Improvisation: Saying Yes to Everything, Especially Failure

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Today, improvisation is perhaps the most popular it has ever been. However, there are many people who still have no idea what it is. Theatrical improvisation is, put simply, making a scene from scratch. It is often comedic, however, not necessarily. It can also be divided into two forms: ‘long form’ and ‘short form.’ Short form improv scenes are brief and concerned only with making the audience laugh. It is restrictive in this regard and while it can be fun to watch, it develops bad habits for the improviser and is not the form preferred by storytellers. Long form improv is about stories. An audience watching good short form will (if you are lucky) laugh, whereas an audience watching good long form will laugh, gasp, cry and hopefully leave, having witnessed a piece of gripping theatre. Long form is infinitely more thrilling.

Recently I met up with an old friend and improv teacher, Seamus Allen. We got coffee, told a few jokes and then began to reminisce. I first met Seamus at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire. I had signed up for their theatre group and he was the guy who taught it. The impression he made during our first meeting is one I won’t forget. He was wearing one of those Chez Guevara shirts with a Hawaiian shirt over the top. He had a lot of ginger facial hair, the physique of an action man, and was quite intimidating to a fifteen year old boy who just wanted to do a bit of acting. I nervously approached him and said:

“Hello, I’m the new one.”

He replied in a very Irish accent, shook my hand and pushed me onstage. That was my first improv class. I remember attempting to improvise a scene for the first time and completely floundering because I had no rules; no guidelines or structure to follow. I panicked. This is the natural response to being thrust into a situation in which people are looking at you, expecting you to be funny when you don’t have a script. It would be strange not to feel some sort of deep primal fear at that. Even now, as a relatively experienced improviser, I get the fear sometimes because I know I will fail at some point during the show. It’s a guarantee. The thing is – the audience will find your genuine failure twice as funny as a quick witted gag. As an improviser, you need to delight in your failure. It’s a weird concept, I know. Seamus said to me in that coffee shop:

“Don’t try to be funny. Slip on the banana skin. Nobody like the arsehole who steps over it because they think they’re clever.”

Being ‘clever’ is often a barrier which improvisers put up to protect themselves from feeling like an idiot. It is understandable. However, people love idiots (Basil Fawlty, Mr Bean, Baldric) because they are genuine and vulnerable, and when they do succeed, the reaction from the audience is much greater. When you are ready to fail, the audience is on your side, because they know the risk you are taking. Great improvisers make this risk evident from the moment they walk onstage. Going onstage, prepared to genuinely fail is terrifying, but there are ways to subvert some of the unproductive fear, turning it from a paralysing presence, into a driving force. The way to do this is to know a few rules. These rules give you at least some structure and allow you to panic properly. Improv is essentially panicking properly.

The first rule is this: accept and endow. Any good improviser accepts their partner’s suggestion and builds upon it. For instance:

“Jonah, how could you? I found the letter hidden in your drawer!”

“I’m sorry, Alice, I don’t love you anymore. I’ve fallen for someone else.”

Here, the first improviser suggests a premise: the letter hidden in the drawer. The second improviser infers some meaning from this, and builds upon the suggestion: implying that he is having an affair, and the letter is from his mistress. This is an example of accepting and endowing. Never say ‘no’ in improv.

The second rule is to establish the ‘who, what and where’ of the scene. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at the amount of improvisers who will go through a scene without mentioning to whom they are talking or where they are. (There is always a good gag to be had in a situation like this: the audience will laugh out of relief when an improviser eventually gets around to mentioning they are in an aquarium or something to that effect.) However, the ‘what’ of the scene is perhaps the most important: what is the problem which must be overcome? This is how story begins to develop. Conflict is necessary for long form.

The third and last of the most basic rules is to react genuinely. The worst improvisers are the ones who don’t engage with their fellow actors. They shut down and stay in their heads, thinking only of the next joke they can make. This is infuriating. As previously said, the audience prefer genuine failure to a ‘clever’ gag. This shutting down is also common among people improvising for the first time because they are too afraid of what will happen if they let go and step out of their heads (i.e. they might say a naughty word.) Seamus told me during my first improv class that I should get out of my head as soon as possible and not worry about what comes out of my mouth. I mentioned this in the coffee shop and he said:

“You start off with poo, sex and religion, and then it’s gone. You’ll go through your taboos and then you’ll be free to genuinely talk.”

