Tag Archives: audience

Westside’s Soft Open

Westside Improv had a soft open this weekend, and my team, Circus Police, got to be the first group ever to perform on the new shiny* stage.


The view from the tech booth: Dignan’s first Westside show! Click the picture to see when they’re scheduled to play again.

In college, my teams played for Extremely Full houses, because we were the only show in town for a student body that mostly doesn’t have cars or money. And it was an absolute blast! The venue, however, was a science lecture hall. It seated around 200, and while it was lovely that we regularly packed it out, I know the people in the back couldn’t see our faces. Subtlety didn’t carry to the back of the house, so we couldn’t play subtly.

Too big.

Since college, my team Circus Police has played in — well, in some odd places. We’ve done plenty of shows for audiences made mostly of our spouses and other groups of improvisers waiting for their turn on stage. We’ve also played for lots of empty chairs. And that’s totally fine; every time we play, we get a little tighter or a little braver. It was time well spent, but it can be disheartening to see 40 chairs and 5 audience members.

Too small.

But playing for a full house was a totally different experience. Westside seats around 60, and this weekend, it was full of the friends and family who had supported the launch of the theater in some way. The room itself isn’t huge, so that the back row and the players can see one another.

My husband said, “I hate to use this word, because it’s vague and I don’t know what it means, but the room had so much energy!” That’s the energy from the venue being small enough that the audience can see, and a big enough audience that the performers feel like all the practice is worth it.

Just right.


The view from the tech booth of our Goldilocks venue and beautiful audience.

I’m looking forward to many more shows at Westside in the coming months. At the moment, Circus Police is scheduled for Friday evenings. We open to the public this Friday (12/12), and we’d love to see you there!


*It is not in the least bit shiny. It shows every footprint. I think this is awesome.

Question: Can improv be as deep as more traditional theater?

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.

Marty asks:

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 which Eeyore’s audience is Kind and has Brains.

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.

Dear 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.

In which Rabbit has an amazing audience.

I’ve coached several troupes, most of them at the local college. A couple of years ago, after a rocky show, I heard a troupe member complaining, “Well, that just wasn’t a good audience.” We’ll call this troupe member Rabbit.

Dear Rabbit,

Do not complain about the audience.

The audience does not control your show. 

An audience can’t make a show good, and an audience can’t ruin it.

At your small Christian college, the audience is especially gracious. That can be more harmful than helpful, because sometimes they laugh just to be polite, and it’s easy to become dazed by their laughter and lose focus.

The audience is full of your Friends-and-Relations, who are going to cheer for you no matter what because they know you, Rabbit. They’re on your side. They want to make you happy because you’re a nice guy, and they want you to keep inviting them over for honey and tea.

You don’t want the audience to laugh and cheer just because you’re Rabbit. You want them to laugh and cheer because something they saw and heard resonated with them.

If they don’t laugh, it’s not because there’s something wrong with the audience. They showed up, they paid a dollar, and that makes them an amazing audience, Rabbit.

A real bad audience would be one that didn’t plan on seeing an improv show. They were sitting in a bar or a coffee shop, trying to talk with their friends or do homework, and somehow an improv show interrupted them. That’s a bad audience, but it’s not their fault, because they didn’t buy into this whole improv thing in the first place. (Theater is a lot like church in that way, but we can talk about that another time.)

One day you may look out into the audience and see not a single Friend-or-Relation, and that’s ok. It might mean that you’ve gotten good enough that strangers want to watch.You may never have an audience as much on your side as your Friends-and-Relations are, so this is a time to play hard. You know they’ll love you even if you fail, so there’s no point holding back.

Big or small, loud or soft, familiar or strange, your audience is amazing. Make sure to say thank you.