This article is about the great mystery of improv that has been called by many, many names over the years. I hope to give greater clarity to this mysterious force and to do so I will fall back, again, on my sports metaphors.
Back in 1981 Keith Johnstone had been asked to come to Vancouver with members of the newly formed Loose Moose Theatre company and compete and teach in the world’s first improv tournament. This was prior to the creation of the now 25 year old Vancouver Theatresports League and was the brainchild of several actors in Vancouver who had befriended the Calgary artists and wished to learn more from our experience.
Even though I did not even play on this team I was so keen on this new artform that I travelled to the coast to cheer on my pals. After the first half of the first show the Loose Moose team had put in a fairly dismal performance and I joined the team backstage to hear what coach Keith would have to say about it. Keith Johnstone may be the world’s foremost expert on improvisation but his sports knowledge leaves something to be desired, and here he was in the locker room at half-time with a dispirited team playing poorly and he tried in his theatre way to "buck up" the players.
He told them this - and I will paraphrase as it was so many years ago: “Its important for Calgary to win this match. We must show this new group that our style and approach to improv is the only way to perform. What seems to be missing from your play so far is the ‘magic’.” I remember this phrase well, ‘the magic’. It stands out in my memory as certain players were actually angry when they heard this. What do you mean, ‘magic’? What technique are we missing, what moments are we not grasping? They wanted details and exact ones. All Keith would say is there needed to be more "magic".
The second half resumed and in a close match the Calgary team won but it was not a decisive victory in any way. However, the audience loved it, a new theatre company in Vancouver was born and they have been selling out shows for 25 years - so a great success.But this idea of ‘magic’ haunted me. I did not understand it at the time, but I now know what he meant. Improvisors need to learn the techniques of improv and presentation and learn them well: Say yes, offer and accept, bring charactors to life, advance the action, be aware of the sticky stage, make the other player look good, etc etc. Then there is the ‘magic’. Keith’s lack of sports education (he never played any sport in any time of his life ever) did not give him the vocabulary he needed. What he was referring to was "play".
Hockey players learn and practice the skills of the sport: skating, shooting, passing, etc. but when they are in a game they do not think about doing these skills, they simply play. Teams that have fun play well and win often. Teams that look unhappy, who don’t work tougher, play poorly. They lose.
So new improvisors must learn all the basic skills of improv, but when it comes time to perform they must put all these skills into the back of their mind and simply play. Pre-school children have the most fun when play is easy and co-operative. They create little narratives and often act them out, basically improvising. As you grow, the concept of play becomes uncool and is beaten out of you by your teachers. Improvisors must re-discover how to play. Some young improvisors believe that mis-behavior is the route to play - partially true - but mis-behavior over and over again becomes tedious, hogs the focus and is not a good way to make the other team members look good.
Mis-behavior in improv is just like mis-behavior in real life. During a show a player will speak out of turn, jump into the audience for no reason, throw stuff, etc. I was the master of this in my first year of theatresports, so much so that a penalty box called “the bag head” was invented for me. Offending players would be punished by sitting for a period of time with a paper bag over their head. To date I have the most recorded bag heads so I know of what I speak.
My advice to new and intermediate players is simply this: learn the techniques of improv over and over until they become intuitive and when it comes time to perform: PLAY. If you and your team mates are having fun, the audience will be pulled into the atmosphere you have created. But you must learn the techniques. There are workshops being taught by less experienced improvisers who are telling new players that anyone can improvise at anytime with no effort. This is bullshit. It takes time and effort to learn the skills of this artform and then you must re-learn how to play to bring the ‘magic’ into your performance.
Many thanks to Keith Johnstone for the years of wonderful training.