this mean these things can never be done in short-form? Of course not.  I have seen them all, including the monoscene, happen in short-form sets. It’s just statistically less likely in a form where there are these setups to punch lines we have to deliver on in less than five minutes. By no means do I think this makes short-form inferior. Just less likely to satisfy my improv cravings. With that said, there is no arguing that short-form is a vital part of the art form. You’d be hard pressed to find a great improviser who never does it, at least in warm-ups and instruction, and even harder pressed to find someone who thinks it has no value. Short-form for a lot of theaters gets people to see a show that is instantly recognizable and engaging. In fact, I’d say most of the people reading this probably got into long-form through seeing short form improv at a club, or through tv. And if they didn’t, I guarantee, the people that got them into improv did. Short-form is fun, it’s got a wide appeal, and that again, makes more people become familiar with the entire thing that is improv. Short-form is a gateway drug that can become a lot of people’s favorite vice. Don’t deflate it because it’s not what gets you high.

These are my non-religious, religiously held beliefs, on a non-religious religion. Take them with a grain of salt, and let others do the same.