The Great Improv Debate

There was a lot going through my mind heading into the season premiere of 2 Player last night. We had a quick turnaround after getting back from Austin to get out promotional material and we were running our show off of our typical first Saturday cycle. Some say I did this because I like to promote conflict with our friends over at Scriptless, but that is certainly not the case. With Labor Day and Out of Bounds, there was no way to do a first Saturday show this month and I really wanted to have a three show season for 2 Player to get a full exploration of the format. I’m also not a big fan of standard Friday performances. But let’s be honest, I don’t owe anyone an explanation. More live theater is better for the community, even if it sometimes runs against one another. Let’s also be honest, Anchorage was all about Pirate Pub Crawl. Huge thanks to the audience who came out last night for the premiere, to get around 40 for each show with the crawl was flattering and we enjoyed the intimate experience.

The Yeti’s can also attest I took this format down to the wire, which is a bit unusual for me. 2 Player was first conceived back in June as a concept tipping our hat to a lot of duo work we have been seeing in the festival community. Duo improv intrigues me because it is a true challenge in the art form. By limiting improvisation to two players, you strip away all of the typical safety nets and conservative tendancies and you are forced to look your flaws in the face. We ran several rehearsals this summer running this concept. We stripped away the team safety net and stared at ourselves in the mirror. There was even a rehearsal where I gave some direct notes to our players in context of their ‘tendancies’ that might have shaken the group a bit. I don’t regret my decisions to explore duo work or give direct commentary, but I do wish I could get to a bit more stable place in my exploration and rehearsal structure. Although I saw some great talent and content from the Yeti’s in our summer rehearsals, I wasn’t satisfied with the product of limiting world building to two players for long periods of time. Let me be clear, from what I have seen out of our Yeti’s, they can do it and put up some really solid work. The format I ultimately opted for was a modification to allow transition from the team into one of the two player spots to help expand the story. The reason? Nothing to do with capability, all to do with what I consider a great debate consistently discussed in the improv community. A debate reinforced by our networking with others in New York and Austin. What does anĀ  improvisor want to perform vs. what does an audience full of non-improvisors want to see?

Full disclosure, I performed in our 2 Player format last night, so I’ll do the best I can in a director-player role. I really enjoyed playing in the show and I’m excited about the rest of the season. I think the first 20 minutes of the set demonstrated where we want to go. It was a good combination of faster paced character exploration while still allowing players to slow down and have fun with their ideas. Whether it be spiders in the dark or trying to make a cut in baseball, there was serious fun going down on stage. The last 10 – 15 minutes, although full of a fun gimmick of using the theater to transition FBI information, was an example of getting lost in plot and explorations failing to yield a coherent story line. I personally had some contribution issues in these last two adventures, my mind desparately trying to balance the desire to straight up plot the course out. I know the entire team felt a bit uncomfortable in the last world exploring the term ‘bamboozle’, but I will say I was happy to see performers attempting to move away from what wasn’t working by expanding their exploration to other content like education and spelling bee’s. This reinforces a concept I very much believe in: if something isn’t working, don’t feel nervous to throw that content away and explore something else. I am proud to see examples of this in the show. I loved the format and I’m excited to hit it again. I would like to focus our next couple of rehearsals by getting some good object work into our scene introductions to spice things up. I want some of our fun to be environment driven rather than only relying on dialogue. A strong relationship is awesome and makes great improv. A strong relationship wrapped in an environment the audience can see is hitting it out of the park. Thank you to the Yeti team for allowing a director to explore a concept down to the wire of opening performance. Thank you for a lot more than that.

I typically don’t spend a lot of time in the blog on our After Dark performances. Yeti has our short form in check and this is capped by a team willing to play games they don’t have a lot of experience or rehearsal in and still tearing it up. Plus most of our troupe gets plenty of short form work through other performance avenues. However, it is worth noting we had a bit of a wild ride for Mallory’s 30th birthday. To the players and audience, thanks for hanging in their with us. There were some things I tried to do as a host towards the end of the show that I don’t feel worked out very well and were portraying a little too much ‘inside information’. Overall, it was a nice celebration, but I have a rule to never bring personal information on the stage that might leave some of the audience out of the loop. I feel it was limited to the end of the show and I’ll take the hit on the slip. The improv throughout, however, was solid.

Hey, come next level with me for a second.

If I’m an improviser who spends a lot of time exploring long form comedy, I love the feeling of starting with a completely open mind and building off of something as subtle as a movement, a character attribute, a slight noise. From there, with great trust in my scene partners, we build a beautiful relationship and weave a storyline together. Sometimes we find a game, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we build this really full laughter in the audience and it is worth it. Sometime we aren’t able to get there and are forced to wipe the scene away and try again. The risk has a reward, but what makes it a risk is sometimes there is failure. But that’s okay, because the audience should have a basic respect and understanding of what improvisation is, the same way no one expects a major league baseball player to have a batting average of 1.000.

If I’m a typical audience member taking a chance on improv comedy, not an improviser myself, I love seeing something funny and laughing. I get that anyone who gets on the stage deserves respect. After all, I’m certainly not up there. But at the same time I paid $10 for a live theater performance, so I get the right to hold standards for how I spend my time. I’m totally in to short form because it involves the audience quite a bit and I feel more connected to the show. If something didn’t go so well, we quickly move on and see something new. But when it comes to longer form comedy, I don’t quite get it as much. Sometimes a set can go a long time lacking the energy I crave. I can see the performers are exploring, but sometimes they spend a long time exploring. I don’t see enough long form to know what good looks like, so I’m left to my previous experiences to judge. Sometimes I don’t laugh as hard, sometimes I just don’t get it.

Are you picking up what I am putting down? Both views are a bit simplified, but I use this to draw out the struggle ultimately leading to the current 2 Player format we are practicing today. In fact, this great debate in my mind can be found throughout our Debauchery, Love is Blind, even Harold formats. I even experience this when I play with others. My version of ‘in my head’ is when I make a choice based on my desire to drive the story forward through plot. Some players will come out of that scene with me waiting for some high fives and ass slaps. Others will come out neutral and I find myself concerned that I disappointed someone who wants to go next level in their exploration of the scene. For others, it boils down to the simple challenge of getting laughter out of the audience. Some players crave the energy, others can bask in the silence to experience something greater when the scene clicks. Back and forth, back and forth. We are truly lucky here in Anchorage to get such a large non-improviser audience to support live comedy. From our adventures, we get a sense this doesn’t happen in a lot of places. Another distinct adventage: It allows us to explore what improv can and should be. I feel we become well rounded when we don’t surround ourselves with audience immersed in the game with us. You, whether you’re a Yeti, an improviser or just a fan, I want to know what you think. Stop me when you see me next time and let’s discuss.

Speed it up, slow it down. Do what’s necessary, play nice with others. Be skilled, be funny. Almost all workshops these days teach you the rules of improv are meaningless as rules. So it goes with trying to find the best product. Ultimately the diversity of perspective coming from every player in your ensemble brings it’s own distinct voice to be applauded. In this I find the stability I’ve been searching for: Work with me to strip away the insecurity and find a true passion for play.