“To discover the potential games in each scene, players must pay close attention from the start. They must be especially careful to notice their own lines, since players often aren’t aware of the games they are setting up themselves.”Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.86
This might be a slightly out-of-the-box entry in that there are four varieties of balance that are worthy of mention here. Instead of prioritizing one concept to stand alone I’d like to address each in turn.
Balance can be used to refer to the initial state of the world as our scene or improvised play begins. In a structuralist or Aristotelian model, it is the play before it has been ignited or changed in such a way as to begin the rising action. This momentum will then, in turn, eventually lead to the climax and finally the resolution. This is the varietal of balance cited in the quote above, and it is indeed crucial to bring a high level of attentiveness to the opening moves of the scene as these details will often provide helpful ingredients with which the rest of the scene can be formulated. While I love jump-starting scenes in the middle, and all the dynamic energy this often brings, there is also something to be said for a more patient deliberate start, especially if you are working in the long-form modality where it is more likely that there will be time to really unpack ideas that have been planted in these early moments.
Connected to this concept of balance is the tradition of CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective and Where) or the related acronym WWW (Who, What and Where). When these details are crafted with care and love during the opening of a scene, improvisers are more likely to have a strong and nuanced base from which to build their creative journeys. This dynamic is synonymous with the concept of a platform or routine awaiting something to interrupt or tilt the world into a new trajectory. It’s important to note that the scenic balance does not suggest nor necessitate a lack of dynamism or energy. The given circumstances of your world may be quite elevated right from the get-go: you might already be in the grasp of the zombie apocalypse, your family might be in the thick of financial struggles and on the verge of losing their home due to staggering debts, or the colony of field mice might already be in the throes of escaping from the enemy brigade of cats. These energetic scenarios all may serve as a balance for a scene awaiting the discovery of what makes this day different from all the rest.
Balance can also be used to refer to the way in which we work together as an ensemble. When a group is operating successfully, there is often a sense that all the parts of the improv machine are functioning and interacting with ease, and that each cog is doing just the right amount of creative work, no more or less. It can prove truly challenging to address “act hunger” in improv: the desire of each individual to be seen and to contribute in a way that gives meaning and joy can be difficult to skillfully accommodate and nurture. And yet, if ensemble members routinely feel overlooked, under-featured or poorly utilized, this can quickly undermine the cohesion that is so integral to communal creativity.
I’ve written about shining elsewhere, and this consideration provides some frames and strategies for considering how we share the light of the stage. It’s important to note that balance in this setting is not synonymous with equal stage time necessarily, although this certainly could be one measure especially in performances such as short-form competitions where an attentive host or team can adjust their line-up or focus based on who has already had a featured opportunity to play. Rather, I would offer that balance is more a consideration of generosity and awareness. Was the company cognizant when players became under-utilized and was this addressed when it could be done so in terms of the established form or genre? Were acts of selflessness and generosity recognized and valued? Did the company as a whole fully support the central story as it emerged?
We can also consider Balance in terms of our company demographics and commitment to inclusiveness. Are we actively pursuing balance in terms of who we see on stage, what stories we are telling, and whose voices we are uplifting and featuring? Improv has historically struggled with this sense of balance, and it has rightly been called upon to continue questioning its unchecked biases and charged with finding new ways to diversify its membership and leadership. Many movements, such as Augusto Baol’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Viola Spolin’s original theatre games, and Jonathan Fox’s Playback Theatre, have defined themselves as movements committed to sharing the tools and power of creativity. Modern mainstream improv, though often influenced by similar philosophies, has not had a strong track record of similarly opening its doors and stages.
I intend to explore this complex issue in greater depth in an upcoming post focused on inclusiveness, but needless-to-say, the health and vibrancy of improvisation’s future is intimately connected to its ability to actively listen, include and change. These tenants serve as the bedrock of our onstage craft and should similarly serve as calls to action of our offstage, organizational and recruiting policies and practices.
And finally, let us consider Balance in terms of our life and art. It is unfortunately a rarity for improvisational practitioners to make a living solely from their craft as a performer. Most professional improv artists that I know cobble together a living from acting in many forms, teaching, consulting, administrative work, devising and/or directing, and many (dare I say most) also maintain a full-time “day job” that is less often in the realm of improv theatre. As an industry, there is often a tension between what we personally find artistically satisfying and enriching, and what is marketable and therefore likely to attract a paying audience. (This is, perhaps, yet another facet of “balance” worthy of discussion which I explore a little here). In the United States at least, with a general lack of federal funding for the arts, especially those seen as fringe or marginal, the title of professional improviser can feel oxymoronic or, if I were to paint it in a more favorable light, aspirational.
It is an understatement then, to note that improvisers typically do a lot. Some modalities embrace and extol an amateur status – see the examples in definition #3 above. This nomenclature can sit less comfortably with those who have devoted lifetimes to the pursuit of spontaneous theatre forms and practices. As we contemplate our individual and collective place in the art and the greater artistic community, it is of equal importance that we pursue a sense of balance in our own lives. I will openly confess that this has proven a struggle personally. Exhausted artists are rarely sharp and joyful artists. Overwhelmed improvisers are seldom situated to lift up their teammates and fellow collaborators. We must remember to also live the lives that we seek to reflect on our stages.
And so the concept of balance is clearly omnipresent and multifaceted in the realm of improvisation. Whether we are establishing rich and dynamic given circumstances, pursuing collaborative and inclusive modes of play and company demographics that facilitate a chorus of stories in harmony, or seeking to successfully juggle the many facets and callings of our lives, balance is a worthy and challenging goal.
Connected Game: Four Sentence Story