A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to see the ScrapArtsMusic show here in Portland. The group is from Canada, and they're kind of a mix between Stomp and taiko drums ... with various instruments made entirely from industrial scrap. I went to the show not really knowing what to expect, and walked out at the end of the show on cloud 9, dancing to internal rhythms, my head full of what I'd just seen.
Despite the fact that it was a musical performance, and very obviously scripted, I had two huge improv takeaways from the show:
You Don't Need a Gimmick (or, Keep It Simple)
The ScrapArts show consisted of 5 guys in simple black clothes, a variety of nutty-looking instruments, and lights -- and it was absolutely compelling. Contrast that with a Cirque Illuminations show that came to town a few weeks before: elaborate sets, numerous costume changes, songs, background dancing ... PLUS circus arts acts. The jugglers, contortionists, and aerialists were incredibly skilled, but the many unnecessary layers of spectacle only served to distract from the central acts -- with a guy balancing precariously on a wobbling chair tower, I found myself watching a giant pair of dancing pants elsewhere on stage. Dancing pants! Not so with ScrapArts -- they let their art take center stage, where it was able to shine.
It comes down, I think, to trusting the integrity of what you do. If you feel like you have to fill your show with bells and whistles to interest an audience or justify a ticket price, perhaps you should put some of that effort into strengthening the core -- and in improv, that's story. Have the ability to tell an interesting story, with characters they care about, and no audience will mind that it's being told on a bare stage with three chairs and a microphone.
Have Fun, and the Audience Will, Too
At some point in the ScrapArts show, I realized that I didn't actually care what the performers were doing -- they were having so much fun, it didn't matter to me if they were playing music or painting a wall beige. They leapt around from drum to drum, watching each other, clowning to the audience, and their spirit of play was infectious. Yes, it's fun to watch people do something they're awesome at (see: the Olympics), but it's even more fun to watch someone who's awesome at something have the time of his or her life doing it. It brings us, as audience members, into the experience, filling us with the same joy they're feeling onstage.
So those are my lessons to myself for the week: tell a good story and have fun. The rest will take care of itself.