Why Improv? (Says Joel)

My reasons for doing improvisation have evolved over the years. Initially I did it because my sister recommended me joining an improv group to make friends, since I had a background in theater. I actually auditioned for a role in Noises Off at the Tacoma Little Theater. That was my last scripted audition. They told me I came in runner up to who they cast. I’m not sure why I didn’t audition for anything else but as I started to do improv I felt this immense sense of joy and wanted to just keep doing it. So, I think my reason at the time and probably the reason of so many others is that it is fun. Doing improv is wild fun for the actor and the audience.

Even in my early days I’d be extracting concepts of what I thought would be the best joke. I found a healthy competition driving the improv to be hilarious and the interaction and sense of ownership by the audience is something you don’t get in other forms of theater. They feel like they know you and they feel like they belong up their with you. Which I think is why so many fans of improv eventually try it. That’s different from other forms of theater.

However – my views have changed. My goal used to be to have as much fun as possible. But now I’m attempting to design a show around my principles of great art and sometimes improv is not the best choice. Sometimes I want exacting wording and timing for the sake of the show. Sometimes writing something or having a pre-rendered idea is the best thing for a moment. In essence I script out certain atmospheric moments because I want a very specific message to get out. So if I can have that level of control, the question is why would I continue adding improv into my show when I could choose to control it all?

Improvisation brings an immediacy that scripted work does not. I want my show to connect with an audience. I want it to live and breathe and adapt. And I want to tell stories that involve exploration of ideas that the audience is thinking. One of the things I realized is that when something insane happens on stage an audience loves having a character agree with them that what happened was insane.

So what does this mean? Well, improv is not the be all and end all. I no longer consider it an end unto itself. I am no longer interested in doing improv for improv’s sake. I think that’s silly. I want to do great shows. I want to tell great stories. I want to connect with audiences and their energies. Improv brings qualities to the table that nothing else does. My show has set characters that we portray. The fact that we aren’t rehearsing lines but instead truly reacting to what’s going on, absorbs the audience and helps them forget that they are watching actors. The characters are living it in real time just like the audience. There’s less a suspension of disbelief because they know we really are reacting. Just like living creatures do. And I believe it makes us connect more. It creates greater empathy. We don’t have to create universal ideas to connect to the audience as scripted work would do, but instead we connect on the level of actually being present and adapting. It makes us more real. And that is the special thing improv brings.

If I can find a way to do that which is more effective, then I’ll stop doing improv. So why do it now? Because it’s the best tool for many of the jobs I wish to do.

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.