(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)
“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
Tony Beeman recently posted a list of quotes from non-improvisers that could be applied to improv. The quote above sparked a comment on a Facebook post from my friend Adina:
makes me wonder…it is so important for us for the audience to constantly be reminded and appreciating that HEY, [WE] ARE MAKING THIS UP RIGHT NOW, AREN’T WE AMAZING. So my topic/question would be, is Improv a weak art form, as so much of it is about showing off our skills and being funny, vs. having something interesting to say/a message?”
And that brings me to the title of this post. I think that the argument above is analogous to the question of art versus craft.
To me, the desire for the performer to make sure the audience understands that we are indeed making this stuff up as we go is very much the performer as craftsman talking. The craftsman wants to show off his technical skills. The knitter and the blacksmith do not purl and forge to express themselves, but rather to show off his or her skills. The improviser who reassures the audience member that this is all made up, or the one who worries about the rules of the short-form game is doing the same thing: concerning themselves with the craft.
Now of course, this is not to say that knitting and blacksmithing are not artistic. Certainly art can be created using the skills of knitting and blacksmithing; there are obvious examples of both in the real world. The difference lies in that the artist who knits concerns herself not with the skill with which her knits, but rather the feeling or whatnot that she wishes to express.
The years of craftsmanship I would argue are paramount to becoming an artist who smiths or knits. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the person, that is when the art can flow without the interruptions of limitations of skill. Can the art happen without the craft? Certainly, but the quality of work from an artist with intense passion but little skill will pale before the work of one with years of craftsmanship under her belt and equal passion.
I would say the same applies to improv. The years of craftsmanship are important: doing the short-form scenes where you sweat the rules, reminding the audience that we are indeed making this up (whether by actually saying those words, or by frequently coaxing suggestions from the audience and implementing them as the show progresses), concerning yourself with the reaction the audience gives you. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the performer though, I think that is when the performer may begin to yearn for something more than the showing of craft. That’s when the performer wants to say something to the audience and creates a method for himself to do just that, whether it is solo performance, creating a show that speaks to your sensibilities as an artist, or whatever other way she can think of to connect with others.
I think I am at this point in my improv career, as are many of my fellow improvisers in Seattle. We have completed our apprenticeships and are full-fledged journeymen, though perhaps not yet masters. I think that is why we strive to find ways to break games in our short-form shows, and why the tone of the scenes swing wildly from one to another. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and much more fun. My only concern is that we may be throwing those fellow improvisers who are still focusing on their craft headlong into our experimentation. Whether this is detrimental to their apprenticeships is up for debate.