This is the second part of an essay on improv-as-badass. The first one defined our terms. This one grapples with questions posed by my friend Matt:
“In the quest for comedic excellence, most people wrestle with this badass dichotomy. Improv educators are torn between being selective in advancing people through classes or opening everything to everyone. How do you gain national recognition as the people who do badass shit if you’re letting everyone do everything regardless of talent? Some theaters build amazing communities where everyone has a place. Other theaters filter people out. The result: the super-successful improv theater built on a foundation of broken hearts. How can leaders of up and coming improv theaters for badass communities of people who are badass friends AND doing badass comedy?”
It is a false dichotomy y’all. I have read so many interviews with people talking about how the talented improvisers move to LA to get on TV or how hard Harold-team auditions are at some theaters or how advanced classes are only open to cherry-picked people. Those things get me down.
Badass Precept 1: If I teach you improv, you’ll learn improv. I think there are improv teachers, even whole improv schools out there, that have a dirty secret. They think that people are just funny or not. Just talented or not. They see their role as attracting, selecting, or rewarding the naturally funny and weeding out the rest. Those people are thieves and you shouldn’t give them your money. I believe I can teach people to have fun on stage, speak from their own perspective, and have the tools to be their funniest selves. I believe I can teach you improv, that’s why I do it. So there’s no need to worry about “weeding out” people without talent; it’s a skill not a gift.
Badass Precept 2: What I’m doing, in running an improv community, isn’t treating people as status chips. Walk into a lot of the most famous improv venues in the country and see their walls lined with headshots. Headshots of folks who’ve “made it.” What did they make? Improv into an art? A bold new voice in self expression? Sometimes, but for the most part they made it on to a television show. That they don’t write, direct, or have creative control over. If you’re greatest dream is to be on a TV show then, ok, these places may play a role in helping you achieve that. Or not. Maybe just getting a good agent and being born nice-looking would do that for you? It’s a crap shoot. In the meantime, most people who take an improv class aren’t looking for that definition of success. They’re looking to express themselves and have a place to belong.
Let’s say it’s a 20/80 split: folks who want to be famous, professional comedians, or even improv teachers / people who have another vocation but are looking for an outlet for creative expression. The improv community should take care of both of these groups. The 20% need opportunities to heighten, they need chances to find their stride and strike out. The improv community should be able to help them do bigger and bigger things. They should be prepared and guided toward extravagant success in the comedy world and their improv community should help them be able to support themselves as professional comedians. However, 80% need opportunities to be in community and play as they’re able. Parties, hangouts, friends: these things are important priorities to a real improv community. The 80% need encouragement and they need flexibility, because comedy may not be their highest priority at a given moment. One is not more valuable than the other. We shouldn’t be here to elevate the 20% above the 80%. Both of these elements are 100% needed to make a badass local improv scene.
Badass Precept 3: Improv is non-competitive. I’ll say it again because it’s important: Improv is not competitive. That’s why all the “sports” metaphors and lingo can go awry in the world of improv. When we say “Improv Wins” we mean that the whole artform wins. The whole class wins. The whole show wins. Not that one guy is the star. Not that one troupe is high status and the others wish they were.
If your theater has a process where some people have to cry because they didn’t earn stage time by being “good enough” that group has bastardized this thing. Find another theater.
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need: improv is great because we aren’t bowing to the structures and dogmas of the entertainment industry. We don’t type-cast, we don’t “run the numbers”, and we aren’t looking for someone to fit a mold. We have the luxury of treating every improviser as a unique individual with their own strengths, needs, perspective, and intentions. The artform should reflect this: improv troupes are only as engaging or unique as the voices within them. The community should reflect this: improv cultures are only as successful and inspiring as the people within them.