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.

Ours is not to reason why…but that’s totally what this post is about.

I haven’t done completely scripted theatre in a long time, although I know many other improvisers do both. Every once in a while I think about auditioning but I have so many different improv projects on my calendar that I don’t think about it much. I’ve had some really fun experiences in scripted plays but I did often feel constrained by them. Even when a scripted role allows for some room to play around, you still generally need to maintain consistency for the sake of the overall direction & so that you don’t screw up your fellow performers by say, blowing a cue line. I greatly admire actors that are able to maintain a consistent scripted performance night after night while still keeping things fresh & breathing new life into every show. I never felt like I was too good at that.

There are many intangible things that I like about improv and I could wax on about them forever. For example, I’ve mentioned the collaborative aspect which I love. These things speak more to feelings & theory as opposed to concrete differences you see on a stage as an audience member and as a group of bloggers I imagine theory is something we’ll delve into often (especially me because I ramble A LOT). So instead, here is a list of relatively specific things that I like about improv in practice.


1. gives you a chance to play a variety of different characters all the time, often in the same show. If you usually get cast in scripted shows as the funny side-kick or doting mother, improv provides the opportunity to play the action hero, the evil queen, the precocious child and on & on. The stage is your playground.

2. always has the chance to be “current” in that we can incorporate events of the day into a show the same night. Very satisfying at times.

3. travels well & helps you play with others. Dust-ups, Mash-ups, Duos – there are a number of different ways to throw improvisers into a show together who have never played with each other before & in many cases (festivals) haven’t even met prior to the show. Even though styles of play are different all over the world, most improvisers have a common language which allows them to jump right into doing a show together.

4. can incorporate anything happening in the space. From a cell phone ringing to the lights going out by accident, improv shows can not only comment on things going wrong in the space but can make those flukes an integral part of the scene, to the extent that it looks like the performers knew it was going to happen all along.

5. is shaped by the audience. If the crowd that night is responding to broader characters & poop humor – you can tailor the show thusly. If they seem to be intruged by witty dialogue, styles work, etc… then the show can go that way. While I’m not a huge poop fan myself, I really like that the style of theatre we do allows for the show to swing any direction we want.

6. gives the audience a voice. This is one of the more obvious ones but I’ll end with it because sometimes as a performer I forget how cool it is for the audience to participate. When an audience member gives a suggestion and then they get to watch a scene unfold that is so good it shoots the lights out – that’s a wonderful feeling. Even when the scene is simple or silly & goofy it’s really fun for them. Improvisers grouse sometimes about drunk or obnoxious audience members trying to mess with them and that does happen. However, for the most part I think audience members, even when they give poop suggestions, are trying to be helpful and want the show to succeed.

So there you go. Six reason and I’m sure there are many many more. Long live the  ‘prov!

Why Improv? (why not Improv?)

“Why Improv?” Or my favorite question of any talkback after a performance “so, which part was improvised and which part was scripted .” (answer: ALL of it was improvised…)

But to the point; why improv? I will refer to the title. Why not Improv?

When I began this journey 28 years ago  – playing improv games for theater classes and then working as a character in Atlantic City Casinos (yeah, I was a clown, wanna make something of it?) –  i realized I liked jumping off cliffs. Even as I worked professionally after college and moved to Seattle in 1989, I still found myself trying and doing the thing that was a challenge.

And this is unusual since I am typically a person that tries to do the least amount possible to have a the desired effect. Really. My main motion is to a point of stasis.

But one thing about Improv that always excited me was the chance to make something not just from my brain, but from a shared experience. Shared with the audiences suggestions the other actors offers and motions and my additions to the action. Form that crazy stew of personal interactions came this wonderfully joyous and beautiful output. That is what drew me in at first.

But then the question becomes; what keeps you? Why is it STILL Improv? (again… Why not Improv?) What keeps me is the continued lesson of Improv; What it is like to accept and add to offers daily – The fun of watching character interaction in everyday life – the narrative unfolding as you get older. It all feels connected to me. The journey being a shared experience, with suggestions and offers from others and my additions to the action. To me, there is not a question of ‘why Improv?’ Since I think it is everywhere. We can’t plan our lives, but we can prepare and be ready for what comes.

Plus – I love to make people laugh. Joy. It’s a good thing.



Carnival of Improv Blogging: Why Improv?

carnival posterHello and welcome to the second Carnival of Improv Blogging here at Around the Block Improv!

This week’s topic will be: Why Improv?

Why do you do improv rather than other art forms? What is it about improvising that really does it for you? Why should other people be doing improv? Anything that could conceivably be an answer to that incredibly simple yet inclusive question is desired.

