Awesome Foursomes (and Assorted Ranting)

Why the hiatus?

Honestly? Because I plain forgot this blog existed. Samuel Pepys I am not. I do see smoke coming from the vague direction of Westminster, though. Probably should tell someone.

I just completed ten weeks of longform and musical improv workshops with Katy Schutte and Jules Munns of the Maydays – which has been excellent for numerous reasons. I got to explore the Harold in more depth than I have before, which helped me understand it’s character as a form much better. I also got to flex the musical muscle too, which people were really quite nice about (perhaps not realising how much I’ve actually done before). On top of that, Katy and Jules are both great teachers with broad ranging experience, admirable approaches to improv and who know how to give concise, constructive feedback. If I could do it all again, well of course I bloody well would.

However most of all I’ve appreciated the chance to play with the same group over an extended period – to go through the process of consciously developing a group mind and sensibility over time. Knowing I ultimately want to be in a close-knit longform group, the experience has been really informative personally.

And in parallel, as if by magic (though probably more by gradually becoming part of the London improv furniture) I’m finally actually *in* a longform group. Woo! Basically, a bunch of London improvisers got fed up with not having a team and started one – et voila! Early days yet, but a solid bunch, some of whom I’ve enjoyed work(shop)ing with before.

That said (ever the eternal dreamer) I’ve still got my eyes on an ephemeral ideal.

Recently it struck me that I wanted to be part of a 3-4 person group again – mostly because of the epic (and sadly for me, short-lived) fun I had with Fisticuffs.

I don’t know if this is a common observation, or just my own ill-informed opinion – but in my mind there’s something about a small team that just concentrates the awesome. Twoprovs can be awe-inducing in that way – but they require a lot of effort, skill and versatility on the part of the duo to really work (of course I’ve seen it happen – the Sufferettes blew my brain to pieces on that front).

On the other hand, larger teams can lose their sense of common urgency easily unless everyone is totally focussed. I know there are countless times when I’ve ‘checked out’ because I subconsciously thought ‘someone else has got this’ (or, worse, feared imposing in case someone else had a better offer in mind – the classic psychic improvises). Usually you find everyone else was thinking that too. In the worst case, presence and commitment can evaporate altogether, and when that happens ‘panic improv’ usually ensues – with all the clichéd and slightly cringeworthy consequences that entails. 

By contrast, when there are two in the game and no more than two on the sideline, everyone is on that razor’s edge. The numbers force you to be there the whole time – shirking that responsibility isn’t really an option. While this is often incredibly nerve racking, I think its a place improvisers need to be to stand a chance of doing something truly spectacular.

I got both Truth In Comedy and Art By Committee for my birthday this year (ta Sis!). While the former goes over a lot of ground I’m already familiar with, Art By Committee is reaffirming a lot of my more recent thoughts about where improv is most likely to succeed (or fail) – particularly regarding truth, trust and connection. It’s all that ‘improv philosophy’ stuff that has some foaming at the mouth with excitement, whilst others roll their eyes cynically. In both cases sad, but true.

So, this may sound like bullshit, but I’ll say it anyway – I don’t do improv to be funny. I honestly don’t (I think I’m just addicted to pretending). It’s fun and really satisfying when people are visibly and audibly entertained by you – but I think I’m past seeing laughs as the only or best barometer of that. I think it’s a difficult thing for some improvisers to acknowledge or accept – because if you’re there to be funny, surely laughter is the ultimate proof of success, right?

Yes, and no.

The drive for instantaneous positive feedback is often an inherently insecure one. I find that for me its about context over quantity (‘quality’ seems a snobbish thing to say, and not particularly apt – people who consistently go for laughs often earn them). However, I want the context of the laughter not to be just ‘I managed to say a funny thing, and you laughed’. Stand-ups do that, sketch groups do that, theatre does it too – it’s not really the ‘unique selling point’ of improv (guh – did I just say that?).

As an improviser, when you laugh, I want it to be because I related a specific detail that emerged (spontaneously) earlier in the show to the present moment – and that detail was surprising (or absurd, or cruel, or pathetic) and thus (contextually) hilarious.

I want your laughter to come from recognising that connection I made between things that until very recently didn’t actually exist; from being caught off guard or slightly astonished at the seeming serendipity of it all.

Ultimately, I want you to forget that I’m there, because you’re laughing at the characters or the situation. It isn’t really about us, it’s about who we are when we’re in the scene. If you see me trying to be funny, I’ve lost the game.

“What about ‘mistakes’?” – someone might conceivably ask. I’m all for calling them out, incorporating them into the scene – but ideally not in a way that ‘breaks’ the scene. If the only way out is ‘meta’, so be it – but I think the tactic should be used sparingly. Sadly, the ‘mistake-meta’ can often be a lazy fall back for not wanting to be embarrassed by the quality of your scenework, or failure to concentrate/commit enough to your scene partner(s) to pick up on the details you needed to understand what was happening.

Anyway, I don’t know when this went from being a blog about my recent improv antics to a rant about what ‘good’ improv means to me – but most improvisers seem to have a view, and I don’t claim any exception.

My point is this: my ideal situation is being part of a team that’s connected, committed, trusting and focussed – not just on getting an audience to laugh, but to making the silence between the laughter feel just as worthwhile.

Shove that in your gaggle-hole and smoke it.


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