It is vital to establish this to first time improvisers. I recently attended an improv workshop where the teacher (I use this term reluctantly) forcefully reprimanded a new student for talking about prostitutes in a scene. Of course that subject is distasteful, but that was the worst thing she could have done for the beginner. Now the student will start to put up barriers and will eventually become paralysed. You need to say all the terrible things in order to get to the good stuff. A perfect piece of art requires the destruction of thousands of predecessors. Keith Johnstone, the British and Canadian improv pioneer, had an entire philosophy based around not censoring the subconscious. He was bored with British improv being intellectualised, at the expense of truthful, genuine theatre. Del Close, the father of modern American improv, who literally wrote the book on ‘Truth in Comedy,’ similarly believed that stifling the original, instinctual reaction takes away the truth in the scene, and makes it immediately dull and boring. Say the naughty words. As long as you don’t genuinely mean them and you have a good improv teacher, it is something that you must go through. Everyone does. Your subconscious is weird. Trust me.

Even with these basic procedures, failure is inevitable. So why do people love performing improv so much? Do you have to be a masochist to be an improviser? I don’t think so.  I believe people love improv for these two reasons: defence and growth. Failure is a monster under the bed. Improv allows you to face the monster briefly, and realise that it’s not as bad as you thought. It is empowering. Secondly, you cannot learn without failing. You fail, so that you can succeed later on. That is why it is not a medium for masochists – they want only to feel the pain of failure. Failure in improv is constructive and teaches you to become a better performer. It is an opportunity and leads to change, which is what improv is all about. ‘But we’ve always done it this way’ are some of the worst words you can say to an improviser. Always fail. Always change. Without that, the performance becomes cyclical and boring. Failure and change are exciting and necessary. Keith Johnstone even created a format called ‘Theatresports’ focused entirely on the premise of failure. He pitted two teams of improvisers against each other, competing to create the best scene. It is more like professional wrestling than improv. The audience wants to see the performers striving, and when they succeed, it is miraculous, brilliant theatre.

“Risk creates tension, and when that tension is released, the audience laugh. It’s almost out of relief,” Seamus told me. “Want another coffee?”

I shook my head. He got up and ordered another large Americano for himself. When he came back he said:

“You know at high level improv, you shouldn’t even go onstage prepared to fail. You shouldn’t go onstage prepared to do anything. There is no failure or success in art. You just go out there to live, existing in that moment.”

Seamus performs in the fifty hour annual London Improvathon and has been doing so for the past eleven years. It is an improvised soap opera, which lasts for fifty hours and Seamus does all of them. He said that after the 36th hour, the concepts of failure and success disappear completely, and what happens is magical. I think being prepared to fail, and just going onstage to be in the moment, are essentially the same things. By doing either, the improviser abandons their ego. They are being open to whatever happens, regardless of how they will be perceived.

“You don’t have to be good; you just have to be present,” he said. “That’s what I tell myself anyway.”

At the 2015 London Improvathon, I was lucky enough to stay for 26 hours. I experienced immense highs and lows with the improvisers. As an audience member you grow attached to the characters, so much so that when one of our favourites died, we booed and cheered until he was resurrected. It is moments like these: moments of pure, unselfconscious brilliance that make long form improv inspiring to me. We were laughing, weeping and sleeping alongside the actors. Now that is what I call theatre.

The reason why improv is currently experiencing a renaissance, with The Showstoppers at the Lyric Theatre, The London Improvathon at The Lost Theatre, alongside Austentaious – An Improvised Jane Austen Novel, The Oxford Imps and a multitude of other improv troupes populating the Edinburgh Fringe, is due to many reasons. Anyone can make an improv troupe. The costs of performing are next to nothing, as no set or director is required. The audience are a lot less combative than a stand-up’s audience because they understand that what they are seeing is being made up on the spot. Heckling is almost unheard of. Perhaps also it is a reaction to the period of recession which arose in 2008 – people wanted to create theatre, but didn’t have the resources, therefore improv was the natural alternative – cheap, fun, and exciting to experience.

“Everyone’s doing it now. New groups are coming up, with new and interesting formats for their shows. But like all things, it’ll decline in popularity after a while, just because of oversaturation.” Seamus finished his drink and put on his coat.

“What’ll be the next big thing then?” I asked.

He paused, grinned at me and said:

“Fucked if I know.”

Improvisation: Saying Yes to Everything, Especially Failure

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