Sunday, August 8, 2010

Who's on top?

Friday night, I was lucky enough to be part of an extremely fun show: a KCXRC production featuring Spite, The Trip Fives, I-A and Babel Fish.

The best things about it? Four confident, experienced, talented, mutually respectful groups were excited to be in the same show—and had absolutely no ego about running order.

As more shows (Thunderdome, KCXRC, Roving Imp, KCiF, Comedy on the Square) throw two or more troupes up on stage in the same night, the same question keeps coming up: What's the running order?

And suddenly there's talk of hierarchy. Who's the best? The most popular? The most experienced? And in whose eyes—the audiences', the producer's or the improvisers'?

If you see enough local improv, you know who the reliable groups are—and the kind of shows you can count on them to do. You know who kills nearly every time...puts up solid scenes even on an off-night...has at least one player good enough to make even a weak set worth watching...features up-and-comers doing increasingly strong stuff...can experiment and still entertain. And with a few exceptions, local improvisers have a pretty good idea of how they compare to other players and groups.

One thing we all have in common? I haven't met a single improviser who enjoys being told where they are in the pecking order—whether it's low or high—particularly by anyone else in the improv community. It's one thing to hear, "You're up first." It's another to be told, "You're opening for _______."

Yeah, there's some ego there. But it's also about the source and the motivation. Just like getting a face full of unsolicited feedback, being "rated" by another improviser just seems to rub us the wrong way. Every troupe in a show has an equally important part to play, and the implication that you're less because you're first...not helpful.

Because here's the thing: Creating a strong running order for a show has zero to do with putting the "weakest" troupe first and the "strongest" troupe last. What really matters:
  • What time the show starts
  • What time the show ends
  • How many troupes and breaks there will be
  • How the energy of the show builds
  • What each troupe's approach, content and format will be
  • How the forms complement each other and flow from one to the next
  • How the audience's patience, energy level and understanding of the work will change as the show goes on
  • Who the audience is coming to see—if it's anyone in particular
  • And every now and then some random stuff, like "this troupe has another gig across town later that night" or "a member of this troupe is pregnant/sick/elderly and won't survive a late set"
So before every show, producers should know:
  • How many will be in the cast
  • If we're intimately familiar with the players and their styles, who is in the cast
  • Exactly what the form will be
  • And maybe how they'll be promoting the show
It's this stuff that should help us, as producers, feel less self-conscious about telling groups what the running order is going to be.

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