Why improv? – Time to evolve.

Why improv? It’s a vague question. Why improv for me? Why improv for an audience? Why watch or perform improvisation instead of scripted theater?


I read once that new technologies first take the physical shape of their predecessors Thus electronic books in the rectangular shape of their print forebears and so on. So it is true with improv and  theater, especially now on what I believe is a cusp of giant expansion of improvisational theater’s scope. The vast majority of improvisation looks like scripted theater. It takes place on a stage in front of an audience in seats. This format leads almost inevitably towards a comparison with scripted theater. A certain degree of latitude in the quality of a show is allowed because there is no script. This equivocation is one of the reasons why the majority of improvised theater is so wretched. Audiences hold us to a lower standard and the result is that many of us work to that lower standard. “It’s just make-’em-ups, what do you expect?” I think that this view traps improvisation in the role of theater’s slightly retarded younger cousin. It holds us to small things; it binds our artistic feet; it traps us in the forms and expectations of scripted theater. Classic ugly duckling mentality.

I think that improv’s potential to incorporate the audience within a story, to blur the line between actor and audience, is immense, provocative, daunting and thrilling. I see it as a natural expression of the immersive direction of entertainment, especially as evidenced by gaming. The trend is away from the seemingly passive observer towards an active participant in a story. As I said in my last post, this idea of installation theater, of essentially live, analog virtual reality is what I’m finding most alluring about improv these days.

The realization of this immersive theater, so suited for the immediacy and inclusive skills of the improvisor requires that improv transcend the physical shape of traditional theater. There will always be a improv theater in the classic model. I’m certainly not advocating that improv abandon theater. But I think for improv to fly on its own, to discover its own shape, forms and conventions, there is so much unexplored territory through which we as artists can wander. Thus:

A friend of mine had an idea for a show – a kind of baroque horror/fairy tale piece – performed in an old house with people wandering from room to room, the narrative unfolded nonlinearly as the audience interacted with the performers.

My own idea involves a show that takes place in a glam rock bar in the 70’s. The conceit is that this place is a supernatural watering hole, full of demons, magicians, monster hunters, etc. Genre shows allow for lots of cultural tropes and shared touchstones (everyone has at least a passing familiarity with monsters, heroes, etc.) No one is sure who is audience, who is performer. Patrons are given digital glasses to simulate magic powers, every side conversation is integral to the plot. everyone is open to being affected by everyone else reactions. This is my current dream show.


Whatever happens, whichever evolutionary branch improv takes, it can no longer hide behind the rapidly deteriorating disguise of “Oh, we’re just doing wacky make ‘em ups”. That’s weak sauce. It’s not time for improv to grow up, it’s time for us to be kids again. Let’s play.

Getting to Know You: Phill Arensberg

So long, Any Elected Office Ever.

Trust me.

Hey, nice to see you. This being the introductory post, it seems like I should lay a few facts on you; experience being the best form of credentials. I started improvising in Mr. Ellington’s drama 1 class in 1984 when I was a mere lad of fourteen. I pursued improv and comedy in general as a passion and hobby and a maybe avocation through college with the Conn College improv group, Comedaevs Interrvptvs. Ah youth. Nothing seems so muffinly fresh faced as thinking you invented a pun.

After college though, things got serious. I decided to actually do comedy, be an actor. So onto Chicago for me via the sleeper train to study first at Jo Forsberg’s Players’ Workshop and then onto the training center at Second City. Since then I’ve been with improv mainstays like Comedy Sportz and Boom Chicago as well as been part of amazing little quantum miracles – those small, incredible moments of theater that supernova briefly but are lost in all the other stars.

Wow, this went to a lyrical place quickly. In any event, I’ve been improvising for about 28 years. Unsurprisingly, I have developed a few opinions on the ‘prov in it’s forms, philosophies and expressions. Also present are a number of questions and ideas that I’ve never been able to comprehend to my liking.

Currently in my conceptual improv thinking is all about blurring the line between audience and performer and how to move improv into a more immersive experience. What I’d like to create is a theatrical equivalent to Virtual Reality as portrayed in the higher budget species of science fiction film. So much of the baggage encumbering improvisation has to do with it’s attachement to the forms and structures, literally, of traditional theater: stage, audience, proscenium, etc. And none of it gets any better when shoe-horned into a stand-up venue. The point is that I feel the potential for improvisation as kick-ass, transformative entertainment is full of bravura and spectacle barely hinted at by the great work being done now and by the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. The best is yet to come…