Trickle down impronomics
I told you this was gonna happen so here it is — second blog. In my first blog, I mentioned this phrase that I almost certainly haven’t invented(and which honestly I kind of hate, puns on improv are dumb) to cover this feeling I’ve had about how improv has developed in communities at the verges of where improv’s typically thought of as beginning.
History is always changed by the process of becoming history; nothing is repeated exactly. Terms are different, context is different, understanding is different. I think the best example for us, here in little ol’ Bristol in the UK, is the Harold. Here’s a controversial thing: when we talk about the Harold here, we almost definitely aren’t talking about the Harold.
Yeah, shock horror, I can see the spinning newspapers and their headlines now: “WHITE MIDDLE CLASS GUY HAS UNSOLICITED OPINION ABOUT IMPROV”. But before you pick up your pitchforks, I’ll defend myself!
We don’t know what the Harold really is in Bristol, because we don’t have the culture that surrounds the Harold here like they do in the States. In the States, the Harold is prolific, and for good reason. That style of improv comedy has a really good success rate (see: Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell) and most importantly, improv in the States has so much history. In Bristol, it really doesn’t.
This is what I really mean when it comes to trickle down impronomics. People who have founded improv theatres across the world, who have built careers off of the back of improv, there is so much to learn from their struggles. I started improv at university, and that was pretty much teaching ourselves things we thought might work. I was ridiculously and stupidly reluctant to learn from teachers from further afield, probably because I was scared they’d reveal none of us really knew what we were doing.
And this is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m a huge supporter of finding what you love about improv, building that and doing it yourself. I don’t think everyone has to do Harolds all the time to be good at improv, just like I don’t think everyone has to do songs, stories or shortform either. If you have an idea for an improv show and it works and you have an audience, I don’t really care what tradition it’s from.
But on the other hand, if we don’t acknowledge all the improv that’s gone before us, and is going on everywhere else in the world at the same time as us, then we’re a) being weirdly tribal, especially if that’s a conscious choice and b) making things so much harder for ourselves. All of my best improv has been inspired by other improv companies who I’ve seen and have learned from — all of my worst has been because I’m working so hard at something I’ve never seen anywhere else.
It’s part a) that I find particularly disturbing (that feels melodramatic though). I know people who have said to me that they hate the Harold, and I know they have neither seen nor done a Harold themselves. And I’m guilty of the same, I sometimes say I hate musical improv — the problem being I’ve never felt like I’ve been good at musical improv.
Obviously, if you have a preference for a certain style of improv (or even impro), go nuts, I’m not gonna force you to change your mind. But I’d urge you to try other styles, otherwise how do you know what you legitimately like, and not what you’ve just been exposed to? AND I’d urge you to do so with the same attitude I try and have in workshops with new teachers — even if all of it isn’t for me, there will be something in there that is.
With that in mind, I’d point back to that scared university student improviser who didn’t want the only thing that made him feel funny to be taken away from him. Once he embraced other teachers, there was so much more that he could do — and the more I continue to embrace, the more I’ll be able to do in the future. That’s why I’ve booked myself on to musical improv workshops, with an awesome instructor who has learned from elsewhere in the world.
So as opposed to visualising improv as a faulty economic model, I want to think of it as a buffet. If you find something on there that you want more than anything else, great! If you prefer one thing even after trying everything else on the table, also great! If, like me, you want to eat everything AND even start mashing things together to make your own weird and wonderful dishes, also, great. I’ll see you at the buffet table.