If you want to be included, just go ahead and write away wherever you can, post it somewhere that everyone can see, and leave a link to that post here in the comments below by next Sunday, September 23. Then, on the 24th, I’ll write up a summary of everyone’s posts, complete with links.

Happy writing!

The Tao of Improv: Favor and Disgrace

Favor and disgrace are alarming
Honor and distresses visit the self.

Why are favors and disgraces alarming?
Seeking favor is degrading,
alarming when it’s gotten,
alarming when it’s lost.

Tao Te Ching, 13 Breath

Over the course of the last year, I feel like my personal approach to improv has changed drastically. I am moving towards being much more selfish in my improv. I can point to two things that I think are the root causes: the 2012 Seattle Festival of Improvisation, and having a second child.

The having a second child cause is super obvious: I have less time to give to improvisation, so I have to be selfish with that time. I can’t do all the improv that I might want to do, because there is not enough time for that. So I have found myself having to be very picky indeed with what shows/jams/classes I can participate in. An upside to this is that it has forced me to start thinking more about what improv is really important to me, and I think I am coming away with a clearer picture of who I am as an improviser. Downside of course is less improv.

rubber stamp of Loki

Picture from DeviantArt user AliceInAutumn

The 2012 SFIT was slightly more complicated. I took some delightful workshops that year, and one of the things I really took home with me was the idea of improvising selfishly: to do the things that you want to be doing/that make you happy on stage. It really comes down to improvising from a place of inspiration rather than one of obligation. Improv, for the most part, is a team game, and so obligation will probably be present in some form, but it makes sense to me that inspiration will lead you to your best work. And if the things you want to be doing are disruptive to the show/group you are in? Guess what? You are in the wrong show/group. Get out. They probably aren’t paying you enough to do improv you don’t want to be doing.

So what does all this have to do with the Tao? Well, I’m going with the notion that “seeking favor” in this case refers to improvising with the intent of making an audience react. This can be anything from that line you thought of that you really want to work in to get a laugh all the way to trying to make Elicia cry. Seeking favor is degrading, as you are (I would bet) not doing the improv you want to do, but rather doing the improv you think the audience wants to see. You degrade your own work in order to keep banging on that Skinnerian treat bar, expecting another delicious yet fleeting pellet of audience reaction.

Let’s say you do get the reaction you were looking for: then what happens? You (the actor) have accomplished your objective (to get the reaction), so there are three big options for you:

  1. Search for a new objective. This will take a little bit of time, and it will probably be noticeable by the audience.
  2. Leave. Could be awkward, especially if you character has no motivation to do so.
  3. Call the scene. Only really an option in short form.

In any case, the favor of the audience was alarming to the scene.

Let’s say you didn’t get the reaction you were looking for. Then you will probably be up in your analytic brain trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Again, alarming to the scene.

Rather, if you improvise selfishly, with no regard to seeking the audience’s favor, then you are better prepared to be in the moment of the scene and be ready to jump on any inspiration that scene brings. I would definitely argue that the audience will enjoy that scene more than the one that happens to end on a big laugh line, and certainly more than the one that should have ended on that laugh line, continued anyway, and fizzled for lack of actor connection.

So I would encourage more people to improvise selfishly. If nothing else, I think it will make you think about yourself as an improviser and what you like about improv. And that’s a great first step to creating the improv show you want to be doing.

Stop Trying To Make Me Cry

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard improvisers will sometimes work to make their scenes “meaningful” while completely missing the potential meaning in everything that’s happening around them. When players shoe-horn drama into scenes in a specific effort to try and be profound it generally reeks of the effort and loses the point of improv entirely.

The same is true of forcing a joke. If you’ve been improvising for awhile, I’m sure you’ve experienced that empty feeling when you threw a gag into a scene at an ill-timed moment and had it go over like a lead balloon. However, I think we tend to  talk openly about a comedic move not working when we’re chatting post-show whereas we applaud the effort when a dramatic move bombs because we want to reward improvisers working to expand beyond the funny even when that effort stinks to high heaven.

This sort of thing does happen in short form but comes up more frequently in long form. A common trap when improvisers move from short form to long form is that they start to over-think that hell out of everything because they are determined to be profound.  As a result, rather than being open to the story and their fellow improvisers they get distracted by goals they’ve set for themselves to try “dramatic” or “meaningful” things and end up doing banal & sometimes flat-out masturbatory scenes.

