Like many improvisers, my first introduction to performance was doing short form. And like many improvisers for whom this was the case, I became short-form-weary after a while and started to find long form much more satisfying. The ability to construct a sustained narrative, more time for character development, more meaningful relationships, playing with genres – all due to having more time to take things a little slower, very much appeal to me. There are many schools of improv thought that stress the importance of slow comedy and taking your time and these are very good things to learn. However, sometimes the by-product of this emphasis on taking things slow can result in improvisers taking too much time and producing improv that lacks energy & strong focus. In these cases, the pursuit of “meaningful” work has resulted in energy, fun and connection with the audience being left in the dust in favor of treating every precious offer as though it were made of spontaneous gold. Instead of merely slowing down to give weight to important moments while still maintaining the energy of the show, sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and leads to lethargic, self-indulgent improv that tends to forget the most important part of performance – the audience.
Why do I say the audience is the most importance part of a show? Because they are. We need to remember that, always. An audience is what makes a show, a show. Otherwise, you might as well be playing make-believe in your living room. I’m not talking about pandering to an audience, going for lowest-common-denominator humor (lots of butt jokes scene after scene) or letting an unruly audience component (drunk bachelorette party) take over what you chose to do in a show. I’m talking about extending the energy beyond the stage and pushing it out to the back wall of the theatre. When I see players on the sidelines on the balls of their feet, intently focused on the scene and ready to jump in – I am engaged as an audience member. When I see the energy of the players as more relaxed, less present and find the scene work to be slow and laborious, I check out and start making to-do lists in my head. To me, this is not so much an issue of a particular style of long form being boring or not my cup of tea. I think this energy and commitment is crucial to improv in general, long or short. But for some reason that lack of energy combined with misguided self-importance (or “Sadprov” as some people refer to it) tends to manifest more often in long form. I think perhaps subconsciously it’s the feeling on the part of the performers of “Ok, we’re doing our important art now and so the audience will of course be all about that and if they don’t like it, it’s because they just don’t get it blah blah blah.” Shut up. Shut up, that improviser. No matter what kind of show you’re doing you still have a responsibility to pull the audience in, whether making them laugh, getting them to root for your character or tugging at their heartstrings and you have to earn those moments – the audience isn’t going to respond to you just because you’re on the stage and they paid to see you and geez they should appreciate what you’re trying to do because improv is hard. Good improv is hard. Bad improv is easy. Unless you’re a student and haven’t been doing this very long, you don’t get points simply getting up there. Good improv is hard work and when I’m in the audience, I want to see you work.
I think there is a lot of value in improvisers building strong connections with each other by taking their time but what is also great is when the energy between performers can establish that connection very quickly and sometimes take it to a more interesting emotional level. To use a romantic analogy – it’s the difference between politely asking if you can kiss someone, being granted permission and then kissing them lightly & respectfully VS sprinting across a room, sweeping them up in your arms, kissing them passionately and then ripping their clothes off. Both are very nice – and both have their problems (polite can be boring, passion fades) but the former implies a level of tentativeness that to the performers & audience members is less vibrant and exciting if that’s all there is. Starting with a polite kiss is nice, but I want to see it build to a fiery passion.
Now you could argue that the kind of connection and trust it takes to play quickly & with intensity with someone is something that takes time & trust to develop and in some ways I think you’re right, fictional improviser that is suddenly a part of this conversation. But you can start with evaluating how you’re playing and make different choices. For example, hyper-focusing on a scene, supporting the story and not being afraid to edit if the narrative calls for it or the energy starts to lag is a great place to start.
I often think of strong improvisers as like air-traffic controllers – tracking several different pieces of a story and deftly lining up all the different elements simultaneously while the show is in motion, all while utilizing intense concentration so that nothing falls through the cracks. That takes a lot of focus to build and a lot of energy to sustain. What I love to see is improv shows that thrum with energy. Not energy that’s flying off in all directions – I’m talking about a single beam that shoots off from the stage, runs through the audience like a current and lights up the back wall of the house. We can’t hit that back wall every time. There are nights when the energy is off, shows drag, listening skills fail and the audience and players are left feeling underwhelmed. Those shows happen but I strongly believe that if your focus is on keeping your own energy up and engaging your audience you will experience less and less of those nights.
Overall – Invest. Care. Love. Hate. Be ridiculous. Be brave. Be mean. Break hearts. Be heartbroken. Find your audience and hold them in the palm of your hand. Make them laugh, or cry or gasp or sigh. Make them care and the best way to do that is by caring yourself.