Sunday, April 27, 2008

What makes a good improv troupe.

Today is our second shot at an all-KC Improv Blog Topic: What makes a good troupe? (Click on the links at right to see who thinks what.) I sneaked an early peek at a few others and there’s already agreement on the basics: things like trust, talent, collaboration.

Great. Knew I should have started writing earlier.

I’ve performed with a lot of different kinds of troupes:
  • ComedySportz/ComedyCity—A great big troupe with lots of members mixed and matched in weekly shows. 
  • Lighten Up—Kinda the same thing (though a little smaller), with two separate troupes and a completely different philosophy. 
  • Funny Outfit—Lighten Up’s two separate troupes smacked into one. 
  • 2 Much Duck, Tantrum, The Trip Fives, Poke, Spite, etc.—Small, self-managed groups with a consistent full-time cast.
  • KC Improv Festival ad hoc groups—Individuals from 8-12 different troupes thrown on stage under the direction of a respected instructor after a weekend of rehearsal/workshops.
  • Improv retreat group—A six-person troupe at the Artistic New Directions performance retreat that performed together every night for a week after studying all day. 
Plus I’ve directed or coached a few groups (Exit 16, Straight Man, Fakers, The Trip Fives).

And corporate existence—plus dozens of books and as many seminars on mission statements, teamwork and management—has had as much influence on my improv life as experience performing and directing has. (Including a tendency to bullet-point thoughts.) I am a big corporate
Kool-Aid drinker and completely OK with it. (Mostly because I can still wear jeans to work.)

My theory as I start writing: Assuming the basics (see above) are true, there are some completely non-improv-related essentials that must be in place for a troupe to succeed:
  • Vision
  • Discipline
  • Leadership

Whether it’s stated formally or informally—decided by a group, a director or a company founder—a group has to know why it exists. At a
seminar I attended this week, a team was defined as “a group of people who volunteers to collaborate to achieve a common goal.”

Without the common goal, a team has no reason to exist. And if everyone has a different understanding of what they’re shooting for, collaboration is impossible. To succeed, an improv group has to know: Is the goal to teach? To experiment? To entertain? To be the best? What kind of work will you do? 

Your vision defines how you rehearse and what you perform.

If the vision defines where you’re going, discipline describes how you’ll get there. And without consensus on what it will take to reach your goal, a group won’t last more than a few shows.

How often will you rehearse? How long? What will you work on? How often will you perform? Who’s in charge of what?

I’d guess that different ideas of discipline—or differences in ability to commit to it—split up as many troupes as differences in vision. (Funny Outfit was one casualty I was involved with.)

Strong leadership ensures a group adheres to the discipline necessary to achieve its vision.*

Leadership doesn’t have to live in one person—and in smaller troupes, it typically doesn’t. But things get tougher when you don’t have a single, accountable person to do the work or take the blame. Dividing leadership duties means your vision and discipline have to be exponentially more clear.

The interesting thing happening in KC improv right now is that small, self-managed groups have begun to outnumber large, single/double-leader troupes. Most local improvisers still start off with the bigger groups—
Full Frontal, ComedyCity, Roving Imp, Improv-Abilities, even Exit 16. But as they figure out the kind of work they’d like to do, they’re splitting off into smaller, more agile groups based entirely on their interests—and not accountable for rents or mortages.

Bigger groups are hardest on the leader—players, for the most part, just have to show up and play by the rules. Smaller groups are harder on the players—who all of a sudden have to do all the work. 

The good news is, you can do both. And switch back and forth based on your interests (pick a vision that fits), what’s going on in your life (find a group that fits your ability to commit) and your willingness to lead (eep!).

Three glasses of leftover wine and 400 words and I’ve talked myself into my original theory: Any group with a clear vision, agreement about discipline and some kind of leadership can be a good troupe.

Maybe not to
watch—but to be a part of. 

And because improv is often as much about process as product, that might just be enough.

*OK. Here’s where I acknowledge that this no longer sounds like a blog about improv.

1 comment:

  1. Side thought: The most clear visions of any groups I've ever played with involved the F word—and resulted in the most fun shows. Hmmmm...pattern?

    AND performance retreat group: Have F-in' fun.
    Spite's pre-show promise: "I am totally going to F with you."


New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.