Whose Improv is it Anyway?

I’m in the middle of reading Whose Improv is it Anyway?: Beyond Second City by Amy Seham and I’m REALLY digging it. I wasn’t sure I would because the book mainly focuses on the history of the Chicago improv scene, which is not my area of expertise, but so far I’ve found the book fascinating and I’m super jazzed to see some ideas that have been floating in my head nebulously for years put into some eloquent writing.

I feel like I share a really similar perspective with the author. She is a longtime improviser, teacher, and director whose experience as a woman in improv I can strongly identify with. Such as the challenges of gender stereotypes coming up again and again in improvised scenes, even when you are playing with “progressive” and “enlightened” players. Hell, they come up even when I’m playing in an all female troupe.

One of the great questions she raises is why this art form that is so freeing can feel so restricting at times for women and minorities? It’s this strange push and pull between spontaneity (freedom) and stereotype (restricting, but often the first thing that comes to you) that happens on stage.

Another thing that is fascinating is the story of the evolution of the theatres in Chicago and how they mimic much of the Austin Improv history. There is division about the improv as a business, as an art, and as a political/satirical tool.

She also focuses on historically not only who was onstage in these different theatres, but also who was in the audience. At one point she is recounting the difference between Second City and Improv Olympic and she writes:

“ImprovOlympic offered what they claimed was a purer and more open form of improvised performance . . . Perhaps more important, ImprovOlympic promised the chance to belong, to be one of “us,” to student players who paid for their workshops. In fact, for most of its life, the company was supported by class fees far more than by its regular box office receipts. While Second City sells tickets (the consumption of its product), ImprovOlympic sells memberships (participation in the process).”

This is brilliant. I’ve always worried about how the audiences at Austin Improv shows are often more than 50% improvisers and students. And how this can dilute the feedback you are getting about your work as a performer because you are playing for people who are highly educated in your art. So your work becomes solipsistic and unappealing to a “real” audience. I’ve often suspected this about the Harold format. One (non-improviser) audience member at ImprovOlympic said, “I think it’s hard unless you already know the format, which they don’t really explain–it’s hard for people to understand and appreciate this kind of improv. If you brought a bunch of people here who had never done improv before, they would have a hard time following it.”

There’s two ways to think about it, though. Is longform improv a sophisticated art form like jazz improvisation and it’s an acquired taste that requires and educated audience. Or is it an art form with a tiny audience, consisting of artist who only perform for each other? Or is it an inclusive, community art that breaks down the barriers of artist and spectator. Like Boal’s spect-actor.

I also see over and over that public audiences really like to see improv games. I think that a general audience would prefer game play to longform any day. And I’m torn about how I feel about that. Many improvisers look down on game play. I still feel like watching masterful game players is an amazing experience. I saw the Whose Line guys from TV a few years ago in Montreal at the Just for Laughs festival and I watched them play games I’ve played and seen a hundred times and they freakin’ blew me away, along with the rest of the “real” audience. Then again, it’s not what I get up in the morning for. But fast paced comedy is the angle Second City has taken. With its scripted sketches which are based on improvised source material, it brings in huge public audiences and the attention of the TV and Film industries.

I’m still in the middle of Seham’s book, reading about ImprovOlympic and the “Second Wave” of Chicago Improv. I’m interested to see what exactly the “Third Wave” is. I’ll try to keep you posted.

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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: 3


  1. Sara said:

    Both of these reviews raise more questions about the books than answer them, which I guess is good bc now I’m interested in reading them.

    BTW, I L-O-V-E “Free Play”. On a recent flight to Chicago where I went with my parents to see the Art Institute, I was quoting every other sentence to my mother (she is a working artist). She finally asked for her own copy (probably to shut me up, but also bc she was very interested in reading it for herself). I bought her a new copy so it won’t have every page marked up with underlines, highlights, asteriks and “WOW!” or “YES!” notes.

    It really IS true that the difference between all creative processes is MINIMAL.

  2. Kareem said:

    I’m still torn on the games vs longform thing.

    Games played well will entertain the shit out of an audience (Same Years Eve was a great example), but I’ve also seen plenty of non-improvisers leave a longform show with tears in their eyes.

    People watch TV and watch movies all the time. I think longform, when done well, fits in the same niche rather nicely.

  3. Terrill...ific! said:

    This still reminds that good improv can exist in both short form and long form formats. Both can be very funny and entertaining to an audience of non-improvisors. But for Long Form to do this I feel its usually with a group that has been playing together for a good while and understand the nuances of doing good scene work inside a long form format. That only comes with a lot of rehearsal time together.

    Since I came out of the stand up scene to to do improv and I always felt the main reason people came to a show was to laugh. So being funny was always paramount and it’s easier to accomplish that with short form game play. That’s why the ComedySportz format was very audience friendly. Maestro is the same way too. But I got tired of that format after a few years and when I discovered long form was a better fit for my creative juices in improv.

    It’s really good you are bringing this conversation out into the open. I wished we had talked about this 7 years ago.

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