Badass/Part 2

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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.

Badass 1/2

 

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I use the word badass almost excessively. I am not entirely sure when this happened but I know that someone around me must have picked up this word, which not unlike “rad” or “killer” had been mostly confined in my brain to the eighties, dusted it off and started using it to describe improv. That’s where its application recently became more and more convenient and expressive. This is my first of two articles on what “Badass” means to me when applied to improv and comedy.

Let’s start with a simple need I often have, the need to describe what my improv show is going to be like and thus why you should consider attending it. I personally want to promise you two things: a) Risks will be taken, authentic real risks with what I and my fellow improvisers will do to stretch ourselves and be open with eatch other, that evidence bravery. b) The presented product, though experimental, will be of a sufficient quality to earn your patronage because the players are proficient in their art. “Come see a risky yet proficient show! BYOB” I could say that I suppose, somehow “Badass” is the more zingy and colloquial way of saying the same thing. This poster of Mad Max gets across those ideas too, and how they’re related to being a badass. In a post apocalyptic world these characters are proficient survivors and confident about taking risks; they are badasses. Also well dressed.

A second situation where this word comes in handy is when trying to describe my community. Sometimes I want to get across the idea that my community is “awake” in the way the great wisdom traditions understand that word: that we have a communal consciousness and conscience that is striving for something beyond ourselves and yet is in a joyful state beyond striving. Verbose right?! When you look at these protesters you see all of that, you see courage that is beyond admirable and you see people alive to the needs of the universe in their own time. You see badasses. I feel that way about my improv community. I believe that is what we are.

I also need this word to describe how what we do is cool. It’s neat. It’s engaging and inventive and surprising and not clichéd. Like the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven (who called herself that whole name; eat it Prince) everything we do is cool because everything we do is weird and has full commitment behind it. The Baroness debuted in a Man Ray film, back in the silent era, called “America” where she just shaved her vagina and her head and everything else. This was the early 20th century when leg shaving was still quite risqué. She showed up to parties wearing cages, with birds in them, and tin cans even though she actually was a Baroness. She Badass.

If you aren’t doing improv that has that spirit behind it, you aren’t doing my kind of improv.

Ok, and one more detail/iteration of that same idea. Why is Badass such a better descriptor than cool? Well, sometimes you can do things that look very un-cool and yet they can be totally badass. It is a paradox. Take these kids who showed up to the Renaissance Festival last year. They do not work there. They paid to get in. They have spent clearly lots of hours making these really elaborate nerd-suits. They would be ridiculed by the Tosh.0s of the world. But the ridiculers would miss the whole fucking point. Look at how much *fun* these guys are having! More than that, look at how inspiring and freeing their willingness to just do the dumb thing to the hilt is! They were mobbed, completely mobbed, by fans all day long. People took pictures. People asked questions. People were envious. Why? Because these guys were going to go have cocktails with Kanye at The W after their trip to the Renaissance Festival? No.1 The knights of cardboardlandia had a following because what they did was badass. That makes them badasses.

Improv is a sphere where it is important to let people know that you are not afraid and that your choices will come from a place of raw courage and power. This is not the power of the social structure we’re all so sick of, but the power of fearless individuals to behave wildly and authentically with each other. We are the Eternal Badass. We are the force of creation.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though that is now my all time favorite mental image; supplanting a giant sea turtle flying through a sunset with lots of laughing diverse babies on its back