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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/7/10) 7:29pm - ... wherein Peter blathers on a bit about where he's at, improv-wise.

Today we had our first meeting with the new gnap! troupe, and we talked a bunch about where we were at w/r/t improv these days.  I didn't contribute much, because frankly I hadn't thought much about how I feel towards improv these days.

So I figured I'd write about it some.  This time, I wound up writing about ways that I feel out of step with the group in particular and with the improv scene in general.


1.  I actually *like* improvised genre work.
... and I say this in spite of having seen some of the most gimmicky, awful improv-genre shows ever put on.

(No, none of you reading this were involved in them.)

Specifically, I like how genre work forces you outside of your comfort zone, and how it's pretty damn unforgiving about it.  If you're improvising Shakespeare and you can't create that Shakespearean 'wall of dialog', your show will fail.  If you're improvising Dickens and you can't create strong villains, your show will fail.  And so on.  When you dig into the roots of a genre and figure out what really makes it tick,[1] you're bound to uncover some skill, or set of skills, that you absolutely need to develop to make the show work.

And if you're doing a run of shows that doesn't force you to grow in some way as a performer... well, then why bother?  Why not drop in one of the improv jams instead?

(Side note:  and, yes, improvised genre work is hella easier to market.  It's not the *only* solution to 'how do you create a marketable show?', but I hate having to cough up some compelling reason for my friends to see yet another twenty-five minutes of free-form montage.)


2.  I'm indifferent to the 'comedy' part of 'improv comedy'.
All the moments from improv shows that have stuck with me have been serious ones.  I keep harping on this, but I still remember when Kareem asked Roy, "Where are my daughters?", and suddenly my stomach felt like it was in free-fall.  I still remember Marc-David saying, "I can't be your imaginary daughter any more," and then slowly fading into the dark outside of the spotlight, and that was -- what, *eight* years ago?

I don't remember *any* of the times when something kind of random happened, and I chuckled because, hey, it was silly.  Hell, even as a performer, there have been times when the audience laughter has become 'that annoying braying noise that forces us to pause the scene until it dies down.'  Funny is pleasant, sure, but I've just got this gut feeling that funny doesn't really matter to me any more.


3.  I dig realism.
I don't mean I dig realism exclusively.  I lurve the storytelling world of One More Night, for example, and that's certainly not real life.  But one thing I often hear in improv is that "nobody goes to see a show just to see reality".  Then the speaker goes on to explain how an improv scene needs, I dunno, flying jetpacks or a magical digital watch or something.

I would totally go to a show just to see real life.  Most of my favorite shows -- say, The Wire or Freaks and Geeks -- are *relentlessly* grounded.  Even most of the genre shows I like, I appreciate for their realistic elements.  For example, Wonderfalls has one of the most delightful, dead-on depictions of a group of siblings I've ever seen on TV.  See also:  Xander punching a hole in the wall in "The Body."

This is going to sound catty as hell, and I hate to say it, but I don't think I've *ever* seen a realistic improv scene.  This might be poor recall on my part, but I don't think I've ever seen something in an improv show and thought, "Yeah, that's how that might go down in real life."  I've never seen a hospital scene that felt like it was really set in a hospital.  I've never seen a third-date scene that really felt like a couple's third date.

I suspect if I *did* see an improv scene that was convincing and realistic, I would be blown away, and I'd seek out lots more shows from those performers.  Yes, even though it was 'just real life.'[2]  But (again with the cattiness) I don't know, because I haven't seen that yet.

Why doesn't it happen?

Part of it is by design.  P-graph, for example, works in a variety of genres which are a far cry from real life.  The improvised genre shows at the Hideout try to evoke Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Hitchcock.  The whole sketch-comedy school of improv is all about establishing something counterfactual and exploring/heightening it.

Part of it is by convention.  Most improv has an amusingly-surreal streak.  The improv performers love playing with that, and the improv audience loves watching it.  So it is what it is.

Part of it may be inherent to the art of improvisation.  For example, every improv show is going to have a 'meta-narrative':  that of "this group of improvisors is trying to put on a show", and that's always going to tug audiences away from the reality of the scene.  And it may be that making decisions in the moment (as an improvisor should) will more likely lead to scenes that follow "dream logic" rather than scenes that hold up to intellectual scrutiny.

(Also, acting is hard.  Playing a character convincingly is a challenge even in scripted work.)

*shrug*  I dunno.  I could be wrong about all this.  All I really know that I love doing mundane scenes -- those are improv scenes where you start with the specific instructions to "just act like it's a normal day in the real world" and you're trying to give the scene the rhythms of everyday life.


Maybe the bottom line of all of this is that I'm not really an improvisor.  I'm just a screenwriter who likes to visit improv-land because you can tell stories with fun and talented people.  But in the end, even though I luck out occasionally, improv doesn't often hit me where I live.

In any case, hopefully I can post in the future about specific directions I'd like to go in, improv-wise.  Hopefully those posts will be more cheerful and less pretentious. :)

___________
[1] I take a real joy in that process of discovery -- one of my favorite exercises is "Scene Without,' where you pick a genre, get the audience to suggest three things common to that genre, and then do a genre scene *without* those elements.  (Arguably one of the best improv scenes I've done was a film-noir scene without any detectives, voiceover, or femmes fatales.)

[2] I should point out here that there's a difference between 'real life' and 'realism.'  Simply put, realism is real life with the stupid, boring, pointless parts cut out.  (Put another way, realism is when you try to convince the audience that they're watching something that could happen in the real world, even though storytelling is inherently artificial.)  But I stand by my statements as written -- even if it were crap storytelling, if it were crap storytelling in a convincingly-realistic world, I could watch it for a long, long time before getting bored.  And I say this even though I'm one hell of a story-structure nerd about the stuff I watch.

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