This summer, I’ve been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.
This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:
|You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.|
A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.
B is the middle several practices. Let’s call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It’s following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren’t bombing; we just weren’t getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.
C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don’t know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.
D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I’ve played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables — a different space, an audience, logistics — that can throw you. I thought they wouldn’t throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we’d anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.
We have another show in a few weeks, so I’m excited to see what E looks like.
This post was inspired by Bill Arnett’s classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I’ve found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett might say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it’s hard to notice while you’re on it.
That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.
– Bill Arnett
*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to “two-man show,” even though I’m half the troupe and also a girl.
**No it is not.
Did you know you can tell me what you want to read about, and I’ll try to write accordingly? And my good friend Marty has done just that.
Do you think improv can reach the same psychological/emotional/conceptual depths as more traditional theater?
No and yes.
Can improvisers make situations, settings, and plots as tight and complex as Arthur Miller or Yazmina Reza? No. I’ve never, ever seen a group do this on the fly. So my answer on the “conceptual depth” part is: Probably not.
But the psychological/emotional depth part? Yes. The potential is there. The players have to be in sync, with heightened focus, vulnerability, and amazing amounts of patience. Then, sometimes, you can reach those depths. Not always. But sometimes.
I don’t think that’s different from more traditional theater. Not all produced plays are as successful, artistic, and moving as the greats. Not every script is God of Carnage or August: Osage County. For every Tracy Letts, there are countless Corky St. Clairs:
The same is true of any art form. For every masterpiece, there’s a daunting volume of worthless crap. When it comes to books, movies, and scripts, we trust time to separate the wheat from the tares.
Improv shows don’t have that chance. They’re like fireworks*: Dazzling, then gone. Or underwhelming, then gone. Time doesn’t preserve the good ones. No matter how good or bad an improv show was, no one will ever see it again.
I also want to address the connotation that “deep” means “solemn” or “intense.” Solemnity and intensity depend on setting, not on content or quality.
Let’s say you’re watching a solid two-person scene. One of the characters is dying. Maybe he even dies by the end of the show. Do you laugh or cry? That depends on where you are. Are you in a black box theater or a cabaret? The space you’re in shapes your expectations, and your expectations shape your responses.**
People associate improv with comedy. They expect to laugh. So when they feel any reaction at all to what is happening on stage, that emotion manifests itself as laughter.
In a more solemn, black box setting, complete with costumes and lighting and sound cues, that same emotional connection could manifest itself as crying or as a deep, attentive quiet.
In a way, improvisers have it easier. If you’re performing a death scene from a tragic play in a black box theater, laughter is the worst thing that could happen. It probably means your show is a flop.
But if you were do to that same serious, tragic death scene in an improv show, and the audience laughed — well, you’re probably in a comedy club, so laughter isn’t bad. It might not be what you were going for, but it’s not bad. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
If we aim for depth, for greatness, we might miss, but we will hit “interesting” or “funny” or “smart” along the way. If we aim at funny but miss, we just hit “corny” and “irritating” and “boring.”*** We might as well aim high.
What do you think, Marty? Or anyone? Is improv inherently shallower than other kinds of theater?
*This may be a Del Close quote. A teacher said that another improviser said that Del Close told her once …
**For an upsettingly bizarre case study of this effect, read about the date rape monologue scandal at last year’s Del Close Marathon. And watch it, if you have the stomach. Once audience member wrote: “I also think [the performers] assumed … that the story would have a twist, a hilarious revelation that nullified the intense creepiness of the first, oh, I don’t know, 500 minutes of it. If they thought that, it is because they are comedians who expected a comedic story with jokes in it.” People laughed, not because it was funny, but because they had prepared their bodies and brains to express emotion through laughter, even if the emotion was disgust.
***Possibly a David Pasquesi paraphrase. A teacher said that …
In some troupes I’ve been in and others I’ve coached, I’ve noticed a tendency to argue with the audience after the show is over. We’ll call one of these troupe members Eeyore.
When someone from the audience approaches you after the show and says, “Good show, Eeyore!” say, “Thank you. I’m glad you came.” Then stop talking.
Always say thank you, even if you didn’t think you did a good job. This audience has not only paid to see you play but has also sought you out afterward to say hello. That makes it a Kind and Thoughtful audience.
If you say, “Really? You think so?” it seems like you are asking your audience for specific critique. That is your coach’s job, not your audience’s.
If you say, “Thank you, but I didn’t feel very good about it,” that makes it seem like you don’t think very highly of your audience.
When someone tells you you did a good job, believe that they mean what they say. If you disagree or question them, you are suggesting either that he is a liar, or else a Bear with a Pleasing Manner but a Positively Startling Lack of Brain.
They’ve got Brains, all of them, not only grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake. They Think. And we already know that they are Kind and Thoughtful, so let us assume they are telling the truth. They really did enjoy your show.
A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference. Just say thank you.