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In his book  Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink ) maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be wor...

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Trust the Improv

Audience members at improv shows (especially long-form or musical) often don't believe the show they've just seen is improvised. They assume that most of it has been somehow predetermined, like the basic plot, the characters or, in the case of a musical, the music. (The Un-Scripted Theater Company talked about this phenomenon in their ShowBlog on December 4, 2008). They refuse to believe despite the performers' reassurance that, while we do rehearse the format and the genre, the show is, in fact, completely improvised. And it's not being show-offey either -- the truth is, it's easier to improvise something than to pre-rehearse it. So it's always baffled me that people are so resistant to believe.

Last night, I was given a gigantic clue to the origin of this phenomenon. I went to a musical improv show in Boston (drove 2 hours, thank you very much), at a well-known and highly-lauded company which shall remain nameless. The show structure sounded great -- it was the reunion of two famous rock stars from the 70s, and they would be interviewed by a "music journalist" and play some of their best-known "hits." I was excited, and jonesing for some musical improv. At the top of the show, the host assured the audience that everything they were about to see was improvised ... and then the band proceeded to open the show with a musical number that was very clearly not. For one thing, it was terrible. Why was it terrible? Because the two singers weren't listening to each other, or the band, or looking at each other (or the band), or paying any discernible attention to each other (or the band) -- and yet, they were singing the same thing at the same time. There are two ways that this is possible. Well, three, if you count "a miracle" as one of the ways. And I assure you, this song was NOT a miracle. For two singers to sing the same exact words at the same time, they either need to be looking at each other and listening to both the other person AND the band, or they need to have written the song beforehand and learned it.

So they started the show off with a pre-written song, performed within 5 minutes of the show's host assuring the audience that everything they were about to see would be improvised. But that's not all. They took audience suggestions for song titles before the show started, then DISAPPEARED WITH THEM -- for all we knew, taking them backstage and preparing songs ahead of time. Then, at the end of the show, they sang another apparently pre-written song (see clues above), then kicked into a version of Journey's Don't Stop Believing. Now, even if we audience members were willing to suspend our disbelief about the improvisational origins of the two previously-mentioned songs, how on earth did they expect us to believe they were making up a song that's been haunting radio airwaves and karaoke bars since 1981? "Everything you're about to see is improvised," my ass!

Trust the improv, people. Believe that something you can make up on the spot will be as good as something you can prepare beforehand. Trust that the audience will love you even if you fail. If you fail, fail miserably, and with your whole heart and soul. The audience is there to watch you walk a tightrope. They want to see you do something they haven't got the guts to do themselves. They want to see the magic moment where utter cluelessness turns into genius, as you pull a rhyme out of your ass, or inadvertently speak the truth of the moment, without even realizing you're doing it. That is what improv is all about. And if improvisors don't trust the improv, the tightrope is only inches above the floor. Raise the tightrope. Put a tank of sharks underneath, and a flaming hoop, and trust that the improv will keep you safe (and failing that, hope to hell you're fireproof and not very tasty!)

Improv Hours Today: 3
This Week: 3
This Month: 3
This Year: 3
Total: 5,503

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