My Improv Life

Climbing the mountain

I had one of those weird improv revelations the other day.

I was chatting with a fellow improvisor who I find to be really talented, but whose shows I don’t tend to enjoy. I’ve seen him do improv previously that I loved, and I’ve felt like the stuff he’s doing now is sort of beneath him.  So while I can go see his current show and enjoy him as a performer, I don’t enjoy the show itself. So I asked him if he was challenged in his work.

I was surprised, on some level, to get an unequivocal yes. And he rushed forward with a passionate discourse on finding the game, in a level of detail that I found at once both exhilarating and mind-numbing, on some level. He talked about listening in a way that really intrigued me, but then talked about applying it to the game in ways that didn’t particularly draw me in as an improvisor at all.

I was trained in a Johnstone house. What motivates me is character and narrative and status work. So finding the game is somewhat foreign to me. I’ve done some UCB training, but it’s not what comes naturally to me. “Game” doesn’t intrigue me the way narrative & character do. I want to tell stories, not find games.

Having this conversation with my friend suddenly brought me back to a workshop I’d taken with Jonathan Pitts last year, where he talked about improv training as climbing a mountain. There’s eight different ways to learn or be taught improv (he listed them all) and you can use any of those methods to become a great improvisor. And when you start out, and you’re at the base of the mountain of learning, anyone can play with anyone, because the first things you learn are pretty much the same.

But then you start moving up the mountain, and you’re midway up the peak, and you’re learning your Johnstone status work. And you look around over at a guy on the other side, who’s also working his way up, but he’s finding the game, UCB style, and it’s like, WTF? How are you getting up this mountain like that?  That makes no sense!

Once you get to the top, you can all play together again, because you have all your tools. They have all their tools. Playing field is level again.

So, back to my friend… what I realized is that though we have pretty much climbed the mountain, our journey there has focused us on different things. We aren’t interested in the same aspects of improv. We can play together, if we want to, but the formats we want to explore on a regular basis are not the same at all.  And… that’s totally okay.  Which is really amazing!

What’s most important is that we play at the top of our game and keep elevating the art form. The fact that we focus on different things, that we have different interests, mean that we take this amazing improv thing in totally new different directions. The more improv there is in the world, with more variety, the better off we all are. Score!

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