A Call To Arms (In The Name Of Improv)
Posted Dec 5, 2014 in Words
by Nick Edwards
Trying to explain what I do with Jet City never ceases to be a task, especially when it comes to our longform featured shows. Improv as a rule tends to defy categorization; refusing to fully commit to being sketch or performance art, defiantly theater but evasive from the pillars that hold up (or maybe pen in, depending on your perspective) scripted plays.
Even the genre umbrella of “comedy” will not contain all unscripted work–not because of any failure on the part of the players or show, but because it’s designed to play on other levels of drama or tragedy. While some groups or shows will bend or push improv in one direction or the other to suit their needs, the art form as a whole is elusive and pliable; taking on the flavors of the show, the players’ choices, as well as any given night’s performance.
This must be wearing on the relationship between audience and marketing. I can almost imagine the fictional conversation between marketing materials and those who encounter them.
Marketing Director: “We have a show! You should come!”
Potential Audience: “I love shows! What’s it about?”
Marketing Director: “We don’t know yet. It hasn’t happened.”
Potential Audience: “Seriously though, what happens in the show?”
Marketing Director: “Seriously, we don’t know. The improvisers will come out and get suggestions but the content will be different night-to-night.”
Potential Audience: “Let me get this straight. I worked all week. And now you want me to spend my hard-earned cash on a show that you can’t even tell me if it’ll be good or not.”
Marketing Director: “Yes. But I know it’ll be good! I promise it will!”
Potential Audience: “And who pays your salary?”
This month’s American Theatre featured not one, not two, but three (COUNT ‘EM, THREE) articles about the magical and arresting quality of longform improv. I don’t have a subscription but my Facebook timeline was drowning in links and shares. Patrick Stewart proclaims he is dazzled by the difference in story and characters night-to-night. Critic Jason Rohrer wonders if longform might be modern theatre’s salvation. The adulations pour from a bottomless tap.
As I read, two thoughts filled the whole of my brain simultaneously. The first: “Look at this amazing exposure!” The second: “It’s about damn time.”
Why? Because the amazing work being experienced by Jason Rohrer, self-proclaimed jaded LA theatre reviewer, by New York’s Scott Morfee of the Barrow Street Theatre, and even by the knight himself, Sir Patrick Stewart, is happening right here in Seattle. And has been for years. Jet City alone produces at least 5 – 7 new longform shows every year, not counting the work of the many other improv groups performing in countless venues around the city.
Now, time for some #realtalk. Not every show is going to blow your mind. Hell, not every show is going to be good. But so often I hear the excuse, “Well I saw these guys in college and they weren’t very good. I haven’t really seen a show since.” Or “I saw a show a few years back. I didn’t like it so I must not like improv.” Let me ask you, would you say this about ANYTHING else? “Well, some friends had a band in high school but they weren’t very good, so I don’t listen to music.” Or “I tried coffee once and it was pretty bitter, so my plan is to never taste it again.”
In Stewart’s article he questions, “How can this be improvisation? This is too perfect, too clever, too intelligent, too structured.” I can tell you this happens. A LOT. Stewart refused to believe it was improvised until he saw the same group three times.
It took Rohrer 5 shows (somewhere around 3 or more hours of solid performance) to come around to the idea that improv could be worthwhile to have on stage, let alone a groundbreaking and affecting form of art. He ends his article with that bit about salvation I mentioned earlier, “Here might be the salvation the theatre seeks. Here is a thing you cannot get anywhere but in person. You cannot see it on any screen, you cannot rewind it, you cannot ‘share’ it in a clip on social media. You can’t even go back and check the script. To be exhilarated in this way, you must attend a live venue in communion with other humans—and attend to the show as it is born, lives and dies.”
So I guess that is what I’m saying. GO SEE SHOWS. Because you might be missing something incredible. But who am I kidding? If you get emails from Jet City, you probably already know this stuff. I’m preaching to the choir. So do us a favor and bring someone who isn’t in the choir. Show someone who’s never seen improv or has had bad experiences with improv just how remarkable a night of unscripted performance can be. One of the articles speaks about improv’s coming of age when “an audience would pay admission to see something, and knowing not a word of it would be pre-planned.”
I hate to get all Smokey the Bear on you, but only you can make this dream a reality. It seems obvious and redundant to say but the only thing that will solve the lack of exposure to improv is exposure to improv. The gift-giving season is here, so why not give the gift of tickets? And we have shows all year for your a date nights, birthdays, whatever the occasion might be.
Geez, now I sound like a marketing director. I guess what I’m saying is, spread the good word about the incredible work we’re doing and keep improv in Seattle ahead of the curve.
Nick Edwards has been a cast member at Jet City Improv since 2008 and currently appears in Upside Downton: The Christmas Special and Uncle Mike Ruins Christmas. He is also an actor and writer in the Seattle theatre community at large and has performed with Annex Theatre, ArtsWest Playhouse, Balagan Theatre, The Beta Society, Book-It Repertory Theatre, GreenStage, Ghostlight Theatricals, Northwest Playwrights Alliance, Seattle Opera, Second Story Repertory, Theater Schmeater, Unexpected Productions and The Upfront Theatre, among others.