Audience versus Improviser

by Katy Schutte


It seems to me that there is sometimes quite a disparity between how much an audience enjoys a show and how much the performers enjoy a show (or how good they think it was).

For me, there are three broad reactions I’ll have after doing a show;

·       Recriminating myself and/or the group for being awful (sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head)

·       Fairly satisfied, but analysing the crap out of the show (“Mr Muscle was a funny character, but why didn’t we have any depth to our relationships?”)

·       An air-punch where it was so great that I love my life and the show and everyone I’ve ever met (Bill Arnett has the term ‘way-homer’ for these; where you keep remembering a great moment from your show, all the way home)

There’s also a reaction around the ego where you personally feel you did or didn’t do good work.  Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one who dropped the ball, or the only one who kept it together.  Interestingly, in improv, if the show as a whole fails, you feel like you’ve failed, because it’s a team game.  Conversely, sometimes a show can fail because one person stood out and the whole team game fell apart.  You’ve got to make other people look good.

With short form at least there are in-built safety nets; if you are brand new you will likely succeed because;

·       The audience are probably your friends and family.

·       Games are built around letting the audience know when to laugh and automatically generate jokes. For example, New Choice means that you are regularly given a set up, set up, twist that always works.

·       Also, the audience love to see you die just as much – if not more – than they like to see you succeed.  In ‘Die’ for example, the competitive storytelling game where the audience shouts die when you mess up telling the story.  If no one died, the game wouldn’t be fun.

With long form it’s a little harder because there is less tolerance of bad improv.  There aren’t built-in safety nets (unless you count a form you’re using, but that’s really just a structure).  If you are just truthful and listen well, the audience are much more keen to see that than you being clever or funny, but it does take years and years for people to feel perfectly comfortable doing those simple things.

Coming off stage it’s sometimes confusing having the audience really love a show that you thought was bad or okay.  When someone comes up to you to tell you how great your show was, don’t tell them that they’re wrong!  Telling a fan of your show that they are incorrect or that your show is poor makes them feel bad and rips on your work, neither of which have a good outcome!  Just say thank you and work on your craft.  Also, they may be right, and you may be wrong.

There seem to be a couple of reasons for the disparity between the audience and improviser’s viewpoints.  Audiences may not have seen as much improv as you.  For some people, they are pretty amazed that you can make up a show as you go and thoroughly enjoy the magic unfolding.

For me, I feel like a show fails when I am consciously working hard on it on stage.  Improvisers call this ‘being in your head’.  My favourite of the shows I have done are where my characters feel like they are being channelled and have a life of their own, that the beats or chapters of the narrative naturally fall out one by one.  I am perfectly in the group mind of the company and we all have similar ideas and initiations, or immediately enjoy and jump on board the surprises.  So, what’s the difference between one of those shows and one where I am standing on the side thinking ‘I haven’t really done many characters, maybe I’ll do a character’?  Well, here’s my revelation; nothing.  Nothing from the audience’s perspective anyhow.  For them it’s a great show.  They enjoyed everything about it.  It just happens that today, your auto-pilot didn’t kick in as well and you had to fly on manual.  It’s sometimes difficult to know which way to fly.  I had a show after Christmas where I hadn’t done a show for a few weeks and just thought ‘ah, it’ll be fine – I’ve been doing improv for years’.  Even if you’re an Olympic diver, you can’t just fall off the board and expect it to work, you have to use all your awareness and training and make that dive happen.  That show was a belly flop.  If you have a show where some other part of your brain is doing all the work; lucky you.  I’m not suggesting you spend all your time on stage consciously planning and analysing, but I am suggesting that you need to be alert and open the whole time, you can’t just sit back and expect it all to happen.

There’s also another kind of show where you loved it, but the audience didn’t.  It was your best work, you did great.  These shows tend to disappear after you’ve done a fair bit of improv, but the causes are mostly vanity and in-jokes.  If you’re doing all your best schtick and having a super time but not listening to the other players, you may feel you did a great show, but the audience probably felt the gap between you and the other players.  In-jokes are also a problem.  You may have something that you do in rehearsals (we have some 8-year callbacks in the Maydays) but the audience are not only going to miss the joke, but will feel distanced by it.

It’s great to know what you’re working on, it’s the only way your improv will get better.  Enjoy the things you did well just as much as you notice the stuff you want to build on.  You are doing this because you love it (no one chooses improv as a sure-fire career path) so notice the great bits.  I used to keep a ‘Creative Arnica’ file on my laptop; every time someone said something nice about my or my team’s improv, I would make a note of it.  That way, if I had a shitty show or thought my work sucked I could have a look back and realise that I was probably just forgetting to give myself positive notes as well as constructive ones.  Creative Arnica; what can I say?  I lived in hippy Brighton for 10 years.

Remember that improv is a team sport.  Everyone has your back.  The team win – you win!  Hell, that’s why I ditched stand up to do more improv.  And it’s okay to fly on manual sometimes.  It won’t feel quite as magical as those autopilot gigs, but unless you show it on your face, the audience can’t tell the difference.

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