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Improv: But Is It Art?

October 15, 2012

During the several years I was taking acting classes, I attended a lot of plays and connected with scads of D.C.-area theater artists via Facebook. Like a lot of people who are drawn to the stage, I’m an introvert at heart and find social media very helpful in building relationships. D.C. has a very nurturing theater community, and I was able to make friends with several established professional theater artists even before my first audition.

But before I moved from study to stage, I got involved in D.C.’s improv scene. Many performers use improv as a bridge between study and scripted performance, or as an ongoing practice tool. This leads some to conclude the improv is not really an art form — this was a lifelong debate between Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, who thought improv was best kept backstage, and mercurial improv guru Del Close, who trained performers including John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray.

Like most of my short theater career so far, fate intervened. In the summer of 2011, I was at the Capital Fringe Festival, where I learned of an experimental effort to create a theater company that would exist for exactly one year. Eight people showed up, but the project never went anywhere — the differences in experience, goals, and interests was too great. But I met an independent improv director (by which I mean someone not affiliated with either of D.C.’s two big improv schools) and auditioned for her next set of shows. This was a key moment for me, since I was working closely with a strong director with a defined direction. (In my half-dozen shows/films so far, I’ve learned how important a strong director is, which I’ll discuss in a later post.)

In quick time, I built on the skills I had learned in two years of improv classes and added more, becoming comfortable with getting out on stage, thinking on my feet, reading the cues of my fellow performers, engaging physically with other performers and the stage space, handling mental lapses, and turning around flailing scenes.

I also learned how to tell a story through improv. I later took a master class with Matt Besser of the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv veteran who also studied with Close. Besser says it is not possible to tell a story through improv, and that the goal is just to find funny in a scenario. My director and I emphatically disagree. She has created a form of improvising a one-act play — not just 30 minutes of improv, but an actual story — and has improvised several acclaimed short films. (I made my debut in one of these.)

Improv can be an art form on its own. The argument against this is that improv is inferior because an improvised show cannot match a scripted and rehearsed piece for narrative and flow. This is usually true, but it misses the point. The best part of watching improv is watching minds at work, coming up with the show as it goes. It is akin to a sporting event. The drama in a World Series game is due to the fact that it is happening on the spot, with no one knowing the outcome. It is not dramatically interesting in itself — few people like to watch reruns of old games — but it is compelling because the participants are putting their skills to the test for the audience.

I have started doing scripted shows now, and my improv training has helped considerably in both auditions and performance. So yes, improv has been a “bridge” for me. But it is also an art form of its own, one I will return to.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2012 3:41 pm

    Great post! I love improv, and I have booked many jobs by using it. Looking forward to reading more about your journey!

  2. March 21, 2013 11:29 pm

    I would like to know more about Matt Besser and his views on Improv. I am trying to write a paper on Improv as an art-form and would love any and all sources you have that may help me 🙂 Thank you!

  3. March 21, 2013 11:31 pm

    I would love to find out more on Matt Besser and his views on Improv. I am writing a paper on Improv as an art form so any and all sources you may have on the subject would be very helpful! 🙂 Thank you in advanced.

  4. March 21, 2013 11:31 pm

    Silly website, I have posted twice (now three times). Sorry about that!

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  1. Sunday Summary — October 21, 2012 « The Green Room

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