Polished and Presentational vs Organic and Truthful

A few weeks ago, 3 For All, possibly my favorite improvisers of all time, were in town for shows and workshops. I spent most of the weekend watching or with those guys and had an amazing, inspiring, and educational time. (Thanks to Shannon McCormick, Gnap!, and SVT for bringing them in)

I am always struck by how polished their performance is. They are incredibly classy men and improvisers, and make me feel a sense of pride to be part of their craft. And although I walk away from their shows feeling uplifted by their stagecraft, I didn’t know much about how they accomplished it until workshop the next day. When Stephen Kearin was leading his part of the workshop, he had us do exercises about entering and exiting the stage, before the scene had even begun, before we were in character. He was coaching us about moving with speed, grace, and purpose to get into the scene. I can’t believe I’d never had a teacher talk about placing chairs carefully–not dragging them or being sloppy. It sounds like something trivial, but as an improviser, I place chairs on stage every night.

Why haven’t I thought about how I go about it? The audience sees it. It affects the opening moments of the scene, which will be the foundation of the show. When you can enter quickly, place your chair with purpose and snap into character and emotion, the scene seems to appear before your eyes, as opposed to slowly leaking out on stage. This almost falls into the “magic of improv” category. Making things appear. Manipulating time. Becoming people who you are not. These are some of the elements that can make improv transporting and magical for the audience, something I strive to do. Like they are visiting a totally different world that they will be sad to leave when the show ends.

Even while I was inspired by all these amazing techniques and ideas, I was also puzzling over something. A few days before 3 For All came to town, I watched the Zach Galifianakis: Live At The Purple Onion DVD, which I really enjoyed, but is the polar opposite of 3 For All. If you haven’t seen his stand up, Galifianakis is very un-presentational: scruffy beard and messy hair, wearing the clothes he walked in with, drinking several beers during the show, sometimes facing the audience, sometimes not, long pauses, breaths, sighs, face rubs in between jokes, lots of commenting on what is happening in the room at that moment, “This DVD is going to suck.” And I loved it. He’s very present and in the moment. He’s very slow and patient and relaxed. The tension in the room is thrilling. And his personality and sense of humor are really fascinating. There is definitely a bravery in his honesty and risk taking.

A good visual of this dichotomy:

The hilarious and honest Bassprov

And the artful and stylized 3 For All


So I was kind of puzzling over these two extremes of comedy performance, both improvisational. [I think the true opposite of Galifianakis is probably another one of my favorites, Jerry Seinfeld, with his expensive suit and carefully honed jokes.] As an audience member, I enjoyed them both. But Kearin was drilling us on chair placement and Galifianakis didn’t even shave for the taping of his national DVD. What does it mean for me as a performer? What do I want to do? I think at this point it becomes, as Dan O’Connor said several times in his workshop at OOB, directorial. Both forms are excellent, legitimate, and entertaining. It’s just about preference and vision for a specific project. So what do I prefer? What do I want to do with the limited time and energy I have? Because both would take a lot of work–getting really polished and getting really raw.

Part of my litmus test for any performance is, do I want to jump up on stage with the performers? Do I want to hang out with them after the show? It’s some basic and general magnetism of the performers and their work. There is a difference between people I like to watch and people I like to play with. In fact, some improvisers in town I love to watch because they constantly suprize me and thwart my expectations. But when I get a chance to play with them, I feel lost and unsupported/unsupportive. I would piss my pants if I had to improvise w/ Galifianakis I think. But I’d die for a chance to play w/ 3 For All.

Also, it’s about aesthetics. It’s the part of me that likes Broadway musicals over opera, Baz Lurhmann films over mumblecore movies, and Elvis Costello over Bob Dylan. I like spectacle and performative performances. Of course, there needs to be truth at the heart of any art form, but there are different ways of getting at it. And again, I like all that stuff (except opera).

[Sidenote: There’s a reason I look to other art forms as well as other improv troupes for inspiration. Improv can get very solipsistic very easily. With audiences full of improvisers and students, it can circle in on itself and you can lose touch with what a public audience will watch and enjoy. And your idea of what can happen on stage can get very limited, especially with 50-80% of the scenes taking place in an unrecognizable improv world. Vaguely modern times, vague interior location, vaguely white middle class characters acting strangely.]

Sometimes I think of narrative improv as a re-mix session of your collective unconscious, of all the books, movies, tv, relationships, travel, jobs, etc, that you’ve experienced. And performative improv is like remixing the different characters, themes, and stories you’ve seen in a new way. And raw organic improv is like getting out your acoustic guitar on an empty stage and then trying to come up with something from the heart that you and no one else has ever done before. And in actuality, I prefer singer-songwriters to re-mix dj’s.

Maybe I should add raw, organic improv to my list of side projects I’d like to do.

Upcoming Side Projects That I’d Like to Do But Currently Have No Intention of Following Through On:

1) A team of master game players that do kick ass short form.
2) Me and all the improvisers I want to play with but don’t get a chance
3) Whole Improv: Super organic raw improv
4) Double Feature: screen a tv show or film, then improvise a show in that genre
5) Degrassi Improv High

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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.
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One comment

  1. Mo said:

    Degrassi Improv High would be a DREAM COME TRUE!

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