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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