In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.
— Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut
In the past week and change, I’ve not only taken workshops from Rachael Mason, Jill Bernard, Rick Andrews, Will Luera, and Craig Cackowski, but have also seen them perform. These performances came in the form of two shows: the first was in San Francisco and featured Rachael Mason with Philip Markle and EndGames Improv; the second was at Camp Improv Utopia East in Milford, PA and featured the remaining instructors above with Paul Vaillancourt (also an instructor at the camp) and Nick Armstrong. It was interesting to see how the lessons compared against the playing styles I saw on stage, leading me to refine my thoughts on the different approaches one should take to learning in workshops, practicing at rehearsals, and performing in shows.
Improv workshops tend to highlight simple ideas and patterns. When the patterns in the workshop are followed, the results tend to be more successful than what the improvisers might have accomplished in their absence. This was certainly true of the workshops I attended. The scenes that came out of Rachael’s scene work class were consistently intelligent and hilarious and all the scenes emerged from a similar pattern of play; Jill’s fireball had us playing fun scenes by going faster than we normally would; Rick’s class highlighted how playing scenes authentically could create relateable characters and still produce laughter; Will’s class broke down a relationship arc into different components and demonstrated the humor that could emerge in each; and Craig’s class showed us how effort (projecting confidence and joy) can be more significant to the audience’s perception and enjoyment of a set than execution (e.g. satisfying other constraints that one might feel would lead to good improv scenes).
While one doesn’t necessarily find a simple formula or pattern emerging out of a show, that doesn’t prevent a show from being enjoyable or funny. Both of the shows that I saw were great, but of all the patterns and ideas discussed, the main invariant was what Craig mentioned in his class. In both the shows that I saw, the improvisers on stage were projecting confidence with quick edits, confident body language, and running with whatever information came their way. The smiles, laughter, and playfulness that I saw in both sets left me with the sense that they were all enjoying themselves. In the end, I wasn’t focused on whether an improviser was reacting authentically, establishing a relationship, naming a scene partner, etc. I was just enjoying how much fun everyone was having and what it produced.
If execution is less important in performances, but workshops tend to showcase the potency of simple techniques, what approach should one take to learning, practicing, and performing improv? My takeaway is the following:
- learning – there are multiple techniques that lead to solid scenes and sets, and the act of learning improv is to gain awareness of these techniques, in large part to appreciate the diversity of choices available.
- practicing – since we’ve established that getting on the same page with some simple patterns can lead to more succesful sets, a team and its coach should find some subset of techniques from classes/workshops/elsewhere that resonate and work towards drilling those to muscle memory. At the same time, practicing with fellow teammates helps build group mind and lets people become familiar with the choices others make.
- performing – regardless of where teams or individuals are on the muscle memory front, performances are about projecting confidence through one’s choices and taking delight in the unexpected ways in which they might complement the choices of one’s teammates. If everyone on the team is doing this, then that effort will come through in the performance.