Dramatic Improv?

Lately I’ve had several students ask me, “Does improv have to be comedy?” “Or how do you keep this work from being totally light and fluffy?” My standard answer is no, improvisational theatre does not have to be comedic. There are improv troupes that do Shakespeare (Tragedies, Histories, and Comedies), many actors use dramatic improv while preparing a role, and I’ve even heard of an erotic improv troupe in New York. But it’s true that improvisation lends itself to comedy. Mostly because of the inherent tension in something being made up on the spot and the opportunity for mistakes that release this tension in the form of laughter. Also, audiences reward comedic work in a clear and direct way that doesn’t always happen in dramatic improv, so improvisers quickly get trained to go for the funny. One way to counteract the comedy imbalance is to use source material for your improvisation that has a little more gravity to it. In The Life Game or Playback Theatre, people’s real lives are used as inspiration for improvised scenes. So improvisers are more respectful of it and more likely to play truthfully. Also using newspaper stories, like in Whirled News Tonight can help ground the show as well.

But few troupes and few shows actually dare to be serious, even if for a scene. I remember when I used to direct Maestro regularly (back when it was Micetro) and players getting miffed at me for putting them in the “serious” scene of the night which would almost always score low. And I feel my performances lately have been very playful, but also very light, bordering on that most hateful descriptor, wacky.

So I’ve been feeling a little hypocritical when I talk to students about serious improv. That’s why I am so proud of the show Shannon and I put on Friday night. It was dramatic and comedic. It ended up having a kind of ethereal feel. I think watching 2 seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD definitely rubbed off here.

Intro: We ask the audience for something kind they have done for someone else without that person ever knowing about it. An audience member suggests “Tying someone’s shoes.”

Scene 1: A young girl on her way to school approaches a sleeping homeless man in an alley, hoping to tie his shoes. He wakes up. He is defensive and tense. The girl, Julia, is tentatively friendly. She leaves him her lunchbox and runs off to school.

Scene 2: A pilot is in the cock pit of a plane preparing for take off. He talks to the tower and gets clearance. As he moves through different airspace, he’s talking to different tower controllers. There’s a problem with the engine. The air controller is a sub and doesn’t know how to help. The lights go down on the plane plummeting towards the ground.

Scene 3: A woman in her 50’s is potting flowers. She gets a phone call. It’s a man with a European accent. They met in Monaco at the Baccarat tables and had a torrid vacation affair. He reveals that he’s actually outside her apartment. As they reunite, he starts to fade, just a fantasy in her imagination as the phone starts ringing again. The woman goes to pick it up. She finds out her son has died in a plane crash.

The show goes on from there. The little girl creates an unusual friendship with the homeless man. She also ends up being the daughter of the funeral home director and meets the older woman later in the show. Everyone attends the little girl’s school play, a performance of “The Grapes of Wrath.” The older woman has an emotional scene with a character that changes from her imaginary lover into the funeral director.

At the end of the piece the older woman is again planting flowers, a sign of hope for the future.

Although I wasn’t sure if the audience was with us the whole time, I was proud of this show. And I’ve gotten some nice feedback about it. I’m proud that we stuck to the tone we created and that we took ourselves seriously for once. I even had a real crying scene on stage. I’m also glad that that show just sort of happened and that we weren’t trying to make it happen. And I hope something like that happens again.

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
Replies: 5


  1. Shannon said:

    For once?

  2. Steve said:

    Then, something.

  3. Dr. Henry Greenspan said:

    Teaching a course at U-Michigan in which we do “serious improv”–not only drama, but universal life situations–stigma, isolation, mortality, etc.. One day I’ll tell you about the Zip Zap Zop of Death!

    • That sounds awesome–and lethal!

  4. Dr. Henry Greenspan said:

    Teaching a course at U-Michigan in which we do “serious improv”–not only drama, but universal life situations–stigma, isolation, mortality, etc.. One day I’ll tell you about the Zip Zap Zop of Death!

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