Many improvisers make the case that improvisation isn’t just comedy, and I agree; Improvisation is a form of theatre1. And yet, we rarely treat it as such. We treat improvisation as if it is comedy, and then expect our audience to understand that it can be more.
The truth of the matter is that most improv shows are set up in the same vein as comedy shows: on a weekly or monthly basis with little to no rehearsal time. As opposed to theatre shows which run in a season with 4 or 5 shows throughout the year, and have months of rehearsals leading up to them.
When I was a member of Vancouver’s !nstant Theatre co. in the early 2000′s we had a season. And it was great. The shows were chosen in advance, by the director Alistair Cook, and the focus of each was completely different. We did a show called Premiere which was a standard improvised play, followed by a show about ghost stories called Campfire. We did a Blank Slate, a Transformation based show and if i remember correctly, Antiques Improv Roadshow was a part of that same season. Each show explored a different idea of improvisation and so our season felt eclectic and well thought out.
I felt l like I was part of a theatre company, not a comedy troupe. Most improv today feels like the latter.
What I’m trying to do with The Paper Street Theatre co. is the former. Our season so far has comprised An Improvised Tennessee Williams, An Improvised Samuel Beckett, and this week we open An Improvised Film Noir. This is our first season, so the shows weren’t announced in advance, but this fall I plan to announce our entire 4 show season. Maybe I’ll even offer a season’s pass.
Why? Because improvisation is theatre. So improv companies should emulate theatre, not comedy. I’m not saying all of the shows need to be theatrical styles (or that they can’t be funny), but maybe the season should be in the style of theatre instead of the style of stand-up or sketch comedy. It would at least change the way the audience looks at your work. So far I think the audience who comes to see Paper Street shows do think of us as theatre. I believe this because the last few radio interviews I’ve done, the host makes a point of telling people that our show isn’t like most improv, but instead it’s like theatre (and I don’t have to prompt him, he just says it now). The Sunday Night Improv show I run on a monthly basis on the other hand, that feels like a comedy show (and for the most part, it is).
The bottom line is this. If you want people to look at improv as if it is theatre, you should start making your improv look like theatre. Not only on the stage, but also in how your company works.
1 At least improvised theatre is a form of theatre, Jazz would be a form of music. But you know I mean.↩