“Coming here [to iO] to learn to make people laugh is […] absurd. To assume that making the audience laugh is the goal of improvisation is almost as absurd as assuming that you go to a dojo to learn how to kick somebody’s face in. It’s just not true! Still, they laugh. It is a side-effect of attempting to achieve something more beautiful, honest and truthful, something that has far more to do with the theatre – which puts your attention on what is important about being a human in a community – as opposed to television entertainment, which is designed to take your mind off what is more important about your lives.”Del Close in Charna Halpern et al’s Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.24-25
As improvisers, we are always in search of the next idea, the next move, and often (in spite of Close’s observation above) the next laugh. Though an improvisational production might declare its intent as being primarily comedic or dramatic, realistic or stylized, contemporary or genre-based, entertaining or service-focused, I can think of few instances when our efforts are not elevated by a pursuit of Truth on stage. We may not always use this particular word – some companies might prefer honest, connected, authentic, or grounded – but without this ingredient, our theatrical efforts won’t amount to much of substance. Truths, be they trivial, familiar, playful, or resoundingly difficult to face, link our various spontaneous efforts in an exploration of what it is to be “human in a community.”
Player A: (addressing the audience) “I’m looking for someone who’d be willing to share a story with us tonight that can inspire our play. Has anyone had a wonderful surprise this week…?”
Four Truths and a Lie
1.) Emotional truth. Monochromatic emotional explorations onstage pail in comparison to the power and vibrancy of performances in technicolor. When we approximate, tell, or comment on our characters’ feelings – rather than seek to earnestly and personally experience them alongside our dramatic creations – we needlessly undermine the effectiveness of our scenes. In improv striving towards more realistic ends, a small but connected emotion will serve better than an overt and passionate choice offered without sincerity. While overtly satiric or sillier work might exploit over-the-top energies, I would contend that this style of play also benefits from efforts to plumb deeper emotional truths as this will strengthen the players’ and audiences’ connection to the work. For strategies designed to sharpen this style of authentic play, go here.
2.) Personal truth. When we bravely bring our own experiences and truths to the stage, we’ll likely add more dimensions to our scene work. Characters infused with the details of our own lives and struggles tend to ring truer and effortlessly reveal rich nuances and potentials missing from their lightly-worn improvisational kin. Furthermore, such an approach to generating material and character tends to increase opportunities for vulnerability. Bringing yourself to the role enables more empathetic creations – characters that evade becoming reductive stereotypes – while simultaneously opening doors for your audience to connect to the work as they recognize their own lived truths in those they witness as well. Furthermore, when there is nothing of us in our onstage personae, the possibility for uninterrogated misrepresentations generally becomes problematically magnified.
3.) Dramatic truth. It’s common to talk about the game of the scene which refers to the evolving and discovered rules of our theatricalized world: perhaps everyone speaks their subtext aloud, or children are in charge, or, for a darker hue, the State has absolute control over the individual and severely punishes anyone perceived as a miscreant. Improvisational truth, viewed in this context, refers to honoring and building upon the contracts and (implicit or explicit) promises of your central premise. This can involve applying the helpful improv mantra, “if this is true, what else would also be true?” For example, if babies ran everything, pubs would now serve juice boxes and apple sauce. Clumsily breaking these truths will jar as much as ignoring more conventional “facts” in a “realistic” setting. And if these fictional flights of fantasy are skillfully used to satirically reveal deeper human realities, that’s even better. Which brings me to…
4.) Societal truth. Close mentions the escapism of popular television, and while live spontaneous performance may certainly bow at this altar too, it’s important to note that our art will always hold up some form of mirror to nature. This mirror might seek absolute fidelity, delightfully distort the source image, or seek to hide or exaggerate imperfections. The very act of determining the direction and bend of the glass, however, is innately political in nature. If we’re inclined to frame our shows as “just entertainment” we must honestly wrestle with the reality that such a stance simultaneously serves the conserve or status quo in its willingness to turn away from critical tensions and realities of the day. Pursuing an escapist stance begs the question, “Who are we empowering to escape from what and why?” Societal truths will lurk under the surface of our performances whether we like it or not as every show occurs in the political specificity of the here and now. It’s important we knowingly aim our mirrors accordingly.
5.) Truthful lies. And here’s the lie, or at least, the consideration of how we can powerfully use lies on the improv stage. The very construct of theatre has historically been the target of fear and restraint by powerful institutions due to its innately complex relationship with reality. When a Renaissance actor assumes the costume (and therefore the status) of royalty, the clergy, the ruling classes, or multiple genders, the very nature of these systems of power and oppression are called into question. Improvised theatre, with its innate ability to evade censorship and consistent hierarchical messaging, is uniquely situated to embody and interrogate these bigger lies we perpetuate and tell ourselves. Some practitioners more overtly commit to exposing blindnesses, façades, and harmful tropes through performance than others – Boal strikes me as a paradigmatic example of using improv as a tool for tackling harmful deceit. Noncritically replaying lies onstage (often done in the name of eacapism) will merely reify stereotypes, but offered satirically the provocative truth behind such lies can be revealed and dismantled, or, at the very least, the possibility for such change can be imagined and rehearsed.
In exploring what it is to be “human in community,” we potentially create the very humane communities we seek. In seeking to empathetically present truth on stage, we may, in fact, reveal its deeper shades and lessons.
Related Entries: Comedy, Culpability, Drama, Emotional Truth, Material Antonyms: Escapism Synonyms: Honesty, Integrity
Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Game: Lotus Monologues