Impro Sorting Hat

I’ve just had the wonderful experience of playing and directing the London 50 hour soap a thon.  The theme was Western and the show called The Good, The Bad and The Fifty – a marvellous title. A talented cast of improvisors with acting and comedic experience leapt fearlessly into every challenge given by the directors (me & Showstoppers Adam Meggido). The stories were rich, moving and very funny and the stage came alive with the reality of Wilton’s Creek and all it’s inhabitants. 

I love the soaps for the special joy they unleash. It reminds me of my days at the Loose Moose Theatre the same balance of discovery, comedy, story and depth.

On the plane to Sweden I was pondering ‘How could this group of people, who don’t really know each other and some have little or no impro experience, play together so beautifully with such trust and commitment? Why does this happen when other companies, who work together a lot, have such little connection and the cast struggle to find themselves?

Then one of the soap cast members shared with us a letter from a student who came to watch just one episode but was so enthralled he kept coming back.

I’d like to share a snippet from his letter. He said;

‘I thought Art was about creating something for the universe to remember us, but now I understand that Art, just like life, is caring about those around you and building with them as much as you can in the time you are given. ‘

This helped put something into perspective for me.  The what  of what we are doing.  The differences in our work is not comedy vs. theatre, long form vs. short form it is tricks vs. content.

The Trick improvisors perform improvisation to improvise.
They use quick tap outs, suggestions, clever word play, fast edits and cut too, etc. It is a demonstration of mental dexterity and lighting quick cleverness. They like to show the tricks and take pleasure in playing them. The improviser audience relationship is ‘we perform, you watch, we have a good time, goodnight’. The primary aim is to entertain through impressing the audience with the speed and surprise of the spontaneous mind and what it can do when put to the test.

The Content improvisors perform improvisation to create through improvisation.
They consider creative objectives, emotion, story, genre, content, lighting, staging, music and audience experience etc.  They like to create content and take pleasure in what can be created, explored and revealed through spontaneous discovery. It requires the improviser to use their body, emotions, stage pictures, audience engagement and acting technique. The improviser audience relationship is ‘we want to capture your imagination, we want you to have an experience, we want you to leave here tonight feeling or thinking about something from the show.’ The primary aim is to entertain through creating scenes and stories that engage the audience’s imagination, emotions, wonder and thought.

This doesn’t mean that Trick players don’t want to capture the audiences imagination or that Content players don’t want to impress with a demonstration of skill, but there is a clear difference in their main driving force of why they improvise and what they want.

The difference between these two whys is quite clear to me and reflects and encompasses much of what I see in the international impro scene. I see people struggling in a format or group because their why doesn’t aline with the work. I see shows that struggle because the players don’t know the why or what.  I see unhappy and terrified players who feel they are failing but their why doesn’t connect with the school they are with or the what of the show they are in.

Have you asked yourself, Why do I improvise?  It’s not a bad question to ask.
Try it now.

Do you improvise because you like impressing the audience with speed and surprise?  You don’t want to be held to any previous moment, don’t enjoy playing emotions and just want to follow the fun? You enjoy games with fast delivery or challenge like the mousetrap.  If so, you like tricks.

Do you improvise because you like engaging the audience’s imagination, emotions, wonder and thought? You like to play emotion and enjoy when the scenes or show builds on the original promise. Family scenes, politics and genres interest you. If so, you like content.

I feel like the impro sorting hat.

But what if you like both?  Great!  You don’t have to choose one over the other, just know what the aim is of the show you are in or group you are with.

Can you have both in one show?  Yes, of course. Usually though one is the primary and if you are not clear the other can take over, so it is good to have a clear aim with your group. Often a ‘trick’ player can feel trapped or bored in a content show and a ‘content’ player can feel rejected or hurt if someone stomps on an emotional moment to get a quick laugh.  Being clear can help your players navigate, understand and have a way of communicating afterwards.

Either is fine, of course, create what you want. They both require us to play in the moment, connect and support our colleagues, accept offers and leap into the unknown. Neither is a higher or better form. Neither is specifically or only comedic or dramatic. Neither is more short or long, they can be 5 seconds to 50 hours. They are what they are and produce the work that they do.

If I ask myself what is the purpose of the soap, for me it is to engage the audience’s imagination, emotions, wonder and thought.  It is also surprising and funny but it stays in context of the world we create together.  So for me the primary aim is content and we use tricks for freedom of play and surprise and I love it!  

My experience of the London soap a thon is so very satisfying because the aim of the show fits with what I enjoy playing and I was doing it with amazing people focused on the same aim.

The audience member’s letter shows me we succeeded and that brings a big smile to my face.

If you are unclear with your work, your group or your shows I encourage you to have the conversation.

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