Sunday, July 5, 2009

Quiet.

A while back, Jill tweeted about a conversation she started on the Minneapolis forums. I checked it out, and couldn't help but notice how active theirs are compared to ours, which have sputtered almost to silence over the last year or so. Part of the reason, probably, is that we have a small enough community that spends enough time together that we don't really need them like we used to.

But I have another theory: Collectively, we don't have a whole lot of intellectual curiosity about improv. We've grown quite a bit over the last three years, and we've gotten a little complacent.

Some evidence:
  • The last time someone posted an improv site/resource was slightly more than two years ago. Joe tried to get a conversation about narrative structure going back in February—the only ones with serious contributions were Jill and Tommy.
  • Even if you go off the boards, the KC improv blogosphere is awfully quiet about theory and technique, unless you count me and Josh getting into it in my comments section every now and then.
  • A remarkably low percentage of KC improvisers charging audiences to watch them perform have ever taken a real improv class...or even a festival workshop...or worked with a director/coach besides their own. And of those who haven't, many assume they couldn't learn anything new from a local class or a beginner session. Or that it's not worth taking the same festival instructor twice.
  • We don't seem to devote much time to experimentation. I'm not talking about learning edits and techniques and forms that already exist. I'm talking about spending chunks of time spent not preparing for a specific show, but working to discover your troupe's voice and vibe.
At the Twin Cities Improv Fest last week, it was hard to miss the unmistakable Minneapolis style of improv. It's balls-out, physical and full of energy. You can spot some influences—Jill, ComedySportz, iO, Brave New Workshop, Annoyance—but there's a common playfulness and consistency in quality that seems all their own.*

Mostly, I was struck by how far ahead of us they are.

Their best groups made moves that probably wouldn't occur to our best groups. They didn't miss anything. Their patterns were more complex, their listening was more advanced, and their characters were richer. They played with a level of sophistication that's just out of our reach.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not saying we suck. We've grown a lot over the last three years. More groups are more likely to put on funnier shows for bigger audiences. We're putting some pretty hilarious stuff out there.
ADDED: And from the average audience POV, lots of us are doing good stuff. Of course, I'm not talking to audience members...
But answer this honestly (especially you long-timers): How often are you blown out of your chair by a character choice or game move that can only be described as brilliant? When was the last time you saw a show that made you think "WOW. That's beyond what I imagined improv could be"? How many shows make you feel like you're watching someone run across a tightrope, blindfolded, without a net?
ADDED: Again, from an audience perspective, these things happen in a lot of shows. I'm asking the world-weary improvisers who have seen and/or been in thousands of shows.
Eh. Maybe it's fine. Maybe putting up good, solid shows is enough of a goal. Maybe this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, I don't believe that's true. At one point or another, we've all seen what truly great improv looks like. We're just going to have to dig a hell of a lot deeper to get there. New improvisers will have to study harder, and experienced improvisers will have to push themselves further.

Or we can just wait, and hope it happens eventually.


*Of course, what they have that we don't is an established school teaching its own take on improv theory in regular, multi-level classes. (Help us, Roving Imp—you're our only hope.) If I was any sort of blogger, I'd be able to find previous rants about this.


24 comments:

  1. Uhhh... so what's your question?

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  2. Okay, good. Because I don't have an answer for you. But I do have a theory, and that's all I have.

    The City3 forum died because of the "unwanted criticism" threads and whatnot. People were being told that this way was wrong and this way was right and blah blah blah. People showed their true colors.

    That and the fact that it just got so boring when people weren't allowed to have fun anymore.

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  3. OK. Sure. Yeah. But the theory isn't "this is why the forum died." That's a symptom. The theory is "As a community, we're pretty danged complacent."

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  4. That's what a blog's for, isn't it? I get to think what I think and say what I want.

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  5. You also said "Sometimes I just feel like picking fights." Maybe I'm just trying to figure out what kind of fight you are trying to pick.

    To me, it just seems like you think about the improv community way too much.

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  6. (as a non-performing Improvisor) I agree, understanding the theory behind our craft is very important in improving our performance. It also helps to build a greater understanding as I watch shows around town!

    John at the Roving Imp (shameless plug alert) is doing an amazing service by teaching not one, but two different multi-level classes. I am amazed at the growth of the students in these classes! What's better? As long as you bring people to the show, the class is free! And even if you don't have people to bring to the monthly show, the cost is low [see rovingimp.com for details :-) ]


    The Imp and Nifer Honeycutt have also started teaching a "beginners" class on Sunday afternoon ... on a "Pay what you want" plan (free). I have sat in on these classes, and it has given me a much better appreciation for Improv as an art and perfromance medium... Nifer is a great teacher who teaches the basics and theory in a very non-threatening way.

    That's the end of the Shameless plug :-)

    I would appreciate a more active conversation on improv theory, and hope to see more activity on City3!

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  7. @Jared You remember that at one point I quit my job to do this stuff full time, right? Can't help it. I dig it.