I greatly prefer not forcing anything in scene work. There is amazing potential in every scene for the story to go a thousand different ways but you have to be open to it. If you’re forcing a scene in a certain direction, whether it be comedy or drama , it’s going to come across as just that – forced.  You have to earn it.

How do you earn it? Moments where emotions are running high & the subject matter is intense have to come out of the scene organically & you have to respond to them honestly (in character).  Above all – you have to be willing to be VULNERABLE (in character). Why do I put VULNERABLE in all caps? Because I think that emotional vulnerability (in character) is really really important to good scene work and I don’t see it nearly enough on the improv stage. Allow your characters to have something to lose and then, allow them to lose it now & then. Too often improvisers interpret arguing as drama which is just about the most boring thing to watch ever for longer than a couple of minutes. Two people fighting onstage without either of them being affected or being willing to lose is not interesting or compelling, it’s annoying. At some point one of them has to change and allow their character to be surprised, hurt or perhaps concede a point and find a connection.

Why do I keep writing (in character)? Because I’m talking about acting – not catharsis. All of your life experiences give you a wealth of information from which to draw onstage but you have to keep it relevant to the story & the character you’re playing in a particular scene. I know this is pretty basic stuff for most folks but I think it bears repeating once in awhile.

Why is all of this important to me? Because I’ve been in some really wonderful, connected and meaningful scenes over the years. When you stop forcing and just let the scene play out using what’s right in front of you, it’s so satisfying for the players and the audience. I want all improvisers to experience that feeling. Those moments can happen in short form scenes as well as long form plays and when they do happen it’s like a jolt of electricity that courses not only through the players but also out into the house. You can feel it when you have an audience on the edge of their seats.  It’s one of my favorite things about what we do. But I submit that the harder you try to force it – the less likely you are to ever experience it.

Be open. Listen. Play. Respond. Use what’s already in the scene. Those “meaningful” moments will find you when you least expect them.

Carnival Roundup: Getting to Know You

Here’s the results of our first ever Carnival of Improv Blogging, where we asked to get to know you a little better:

carnival posterStarting off with the pieces that our editors wrote, Elicia Wickstead tells us about that critical moment when it became clear to her that she was a theatre nerd and had found a home among improvisers; Joel Dale talks about how being late to an improv audition may have been the first big step in his improv journey; Dave Clapper writes about how his love of group-generated art brought him back to the improv folds not long ago after a long hiatus; Next, we get a quick trip through the improv life and times of Phill Arensberg, coming to a head at the thoughts he has been having most recently about improv; I’m next on the list, with a brief history of Ian, focusing on the improv-y bits; and rounding out our merry band is Andrew McMasters, who tells us a little about his love affair with the audience and how he stays so darn upbeat all the time.

Of course, the carnival is not all about the editors, and this time we got two submissions from the readers as well! First off we have Holden, who gives us a short piece on the somewhat therapeutic role improv has played in his life. Secondly, we have Douglas Willot, who tells us about young him, whose brain was altered by improv and started turning him into the well-oiled improvisational man/machine he is today.

There, that about does it for our inaugural carnival. I’m very happy to see all the responses we have gotten so far. So I command you: go, read, comment if you are inspired to, lurk if you are not. We’ll see if we can’t get another carnival up and off the ground next week. I’m optimistic.

Getting To Know You: Elicia Wickstead

I’ve been improvising for half my life. It’s become second-nature. Most of my friends are improvisers. My husband is an improviser. It’s a rare day that the improv world is not in my face in some way.

I was a really shy kid without much direction until high school. At the encouragement of my father, I got into choir which I enjoyed very much because I love to sing. At the encouragement of my choir director, I decided to try drama as well and the rest is history. There is a special thrill & a sort of homecoming when you finally find your brand of nerd. It was my drama buddies that took me to see my first improv show at UP in Seattle.

Whenever anyone asks why I got into improvisational theatre specifically, I always tell the same story. The first time I ever went to a show, my friends had to convince me that it was improvised. Not because it was spectacularly funny (it was) or because it was totally seamless (it wasn’t) but because the performers were so well connected, displayed so much trust & such good listening skills that I was sure there was some sort of secret language I was missing.

That connection between performers is what keeps me invested above all else. I love getting a great laugh from an audience, surprising them and of course the occasional awww moment, but above all trust & support are my favorite things about a great improv scene.  In order to build that trust & support, you have to be trustful & supportive and that’s what I try to be. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I suppose my improv philosophy in a nutshell is – be the kind of player with whom you would like to play. When it works, it’s a wonderful thing.

I’m happy to be a part of this group of wonderful Seattle improv bloggers – geeking out about a subject dear to our hearts.  Thank you all for reading.