If it’s all improvised, why does it often look the same?

A provocation on aesthetic diversity in improv focused on the London scene

Why is improv seemingly lacking in aesthetic diversity? Every time performers get on stage something new happens. That is the beauty of the art form. But have you ever been watching an improv show and thinking “I feel I’ve seen this before?” Or seen three acts in a night which look and feel very similar. I would say so. This piece is intended as a provocation on this subject and a sketch of some routes to greater aesthetic diversity in improv.

Before I launch into things I want add some caveats. I am not denying there are experimental, interesting, or diverse improv shows. I have seen them. I am talking about what I see week in week out at regular improv nights. I am also mainly writing about the London scene since this is what I know. Maybe this whole piece doesn’t apply to your show, your theatre or even your city. But I curious to know if this is all relevant to where you improvise. Lastly I need to acknowledge that I am writing from a straight/white/male perspective which means there are a lot of issues or norms I will be simply unaware of. With all that I hope this piece sparks some useful reflections and tools regardless.

What I do I mean by “looks the same?” One starting point is conventions in form such as the dominance of the Harold. There are also well recognised cliches within the community like film noir scenes. Deeper than this is the aesthetics of an improv show. What the show looks and sounds like and the principles guiding it’s construction. Choices such as performers wearing casual clothing or talking whilst standing apart “in elevens.” Generally this is the look and feel of a light, slightly surreal, comedy show. Deeper still is the feeling induced on the audience by watching an improv show. Usually this is light humour — a broad, fun, chuckle. As I said I am speaking in generalities about what you see in jams and regular shows week after week.

These are not even negative qualities to criticise per se. For instance improv is frequently billed as comedy. To not be funny when it is sold as such would be a disservice to the audience. But, personally, given one attraction of improv is “anything can happen,” I wish there were more improv shows which left me feeling sad, horrified or even bored. I wish there were more improv shows which looked and sounded radically different. A comparison might be made to visual arts. Most improv is like “beautiful, semi-realistic, paintings on the wall.” This was the “default” understanding of painting in the west for hundreds of years. But over the course of the late 19th/20th century artists gradually examined and broke down all the assumptions and conventions of this style in order to discover new unexplored territory. Can we make the conceptual art equivalent of an improv show? What would this actually look like? As I said there are already amazing, exciting, experimental new things happening in improv. Shows like Speechless (wordless longform with lights and DJ’ed sound), Clowns are Not Funny (a tragic play with clowns) and Two of Wands (weird twoprov, I would be remiss as an improviser if I didn’t plug my own show). But the more honest answer is I can’t imagine all the things improv could be. That’s the point. In the same way that a Rothko completely breaks your expectations of what painting could be if everything you knew looked like Gainsborough.

I will now sketch out some possible reasons behind the lack of aesthetic diversity in improv. The first is the over emphasis on improv as a skill rather than an artform. “Doing better improv” is equated with “learning how to improvise better” as opposed to having a unique viewpoint or insight. Improvisers frequently say things like “that was good improv,” “that was a nice scene,” or “I liked that move.” There is less of “I thought the show was about y.” Does this differ from how you would talk about a movie you’ve watched? This is partially an artifact of how improv is taught. Many improvisers do not have a formal background in the arts. They encounter improv first as a hobby. Usually they are taught by improv schools with a hierarchy of levels and explicit idea of progression. Improv generally has to be taught in person, with personal feedback, from a more experienced improviser. This establishes a strong master/student hierarchy, even at performance level, with the implicit assumption that becoming “better” means becoming more like the master. Many improvisers also stick with the same school or teacher they started with. If they form teams often they use formats they have been taught by this school.

Again a comparison might be made with the visual arts. Painting is obviously a skill which takes a lot of practise. But we would recognise that to make a big impact in the visual arts you have to have an interesting viewpoint or methodology, to provoke questions and feelings, more than simply being the most technically proficient painter. Just sticking to one improv school, going weekly and sticking to their style, could be equated to going to a local watercolour club. It’s a fantastic and perfectly commendable as a relaxing hobby if that is what you want out of it. But you’re probably not going to produce ground breaking art. To do that you have to transcend what you have been taught, find your own voice and say what you want to say.

Another, maybe less values laden, way of putting this is that in traditional theatre we would recognise the separate roles of actor, director, producer, playwright, set designer and so on. In improv these roles get mashed together somewhat. You are “writing the text” and deciding the blocking in the moment. Improvisers chiefly train and focus on the acting part of the traditional theatre roles. But, since you are presenting a piece on a stage, it must be recognised that thinking like a producer, set designer and so forth is still very important in improv. Again this loops back into thinking how the show as a whole presents itself outside of how you play a certain character. Personally I believe my best skills are actually off stage, designing formats and putting together shows, rather than in performing. I would love to carve out a role for myself as some kind of “improvwright.”

Maybe this sounds like hard, serious, work. But it doesn’t have to be. Being playful is a big part of improvising. Playfulness is all about trying new approaches with fun and fearlessness. Improvisers can be beautifully playful in scenes. But I often don’t see this taken into making shows as a whole. Why not mess around and make a new format for your group? Finding your own voice is also about what you love. Read a book or seen a movie and felt inspired? Why not make an improv show which touches on it’s themes or motifs? Ultimately you have your own unique life experience and own idiosyncratic ways of viewing the world. Make the improv you want to see in the world.

Feeding this focus on skill is a lack of diversity in the improv audience. I can’t speak for other scenes but London is fatally lacking in demographic diversity and has a preponderance of improv shows where the audience is other improvisers. This leads naturally to creating shows for other improvisers or to do “better” improv in the style you prefer, rather than framing it around an experience to give the audience. Improvisers listen for different things than a general audience because it intersects with their own training. Personally I have acquired a terrible habit of watching a show technically, as if I were coaching it. I always delight when I find magic I can’t “puzzle” out. After a show a I often compliment the performers with what are essentially notes on their performance. Framing feedback in this way again leads to an over focus on technical proficiency.