    @Carl The plug is welcome here. And you are-so a performing improviser—teching is one of the toughest things to do.

    OK, Jared, here's a question: Do you notice that some people lose a degree of curiosity and passion for improv after doing it a few years? And if so, why?

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  8. No, I don't notice, but that doesn't mean that it isn't happening. I don't see a lot of things. BUT Improv is a hobby to me, and whether or not others are out there losing their curiosity and passion is not any of my concern. It sounds sad if it is happening.

    And If Carl is reading this, Trish is right. Teching is one of the toughest things to do. And most under-appreciated from the audiences perspective. So take that! You performer you!

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  9. I am *fairly* new to improv only having done it for a couple years, but the Imp does do a LOT of shows. I am ALWAYS psyched to go to classes and learn new things from different teachers.
    I go to a, relative, lot of shows in the KC area (especially if they are during the week) and I learn from each one I see. I think that a step in the right direction is going and seeing what other troops have to offer. (I know you have blogged about this before.) By going to see other troops you: 1) learn about different styles/characters/etc. 2) Support Local Improv! 3) Get to know more improvisers, which (in our community) you will probably end up performing with at some point anyway... you might as well start building the trust there (and who doesn't need more friends with something awesome in common?)

    All that being said, there was a Dictionary Soup show with John and Keith a couple weeks ago (just before the Lemonade Stand) that was AMAZING! It was one of those shows that said,"WOW. That's beyond what I imagined improv could be!"
    Sadly, the dictionary soup audiences are small, even though they are an amazing troupe with a fun format... go figure...

    Good blog! :D

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  10. A few comments…

    When active, our boards weren’t exactly brimming with talk on improv theory. It was mostly a bunch of jokey time-killing stuff, which has its place but is mostly fluff. And yeah, there were some flame wars too. Mostly, idealism and rah-rah-rah has been eclipsed by reality and hoping to attract a crowd.

    Blown away? I’m virtually never blown away by an improv show. Jaded? Sure, but when your show odometer approaches four digits it’s a bit harder to be amazed.

    It’s not uncommon to have “scene envy”, where people start talking about how the improv scene in (insert city here) is so much livelier and more devoted. I don’t deny at all that Minneapolis has more going for it. It’s a much larger metro with a bigger talent pool and more financially feasible performance venues.

    But if you think a large percentage of their improvisers are taking vacation time off work, bringing in outside instructors on a monthly basis, and going to three other festivals a year, you’re mistaken.

    As Jared said, this is a hobby. Most of us take it reasonably seriously and have enough self-awareness and pride not to put on a steaming turd of a show. However, there’s no way in hell I’m ever going back to the time commitment I used to allot for this stuff—not even close. In the move, I found some old paperwork, including a ComedySportz calendar showing that I did 23 shows in a month. And 4 mandatory rehearsals. Yes, that’s the extreme, but it’s also telling that this month took place VERY early in my improv “career”.

    And that leads me to my point—it’s more a waning of enthusiasm than anything, coupled with the law of diminishing returns. When 40 hours of improv a month becomes 6 hours a month (as it typically does), we want to have as much fun with those 6 hours as possible. You readily admit you’re obsessive about this, and that’s fine. But very, very few people want to absorb everything there is to know about improv. At a certain point, *gasp* it’s simply not that interesting.

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  11. Be happy. If they were more obsessed with improv they would move to Chicago or NY or LA and you'd never see them again. The fact that they're capable of thinking about other things is the reason you get to keep them, as disappointing as it is not to have other super-nerds to nerd with.

    You and I are anomalies who don't count in this equation, as we bloom where we are planted out of sheer stubbornness and lack of self-esteem.

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  12. Maybe all the theory discussion happens in the blog comments.

    I have a theory. Ten or fifteen years ago, it was easier to be a new improviser in KC. There were a couple different styles, and you were right there as the scene grew, growing along with it at a pace the human brain can handle. Now there's a hell of a lot more to absorb all at once. Sometimes my head just explodes like a fifty-dollar firework. I try to sort it all out, then someone throws on top of it all: "Don't forget to have fun!" My fallback strong emotion is usually terror.

    I don't see rampant lack of intellectual curiosity - though I wish there were more regular variety in training. Don't get me wrong, John is the caliber of teacher who inspires people to move to mountaintops and become not mere students, but disciples.

    I wish more people were going to Improv Gym (and I don't have perfect attendance either), to make the time and work Scott and Nathan put into it more worthwhile to them. The two of them in tandem create a very balanced and personal path. I've raved about Scott before; now I want to say that Nathan is acutely insightful toward his students' strengths, flaws, and patterns - and he draws improv lessons from writings on Samurai! Does anyone in Minneapolis teach Samurai Improv?

    On a side note, I think we all know where many of the upper echelon of KC performers racked up those four-digit resumes... and those of us relatively new to the community are now warned away from it.

