I don’t know how many of y’all have experience with a crazy high school theater director?
Mine, let’s call him Federico Spamcan, liked to typecast. He insisted on misusing the word “Brechtian” and putting on plays where a 17 year old rolled around in a bloody American flag or threw babies against the floor. He was fond of partial nudity. We spent a lot of time dance-dying in slow motion. I guess I’d resent the guy more, if I didn’t admire him still.
The best thing about Federico was his insistence that there would be no half measures. He didn’t have patience for teenage insecurity. If anyone balked at whatever Absurdist theater was requiring of them, Mr. Spamcan would bark “Commit!”
Commit to the moment! Commit to your scene partner! Commit to rolling around half-naked in that American flag! Commit!
I had a different director who told me once “Your job is to do what I say, as well as you can. And my job is to make sure that you look good, instead of stupid, doing it.” You know, there is a sense of security there, knowing that it issomeone else’s job to keep you from looking stupid.
In improv we have no such security. And I am so grateful for that. I remember when I was first learning improv I had a couple teachers who would say we were “comedians not actors.” I still find that idea enormously comforting. When someone asks me at a party “So are you a comedian?” I have almost gotten used to saying “Yes.” (Then they ask me to tell a joke, and it all goes to hell.)
Comedians generate their own content, while actors interpret existing content with the help of a director. Of course, “comedian” usually implies “stand-up”. Which we are not. Stand-ups make the content they write and deliver. However, there is also often a critical distance there. The stand-up edits what she presents. Her careful persona is usually judgmental and shielded.
How different is what the improviser does!
Feeling, emoting, communicating, and creating in the moment. It’s messy. We can’t stand simultaneously inside and outside: when an improviser attempts critical distance he usually fails the audience. An improviser who attempts a stand-up’s detachment denies his scene partners. He lacks courage. He goes meta without motivation. In short, he doesn’t commit.
Someone once told me that improvisers don’t like to commit. They don’t like to commit to scripts and every-night rehearsals and long show runs: they live in the moment and don’t want to owe anyone anything. Someone was dead wrong.
A talented improviser is one of the most committed human beings around. She is pouring herself on to a stage like a skydiver jumping from a plane. She knows that what she does is nothing without the courage of her convictions. An improviser is a professional back-haver: and first and foremost she must prepare to say to herself “My job is to make you look good” and then to say the same to everyone she gets on stage with.