There are of course which have been very successful in breaking out to a wider audience (e.g. Showstoppers) but the inter-dialogue with other forms of theatre or performance is limited. By dialogue I mean learning techniques, getting inspiration and finding exciting ways to make shows. The most engagement improv has with a general paying public is as a form of comedy. This where improv gets bums on seats and maybe explains the bias towards light, fun, high energy comedy shows. Maybe I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder as an improviser interested in non-comic forms, but I whether this also tends to reduce experimentation. If you are selling a regular gig as a comedy show, you need to make people laugh. To produce laughter, reliably week after week, when you have a very unfocused tool such as improv seems a high order. Maybe you would naturally focus on proven formats such as the Harold.

Reversion to techniques that work is of course a foundational human behaviour. Improv as a practise has a curious relationship to habit. The very fact that we have no script and are responding in the moment gives greater power to our default choices trained into us by our life experiences. This can be deeply damaging results when it intersects with prejudice and privilege. We might also refrain from criticising choices made on stage because they are so personal. Part of this is the beauty of improv — seeing people genuinely be their unfiltered selves. But it does alter the dialogue. In response to “why did you do x” an improviser might genuinely respond “it was simply what was on the top of our head.” Ultimately I do think we own our habits. We should actively ask ourselves whether they are helpful. Whether we constantly endow the female performers with secondary supportive roles. Or even just rely on a small set of stock accents and characters. Then we should work on breaking or changing the harmful habits. If you are following habit you are generally not responding to the unique situation now which is a missed opportunity. I recognise this process takes a lot of work. This is a journey I still need to go much further on. Maybe we should, supportively, being aware of the danger of critiquing someone’s personality, talk more freely about the character and other choices improvisers make. Even simply being aware of the performer’s habits when designing a show is a potentially powerful tool.

Now I wish to sketch out some routes to freeing up the look and feel of improv shows. The first, which I have alluded to, is moving towards a more audience experience or maybe even “artistic” perspective. Decide what you want your improv show to say, be about, raise questions on or feel like. Then consciously try to focus every aspect of your show to do that. This might also be called a “design oriented” approach. I have previously written about learning from larp which can be applied to improv. This is one particularly relevant area. Most larps are on a specific subject (e.g. Hamlet the larp or patriarchy) and then use a lot of tools, game design or otherwise, to produce this. Although larp is also improvised, the tradition puts the focus on the design of the larp, rather than the players during the event, which is the opposite of improv. This is an approach which drives shows I make. I feel it is very productive. I’m not arguing that all improv has to become heavy theatre about systematic oppression. It could be something as simple as “is this the kind of show where the performers wear casual clothes.” Maybe that’s a yes. Otherwise you should rethink wearing casual clothes. Be aware of the choices you make. You are making a show for people to watch.

Conscious choice is especially important because there are a lot of “default settings” in the improv tradition. Design choices which are made without thought. But not all of these may be needed for your show. Here is a short list of defaults as I see them:

  1. Imagined circumstance — the improvisers are not themselves on stage but other people in an imagined situation
  2. The fourth wall — the audience are not part of the imagined circumstance
  3. In longform, everything performers do in scenes is diegetic
  4. The action is split into discrete scenes
  5. Scenes are divided by tags or sweeps
  6. The performers take a single suggestion from the audience at the start of the show, usually a single word
  7. None of the characters, setting or situations are pre-planned
  8. It’s comedy
  9. There are no costumes or props
  10. The action is conveyed primarily through dialogue
  11. The performers are a team who rehearse together for the show
  12. The performance takes place in a certain location, at a certain time, with a pre-agreed audience and performers

A lot of these features contribute to a “beautiful, semi-realistic, painting on the wall” aesthetic. Breaking them maybe moves towards a more “conceptual art” direction. But again these are not necessarily unhelpful or “bad” choices. They are simply often made without thought where a different, more informed, choice might take the show in a new and interesting direction. Say what you want to say.

I have been arguing for a more “artistic” dialogue in improv but I want to take a moment to argue against myself. The structures and norms of the art or scripted theatre world might be toxic and damaging to our lovely little improv bubble. I recently attended an art and larp discussion at Res gallery as part of The Smoke. Larp, similar to improv, is a niche discipline with an artistic outlook but not much engagement with or exposure to the formal arts community. In this dialogue the larpers were very keen to bridge the gap. But the actual artists argued the contrary. They said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the art world is often hierarchical, competitive and has a toxic habit of using other scenes and spitting them out again. So we should be wary of the damage an arts or arts like culture or could do to our small, friendly, lovely improv scene. This is also why I have been using scare quotes around terms like “artistic” or “good.” They are potentially hierarchical and exclusionary. At the same time I do genuinely feel that having a stronger viewpoint on aesthetics within improv is a good thing. We do need to deepen our own, unique, dialogue with each other. A lot of improv shows, included ones I have made, are pitched as “x film/play/genre, but improvised.” Obviously you will not produce the same results with an improvised versus a scripted approach. Maybe we need more improv shows which are a critical response to other improv shows and not scripted works. Have our own, unique, aesthetic dialogue. This could propel improv into interesting and uncharted territory.

Improv is a beautiful, risky, personal form of theatre, which exists only for a moment. But too often improv shows look and feel the same week after week. This represents a great missed opportunity. It is maybe driven by improvisers making shows for other improvisers with an aim to do “good improv.” We need to think more about what our shows say and how they impact audiences. Produce shows with more conscious choices on format and style. After all — you are making art.