Improv's Long Game: More Than an Acting Exercise or a Comedy Trick, Improv Has Grown into the Legit Theatrical Genre Some of Its Pioneers Always Envisioned

By Love, Matthew | American Theatre, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Improv's Long Game: More Than an Acting Exercise or a Comedy Trick, Improv Has Grown into the Legit Theatrical Genre Some of Its Pioneers Always Envisioned


Love, Matthew, American Theatre


"THE ONE REASON TO BE NERVOUS," SAYS DAVE Pasquesi of the Chicago improvisational duo TJ & Dave, "is the potential for large-scale humiliation,"

Pasquesi is referring to an experience he had in fall 2013, when he stood, alongside his partner TJ Jagadowski, in front of 1,100 people on the stage of New York City's Town Hall. As the lights came up, neither Pasquesi nor Jagadowski had any idea what their show was going to be. They knew nothing about the chatty car salesmen, the strange highway test drive or the peculiar, power-hungry cops with whom the audience were about to become acquainted, thanks to their performance, in the next hour. And they wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

As practitioners of what's known as longform improv, TJ & Dave are slowly but surely helping to bring a purely theatrical brand of impromptu performance to a wider audience. Historically, improv has served a number of purposes--it's been a tool for teaching kids self-expression, a conduit to channel social unrest, a gateway to scripted satire and a parlor trick to power TV shows. Rarely, outside of the circles of improvisers themselves, has it been considered an art form unto itself.

But as improv enhances more Hollywood movies, as it slips its way into university curricula and onto actors' resumes, as more showbiz names emerge from comedy theatres--and as a small handful of noteworthy performers like TJ & Dave imagine bolder improvisations in reaction to previous ensembles' excursions--improv, especially in its long form, is making the strongest case yet for legitimacy.

The popularity of improvisation has grown exponentially in the last 30 years, as once-modest comedy theatres like Chicago's iO (formerly Improv Olympic) and New York City's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre have expanded to larger venues and into multiple locations across the country. While an increasing focus on improv in college and university training programs get students hooked on longform and the culture of spontaneous performance, the theatres themselves present budding (and often unpaid) comics' shows and sell tickets for an accessible $5 to $15.

Mounting longform shows at larger theatres or for extended runs, or charging ticket prices higher than $20, has remained a challenge. "Highly limited" is the way Second City co-founder Bernie Sahlins characterizes improv in his memoir and how-to manual Days and Nights at the Second City. "Momentarily interesting as a game but scarcely sustainable night after night ... Presenting pure improvisation inevitably results in the elevation of form over content and the player over the play."

Sahlins here sums up misgivings that any number of theatre producers are wrestling with: Can something created in the moment generate consistently excellent results? Can it overcome the potentially self-indulgent aspects and connect with an audience in a deep, lasting way? Can its ethereal qualities stand up to that which has been tested and honed?

In short: Can improv be trusted?

WHEN OUR CULTURE'S IMPROVISATIONAL TOUCHSTONES include Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Will Ferrell's larkish, off-the-cuff takes in the Anchorman movies, it's easy to forget the form's sturdy theatrical foundations.

When David Shepherd and Paul Sills founded America's first improvisational theatre, the Compass, in 1950s Chicago, they sought to wrangle with the fears of the common man in an idiom anyone could understand. Leaping from the foundational exercises of Sills's mother, Viola Spolin, the Compass plumbed newspaper headlines and addressed audience concerns in its improvised scene work.

These influential exercises, along with loosely sketched "scenario plays," looked to channel the era's political unrest into a "workers' theatre" that relied on Brecht, not banter. Even so, comedy seemed an inescapable element or byproduct of the form. For example, the Compass helped Mike Nichols and Elaine May hone skills that would later land their partially improvised sketch show on Broadway. …

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