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Bad Improv is Bad For Improv
Welcome back! This is the second article in my biweekly column, and the second part of a series in which I impart to you, dear reader, ten lessons that I've learned the hard way. Looks like things are off and running, and after almost two weeks it seems that the feedback has been pretty positive... Man, I should probably fix that. I thought the truth was supposed to hurt....
Anyway, in case Jesse deletes the header again, the name of this column is "Bad Improv is Bad For Improv." Last time I discussed the problems associated with lazy improvisers (and improv directors) who don't strive to improve themselves as much as humanly possible. After that immense obstacle has been hurdled sufficiently, the next lesson is ready and waiting to bash you in the knee-caps. Enjoy. :)
LESSON #2: Give an Honest Appraisal!
I used to be arrogant about KYSOff and long form. Well... I guess I still am. However, the problem was, I wasn't being very honest. When talking about KYSOff and long form, I used to focus on the fact that we were the only people doing long form in Utah for quite a while. I would brag about how difficult, exciting, and potentially wonderful long form is. What I neglected to mention was how we were still really struggling with it. There is a difference between performing and experimenting in front of an audience. For a long time KYSOff was experimenting, and I was calling it performing. I set a lot of people (both improvisers and otherwise) off of long form that way.
When introducing your show, give the audience an honest appraisal of where you're at in your process! If this is the first time you've ever performed improv in front of an audience, tell them! If you are new to long form, and still figuring things out, let the audience know that you are still experimenting. Remember how bad improv is bad for improv? Well, the simple act of changing the word "performance" to "experiment" can immediately change "bad improv" into "good improv in progress."
Before you freak out, though, realize that I am not telling you to apologize for your show before it even starts. Be proud of your work and where you're at. There's no shame in taking time to learn how to do something difficult with grace. But, please, be honest. Don't hide your inexperience and struggles behind false pretenses. Telling an audience they're gonna see a great show, and then delivering a mediocre show will lead them to believe that mediocrity is as good as it gets!
I'm also not telling you to make excuses for crappy work. Again, there is no shame in attempting to entertain an audience and failing. Just don't pretend that you weren't trying to entertain them in the first place. I'm sick to death of the whole art versus entertainment b*tchfest, and people complaining about untalented long form improvisers hiding behind claims of "long form is art!" It's all a big steaming pile of bullsh*t! Of course long form is art. So is short form. Anyone who tries to tell you that there is a difference between art and entertainment, that the two aren't inexorably linked, or that they're an artist or an entertainer and not the other is a f*cking idiot with their head shoved up their *ss. That may sound insulting, but it's a much bigger insult to improvisers everywhere to try to claim that short form is not artistic, or that long form isn't entertaining.
I am also warning you about arrogance. While I do understand the necessity of shamelessly promoting yourself (more on that later), don't go overboard. Don't make unrealistic claims about your talent, skill, or how much the audience will love you. In short, there is a difference between promoting and bragging. Promoting makes people want to see you succeed. Bragging makes people want to see you fail.
"There is a difference between performing and experimenting in front of an audience."
I vividly remember watching the first half of the first episode of Drew Carey's Green Screen. It made me furious. (And, I hadn't even heard about the claims that he stole the idea from another group.) What upset me was the way Mr. Carey introduced the show. Before he knew what the animators were going to give him, before the first game had even started, before Mr. Carey had any real idea of how this show would be received by America, he proudly introduced it with the title of "Best damn improv show ever." That's not confidence. That's bragging. It was disgusting. It made me want to see him crash and burn. And of course, within minutes the show did indeed proceed to crash and burn miserably, just as I had hoped. Hurray for instant karma.
But, what did I learn from this? Would the show have succeeded had Carey used a different intro? Probably not. I mean, it was bad. Real bad. After my fury subsided, I fell asleep real quick-like. But, if Mr. Carey had been more humble (and more honest), I probably wouldn't be insulting his show like I am now. I probably would've forced myself to stay awake to see if the show got any better. I would've been rooting for him to win. I might've hung in there for another episode. And, if that episode blew chunks, I would have commiserated on a hard fought loss and a worthy effort. Instead, I have been repulsed. I am no longer a Drew Carey fan, and I don't wish to see any future Drew Carey projects, regardless of how successful they might be.
What's really scary, though, is how easily I might have been repulsed by improv, in general, had I not known more about the art form.
Let's all take a second to imagine together a slightly different scenario, if you will: You're a big Drew Carey short form improv comedy fan, and you see a long form ad in the paper. Curious, you call the phone number to ask what it is. Your naive ignorance of long form is met with acclaims of "If you like Whose Line, you'll love this." When you reach the box office, you ask the ticket girl if the show is funny and are told, "It's awesome! Hilarious! You'll love it!" On the way to your seat, you overhear the director chatting about long form and how "It's so much more enjoyable than short form!" Wow. This show better kick *ss.
