Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Come on down to the Improv Sock-Hop!

I do Improv. Have I mentioned this?

Nope. I never talk about Improv on here. Of course, lately, I don’t talk about a lot on here as my level of blog-neglect has shot up from inconsiderate to irresponsible.

Improv is great. I’ve been doing it for a year and a half now, and I love it. For those who don’t know, Improv is the art of making up the show as you go along. The most important rule is: “Yes and….” In other words: listen to your scene partners and be supportive. The goal is to build a great scene, not to be the star. It’s usually funny, but it doesn’t have to be. For some, Improv is a hobby. For others, it’s a lifestyle. It’s changed my life. It has made me a better writer, a more confident person, and it’s introduced me to a bunch of truly wonderful people.

(It’s also a theater chain, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Because we’re making it up as we go along, we never know what we’re going need, so we have to mime all the props. This is called object work, and sometimes object work defines the scene. For example, an improviser steps out onstage and starts miming making a pizza. Immediately, we know a pizza is being made onstage, but there are a bunch of ways the scene could go. Are we in a pizza parlor? Are we in somebody’s home? Is the scene going to be about two teenage girls who inherit their dead father’s Italian restaurant? Is it going to be about two aliens making pizza for the first time after a trip to Earth? The possibilities go on and on, and they’re all rooted in one improviser’s object work. Which brings us to a weird Improv phenomenon.

While talking with my boyfriend, who is also an improviser, he mentioned how he had started a scene by using a pencil tablet in lieu of a computer mouse. (Incidentally, he uses a pencil tablet in real life). In his mind, his character was on a computer, but to his scene partners, he was writing by hand. A minor misunderstanding, but it changes everything. We just went from an office building on the eve of the Financial Crisis, to Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence (or some such whatever).

This intrigued me. I thought about what would happen if I initiated a scene by drawing in the air with my finger. In my head, my character was using an iPad, but I knew that in the creative rush of building of scene, my fellow performers would most likely assume I was finger painting. Or a human Etch a Sketch. Or conducting an orchestra comprised entirely of ladybugs and fleas. Or anything but using an iPad. Maybe the iPad would occur to someone, but unless I initiated with, “I love this here iPad!” I don’t see it being a first choice.

(This entry has not been endorsed by Apple. If you’re reading this, Apple, please don’t have me killed.)

Improv is a constantly changing art form. It thrives on the culture around it. Shows are filled with topical details and references. And yet in some ways, Improv doesn’t have much regard for modern technology…or modern anything. Scenes often take place in arcades and ice cream parlors; places that, though they still exist, are hardly the social landmarks they were in the past. Again and again, we name our characters Jimmy and Sally, Billy and Susie; names you’re likelier to find in your parents’ yearbook than at the local bar. I’ve yet to see a scene that hinges on whether anybody has an Internet connection (though, to be fair, I’m sure it’s been done). Improv scenes seem to take place in a permanent limbo of non-specific time where our technological advancements, if they exist at all, are an afterthought.

(By the way, during the aforementioned conversation, my boyfriend referred to this phenomenon as “the Improv Sock-Hop.” Hence the subject line. I now feel compelled to send him royalties for something I am not being paid to write.)

I’m not saying technology has no place in Improv. In two recent shows, some of the biggest laughs of the night came from sudden, clever references to our digital friends. In one of these, after a running gag about two scientists making up increasingly ridiculous names for their fake gadgets, a third character suggested they just use an iPhone. In the other, a murder scene, one character stepped out of his post-crime panic to make a snide remark about his friend still using a flip phone. Anybody living in our digital society could (and did) appreciate the humor of those moments, but these were punchlines to bigger jokes. I’m not saying improvisers are Luddites, but what makes technology useful in the real world can make it boring in Improv.

Technology is everywhere; it’s instinctive. It informs our relationships and indulges our whims. In some ways, it has taken the place of imagination. Why stop and wonder about anything, when you essentially have all the information in the world at your fingertips? Technology exists to make our lives easier, to solve our problems, but it also robs us of uncertainty’s rich potential.  

Improv is all about imagination. It’s all about relationships and listening and creativity, but all those things depend on the imagination of the participants. When I’m eating a hamburger onstage, I’m eating a hamburger. I can see it and taste it. Sometimes if I’m tagged out while I’m eating, I walk offstage still chewing. Maybe modern conveniences don’t always occur to us onstage, because they’re EVERYWHERE ELSE. They don’t stimulate the imagination. They’re boring to mime. They answer all of our questions for us, so what’s the point of asking? There’s plenty of time for texting, real or imaginary, back in the real world. You don’t want use a gadget in a scene because you’d rather be robbing a grave or battling a wizard…or eating a hamburger.

(Trust me. I make the best pretend hamburgers.)

Also as an improviser who was born in the 80’s and frequently performs with people who were born in the 80’s, I think that our reliance on arcades and ice cream parlors is rooted in nostalgia. Likewise, maybe gadgets don’t occur to us as much because we grew up without them, and as we all know, there are few combinations greater (and more productive) than imagination and nostalgia.

Why we keep naming each other Sally is anyone’s guess.








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