This post consists of three diagrams that illustrate how I believe improv splits into different styles. As I’ve grown as a player my understanding has moved from one model to the next.
Diagram 1: “A tall trunk of universal truth”
Explanation: When I began improvising in 1995 this is how I thought of the various theaters and styles of play. Starting at the bottom one must master many universal truths that apply to all improv before one can even begin to explore the different styles. Calling them “the basics” or “the rules”, I dove into improv with an empty glass believing that everything I learned would be true and useful in all situations forever. If rules appeared to contradict each other it’s because I was a novice and didn’t understand.
Where it breaks down: I lost faith in this model when different styles asked me to essentially ignore certain rules. A well played UCB-style frustration game needs questions. Players on stage at iO say no all the time. Asking questions and saying no violate the “trunk of universal truth” that I believed was the center of all improv. Attempts were made to preserve this model by teachers: “There are good questions and bad questions.”, “You have to say yes and but saying no can mean yes in certain circumstances.” and “You must learn the rules so you can break them.” These thin slices and nuance on top of nuance began to feel more like excuses.
Diagram 2: “Many paths to the same place”
Explanation: I began to accept that deep differences in styles exist between theaters. Rather than make excuses about how they were still branches of the same tree I decided they must have no common starting place. The Annoyance told me to start scenes verbally right away while at iO I was told to adopt a physical activity and speak about something else. These aren’t contradictions because they are starting, willfully, from different places. But if a good scene is a good scene is a good scene, regardless of which theater birthed it, there must be some common core of understanding that the theaters are taking different paths towards.
This model makes the following statement: We are each on our own journey towards improv enlightenment. We are to take bits and pieces from each theater and built for ourselves a unique perception of improv. Our path up the mountain takes twists and turns and jumps from style to style until we have reached to top. This model, I believe, is what most experienced players today buy in to. Take some from Column A, some from Column B and a bit from Column C. It doesn’t matter what skills you pick up from where just as long as you pick up enough to reach the core.
Where it breaks down: After 10+years of playing I began to be invited to join ensemble casts and perform in special guest veteran shows. Most were successful. Some, the audience loved, but the players all knew it was an improvisational hot mess made successful only by funny and charismatic performers. It isn’t that some vets are better than others. It’s that player A wants to play slow and Player B wants to play fast. One must yield but, sadly, this doesn’t always happen. I fault this model. When we tell students they are on their own path and must define things for themselves playing fast or slow no longer become choices but a player’s intrinsic style. They have made it up the twisty mountain their own way, it is their identity. Many players, many talented players, play the way they play without exception. Sometimes to the detriment of a show.
Diagram 3: “The big bang”
Explanation: The only thing in common to all styles is the willingness of the players to step on stage and play. Call it agreement or yes and but this is the only universal truth. Once all players have agreed to be on stage together and truly play with each other, the techniques required for each individual style explode the play in every possible direction, always away form the other styles. Perhaps some styles are more parallel than others but they share little in common.
True or not, it’s what I’m considering now. And it has been helpful for me to think this way. Here’s why:
Diagram 1 asks us to go onstage carrying a tremendous burden. Since all forms and styles have so much in common a sucky long form show at iO must mean that all improv everywhere sucks. All improv is, after all, so closely related. At least that’s how I felt when I believed in it. A bad show meant that I was letting all of improv down. Diagram 2 tells us to honor our own path perhaps, tragically, to the detriment of our fellow players. We can skate by on our collective talent but if we’re going to build something more than “funny people being funny” we’ve got to be on the same page stylistically. Diagram 2 doesn’t allow for that. At least with Diagram 3 when you step onstage you aren’t carrying the burden of all of improv, just the slice that you and your fellow players are choosing to present. You also know that every player, whether a from plays to their strengths or not, has the same vision for how the show should be played. It’s reassuring. If a show I’m in doesn’t succeed I didn’t disappoint all improv and my friends didn’t wreck it. I just let myself down. Phew!