My father asked me this question in January after he had seen his very first improvisational show. He also asked me: “Why don’t you reuse the scenes that went great? Why let them go to waste?” And I have to admit: on the spot I did not have a good answer. I had never really thought about this. I knew that comedy and theatre companies around the world use improvisation as a technique to create material but I just went on stage, made something up, tried to justify it, hoped to inspire my partners, and took my bow.
So why don’t I write it down? Why do I hold this idea of “it only happens in the moment” so sacred? Would I tell better stories or be funnier if I actually worked on the ideas I created? Who would take a comedian, a writer, or - for this matter - a serious actor seriously that does not prepare, rehearse, and gets the best out of him or herself?
Unknowingly my father gave me the reason himself that night, although I needed some time to fully understand it.
“The thing I enjoyed watching were the actors reacting to each other. Playing, fooling, helping each other and finding themselves in moments in which I wondered, how would they make sense of this?”
I believe this is it. This is the true nature of the art of improvisation. It lies openly in the name of it. We improvise. We do not know what comes next. We handle the unknown and we let the audience in on the process.
I believe we are not comedians. We are not actors. We are not playwrights. We are improvisers. And by that we are all of those too, but we are most of all artists of the unknown (and I mean artists in the sense of art AND in the sense of a performer undergoing a dangerous act). We show audiences how we take nothing and create something through collective creation. We show them how we dance on the edge of the cliff. It is not perfection we are striving for, it is the thrill of the unknown, the thrill of: Will we make it to the end?
I believe this is why we are not writing and scripting our scenes. The scene is merely a mean to the art of creating instantly. It is enriched by the added value of the rush, the thrill of not knowing how it will work out. This is why car racing is more interesting than track racing because it can actually fail. It can fail with consequences. And that makes improvisation so interesting to watch and perform.
I find the “better” improvisers believe they are, the more they forget the aspect of the thrill or even try to hide it. Improvisation becomes perfect. Scenes become straight funny, stories are always well tied together, audiences are pleased, and we can guarantee a good show. But I do ask: Is this why the audience comes? And even more important: Is this why they come back? Or why we ourselves started improvising? I doubt it.
If I want to see something funny I would rather watch a well crafted and delivered comedy. If I want to hear a marvelous story I watch a good movie or read an inspiring book. I will watch improvisation when I want to see people take risks, struggle with the unknown and try to make sense out of all of this. This in itself is valuable, inspiring, and entertaining, and it distinguishes us from comedians, writers, and actors.
Most of all it prevents us from being boring. It allows us to be fresh, to be bold, to be brave, to be immediate, to be different, to be ourselves.
Let the perfectionists write. Let the improvisers dance on the edge of the cliff.