Thursday, August 2, 2012

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? You can! 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, 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 in 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 ...

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