    You're right, there are some performing troupes who don't train as hard as they could, or should. They'll grow, or they'll quit. Maybe someone will figure out how to tell them without crushing their spirits. There are troupes with a mixture of attitudes toward improv: is it a hobby or a lifestyle, an activity or a discipline, unscripted comedy or drama of the greatest immediacy?

    Holy crap, this is getting long. I should probably post it on my own blog. I'm not even close to finished with all the thoughts I have on this piece, Trish, but I have a haircut in an hour.

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  13. Come out to the Imp! There, we are ALWAYS interested in Improv and do extra scenes FOR FUN!

    I vehemently disagree with one of your commenters, I think that improv IS that interesting. (even if it is done badly, it is something interesting to talk about/analyze)

    YAY IMPROV!

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  15. Interesting is in the eye of the beholder.

    Performing alone doesn't keep it fun for me—I want new toys. When I've done show after show without learning different takes on scenes or new ways to attack a character, I get bored. (Which is probably why my two ComedyCity stints and my 2MD run lasted no more than a year each.) The fact that I teach and direct also means I need stuff coming in the funnel so I don't dry out.

    Jill's right—maybe we should exclude our super-nerd selves from the general discussion. But the beauty of improv for me is that it gets more interesting the more I learn about it—and even more so when you throw in techniques like viewpoints.

    I totally agree with Susan Messing on this one: "I love that this is the kind of art where the day I stop growing is the day I start dying."

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  16. And you're right there with Susan in your devotion to improv. That's cool because you recognize that most of us aren't (even if you need remindin' from time to time).

    Jewels, you kinda repurposed my thoughts, but even so--may your RAH RAH attitude persevere. This wasn't my original point, but since you offered: There are few tickets you can purchase in life that would admit you to an event less interesting or more painful than a truly bad improv show.

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  17. Hey! I agree with both Josh and Julie on the bad improv show thing.

    When you're new to improv, you can learn from bad shows by decent troupes (but a bad group putting on a bad show is nothin' but bad). Over the years, though, you come to the realization that you have seen and been in enough bad shows and you avoid them (or, if no one in the cast knows you, you just get up quietly to go to the bathroom and never come back).

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  18. Hey, agreeing with me is not good for your hit count.

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  19. Oh, um...yeah! Right!

    Uh...uh...

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  20. I partially blame growing up on the enthusiasm dampener. We need a glut of single 23 yearolds straight out of college to shake things up, infuse some enthusiasm and competition, take classes from us, and generally revitalize the ecosystem.

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  21. @mildweed 23-year-olds taking classes wouldn't hurt. But I think it's up to the experienced folks to innovate and move us forward. Improv n00bs, when they innovate, do it pretty by accident. (Even Napier's theories were in reaction to what he learned at Second City and iO.) When you know what the rules are and intentionally fuck with them—and have the presence, talent, and knowledge that comes with some years in the game—you get cooler results.

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  22. I'm late to the discussion, as I'm working backwards through Trish's archives. Of course, I'm also late to improvisation, so perhaps my timing is apropos.

    I haven't had the exposure to other cities' improv scenes, at least not to any great extent (a show or two in Chicago), so I'm not qualified to comment on the quality of our improv versus theirs. But I can say this:

    I laugh harder and more consistently at improv in Kansas City today than I did 15 years ago, when my brother and sister performed at Comedy Sportz.

    Why is that?

    First, the characters are stronger. The character/motivation/action school of thought has grown dominant over the one-liner school in Kansas City. It makes me happy to be a part of comedy scene in which a two-drink minimum is no longer necessary. Entertainment is predicated upon attention, and when you walk in halfway through an improv show, you know that you're late. These are all good things.

    I read a book that had a great deal of influence upon my thought processes, as pertaining to long-term development projects, such as improv and yoga, Mastery by George Leonard. Two of its key insights were that to become a master, one must first retain the beginner mindset (i.e. always learn and observe as a child would, with complete openness), and one must learn to love the plateau. So let me start by saying, I love our plateau. Improv offers, by far, the best entertainment value in Kansas City.

    However, it becomes clear, with practice, that there is always room for improvement, not only at the edges of the art-form, but at the margins of our core competencies. I'm more qualified to comment on this with respect to yoga, so I'll suggest that often a student who is struggling with complex postures is well-advised to return to downward-facing dog, shoulder-stand, trikonasana, and so on.

    However, there is no substitute for a master, in attaining mastery. Otherwise, we might struggle thoughtlessly and without direction. And that is why I've recently returned to Roving Imp's Saturday class after a yoga-related hiatus: because John Robison's school is the only active, master-level instruction in town (or at least the only one I'm aware of). I appreciated and grew from the instruction I received in Improv Gym, but sadly, that instruction is now on hiatus. And I appreciate the work that you, Trish, have done in teaching me the best parts of your craft in the past. But as it stands, I agree with you, Trish: Roving Imp, you're our only hope.

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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.