But, it doesn't. For whatever reasons, the show is slow. Awkward. Confusing. It looks like it's supposed to be funny, and occaisionally it is. But, most of the time, you feel embarrassed for the actors. As you sneak out at intermission, you see the actors congratulating each other over the few jokes that succeeded, and pretending that the show is going wonderfully. As you start your car you think to yourself, "If that was wonderful, I can't imagine what an off night looks like."
And, another potential long form fan bites the dust.
"When introducing your show, give the audience an honest appraisal of where you're at in your process!"
So, if you can't brag, what should you be doing? Well, I've heard a lot of improv directors across the country talk about the need to "educate" the audience about long form in order for it to be successful. Bullsh*t. Audiences aren't stupid. If they see something good, they'll like it, regardless of how much it differs from what they're used to. I know because, on a few magical occaisions, I've seen it happen. The people that need to be educated are the improvisers. We need some serious schooling in what constitutes good improv (regardless of format), and how our own improv stacks up. So, step one is to figure out where you're at.
It's extremely easy to become delusional in a rehearsal. You're surrounded by friends, all of whom are desperately trying to make their scenes work out, create a positive encouraging atmosphere, group mind, and all that stuff. It becomes easy to develop a selective memory. It's also easy to mistake a few moments of passable entertainment for sheer brilliance when you've just sat through twenty minutes of trite meandering. Just don't assume the audience will still be with you after those twenty minutes to make that same mistake. Instead, you may want to try taping a rehearsal and taking a good long honest look at it. More than once. Then, show it to some friends and watch their faces as they view it. You need to find people outside of the whole process who will give you their honest, brutal opinions. Figure out for certain if you're really ready for a public performance. And, if you aren't, don't perform in public.
This is the point where I hear screams of "But, how is an actor ever going to improve without stage time!?!?"
Well, how do professional actors improve? Do they learn by performing lead roles on Broadway? H*ll no! They spend years doing student productions in high school and college. They take acting classes and perform in student recitals. And, when they finally get cast in a community or professional production, there is an expectation that they will be totally ready for a professional audience as soon as they set foot on stage on opening night.
Have you ever demanded your money back after a high school musical? Have you ever gone to a ballet recital and felt ripped off? Of course not. (Unless you're a d*ck... or Joel Wallin1) At these shows, the audience holds a different expectation. There is an understanding that the show is part of the actors' training. As a result, the focus is less on the quality of the performance, and more on the development of the performers. In this fashion, the audience is honestly able to enjoy a less than stelar production.
When Keith Johnstone was developing Theatresports, he spent years in England producing "classes" in front of audiences. He didn't have actors perform, but rather play games designed to improve their acting skills in front of an audience. The emphasis was not on entertaining the audience, but on training the actors. And, audiences bought it! Now, to be totally fair, he did this mainly to get around tough British censorship laws that didn't allow unscripted performances, not because his actors weren't ready to perform. But, it does illustrate my point that there are alternatives to professional public performances.
So, if you aren't ready to perform, call your shows something else. Student productions, recitals, experiments, public rehearsals, whatever. Charge little to no money, or simply ask for donations. Be gracious and positive when addressing the audience, but emphasize that the actors are in training.
Then, when you are ready to move to the next step, be very careful to avoid arrogance and bragging. No matter how good you are, the show can still suck. It helps a great deal to get the audience on your side from the beginning, rather than having to fight to prove something. So, when you get that phone call asking "Is your show funny?" be honest. When you stand on stage at the top of the show to call your actors to the stage, be honest! When you shake hands with the audience as they leave the theatre, be honest!! Here is my personal favorite way to describe a show: "This is something we love to do. We have a blast doing this show. We hope you'll have as much fun watching as we do performing." If those statements aren't 110% true, find a new art form.
"Promoting makes people want to see you succeed. Bragging makes people want to see you fail."
One last thing to note: Your ticket price is an extremely important public appraisal of your show. After you figure out where you are, charge accordingly! This was a major emphasis of the producer forum at this year's Toronto Improv Festival, and I've heard it repeatedly echoed at other festivals. Take a look at ticket prices for professional theatres around town. Then look at the ticket prices for the most expensive improv shows in town. For crying out loud, is there really a $21 difference between Laughing Stock and Drew Carey's Improv All-Stars??? We are drastically selling ourselves short! If you honestly believe your show is great, then put your money where your mouth is! Charging more encourages audience members (and actors!) to place a higher value on your show. Charging more can, therefore, improve audience reactions, improve the quality of your show, and increase the number of people who come to see your show. If you're worried about charging your friends too much, then just comp them! Use student discounts, rush tickets, or special prices for other improvisers or groupies. But, for the love of all that's holy, have at least one ticket price that is an accurate evaluation of the quality of your production. "Cheap" is not a label we should want associated with our art.
Of course, I could be wrong on that one. I'm still pretty guilty, myself. JoKyR and Jesster is only five bucks. Come see our next show and tell me what you think we should charge. And, that leads me directly into my next article on Shameless Self Promotion! Until then, remember: If you disagree with me, that's okay. I'm sure you'll get that phone call from "Whose Line" any day now.
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