Can I get a suggestion of anything at all...?
For the last 4 weeks I have been improvising for 6 hours a day, 4 days a week. I feel like I’ve been at comedy gym, training for a comedy body building competition. It feels amazing, and I feel in the best shape of my life. In terms of my humour - physically I have been pretty inactive and eating a lot of chicken wings.
This is one of the most gratifying and personally challenging experiences of my life. I can’t quite articulate what a joy it is to get to do my favourite thing this much. There aren’t many other scenarios in life where I could get to practice being funny, vulnerable, weird and silly with a bunch of legends, even though my colleagues at my old job would say that didn’t stop me trying, even in a professional corporate setting.
I noticed after the first couple of days that I was feeling really competitive. I wanted to be the best in my class. I wanted to be the funniest, the fastest and WIN every scene. But I quickly learned that there is no winning improv, and trying to do so only makes you an ass hole. iO, the theatre where I’m training has been operating since 1981, and their philosophy is that they are a theatre of the heart. They teach that the best possible thing you can do on stage is work as hard as you can to make your scene partners look amazing and make sure the show as a whole gets everything it needs to be incredible. They teach that you shouldn’t try to be funny, and not to shy away from emotional, heart wrenching subjects or scenes, even if that means that the audience isn’t necessarily laughing. This was a tricky one for me to get my head around. In week 3, when I was asked how I thought one of my scenes was, I said “I liked it, I felt good, but it wasn’t funny.” And my teacher, the formidable Farrel Walsh, said “Don’t push it, trust that you’re funny, and if you aren’t getting laughs, focus on the fact that you’re setting up your scene partner. If they get the biggest laugh of the night, then you helped orchestrate that.”
My class is a real rag tag bunch of misfits, in the best possible way. We have 13 people, a few Americans, 4 Brits, a couple of Canadians, a Swede and a Dane. There’s a big range of ages and some people have lots of experience with improv and some have less. We have highly trained actors, a lawyer, an advertising planner, a video game producer, a computer programmer, a retired writer… it’s pretty cool. It’s been really eye opening to see how there are some distinct differences of how I was taught improv coming up through Improv Theatre Sydney, and what people from other countries have learned. I have found that there is a lot more tendency in Chicago towards what is called ‘organic’ work, for show openings and group games. These are much less scenic, or narrative driven moments in a show, that I would probably describe as… ‘drama school-y’. An organic opening to a show would be to get a suggestion from the audience, then to let it move you as a group, physically, and just respond to the suggestion, and each other using your voices and bodies. To be perfectly honest, I hate doing it. I feel like a fool. But nothing makes you look more like a fool on stage than feeling like a fool. So I have been working really hard on suspending judgement during organics, and just TRYING TO ENJOY IT. And now I have been a part of a couple of them that I quite like. But still - it’s something challenging for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it in Sydney. It feels like something that people would laugh you off stage for doing… but I think that’s just the old internal judgement creepin’ back in to my own brain with no actual grounding in reality.
I have also been seeing a lot of shows. iO has about 30 house teams, and at least 4 improv shows a night, as well as there being several other theatres in the city, such as The Second City and The Annoyance with world class shows 7 nights a week too. Some of the shows have completely blown my mind, had me crying with laughter and in absolute awe as to how they can have such a strong group mind, where they seem to be able to know what one another are thinking every move they make. Others (but not many) have been really crappy. But that’s ok too! It allows me to be a bit forgiving to myself when I feel like I have an off scene, and gives me an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done that makes the show feel ‘off’.
I have had 4 teachers so far, as well as taking several workshops with others. The “rules” of improv are pretty standard the world over, but there is a general agreement that whatever rules there are, are made to be broken. And every teacher has a slightly different idea of what those rules mean. Getting new perspectives from each teacher has been one of my highlights. You’ve probably heard the cardinal rule of improv is ‘Yes, and…” This means that you should accept whatever offer your scene partner comes to you with, and then build on it. One workshop teacher, the very cool and impressive Shantira Jackson told me she doesn’t really teach ‘Yes, and…” any more, she prefers to teach “Yes, because…”, so that we’re forced to build more real justification for each others offers. People also say “Never ask questions in a scene”, but I’ve also been taught these last few weeks that that is bullshit if the show needs questions. You have to do whatever is best for the show.
I tried not to come in here with the expectation that someone was going to give me the secret to being a great improviser. But shelling out a bunch of cash and giving over 5 weeks of my life… it’s hard not to hope that some beam of wisdom would strike me down and make me the world’s greatest performer. But… Unless that comes up in the next week, I’ve come to accept that the beam of wisdom probably isn’t coming. But what I have realised is that I just need to do it more. And more. And more. The iO jargon for this is ‘reps’. You’ve got to get as many reps as possible, it’s the only way to get stronger, just like lifting weights. But with your sense of humour.