The Improv Scene at War With Itself

The difference between schools of improv is sometimes becoming an ugly slanging match – so much so that we aren’t honouring each other or our art form enough.

I like spirited debate but I can’t help but feel we would do better by celebrating the diversity of thought in our growing art form rather than seeking to debunk or debase other schools of thought.

From the get-go, I’ll be very honest. There are some styles of improv I like more than others. For a start, I’m a long-form enthusiast with little passion for short-form. This doesn’t mean short-form is “wrong”, it just means that when I perform it I don’t get the same kick that I do from long-form. To me, short-form is limiting and gets in the way of the type of scene work I like to be involved in. That’s just me. I know other people love it and that’s great. Audiences might want to see short-form shows or long-form shows or, heaven forbid, both.

In an age where we have so much choice in types and styles of entertainment, it’s odd that some of us are obsessed with improv being one thing.

You may be wondering what has prompted this blog. It was a NY Times article that talks about the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s new Improvisation Manual. I think it’s a great book: detailed, logical, practical. If you don’t have access to classes I think it’s a God-send. It walks you through their style of improv in a way no other book I know of does with ANY style of improv.

The thing about the article that struck me was that the writer had to find “balance” or “context” by talking about styles different from the UCB’s. Understandable, I guess, but a number of reactions to the article were extremely tribal and they saddened me.

I’m a UCB boy. I love that stuff. I love the focus on listening and reacting and then noticing what is happening to discover the “game of the scene”. It gives me joy. The UCB method isn’t right or wrong – it’s just the UCB method. It’s successful, it gets results and audiences and that’s fantastic. It isn’t, however, for everyone and it’s not the only way.

The UCB is often pitched against the Annoyance Theater in articles of this sort as they are seen as polar opposites in approach to improv. I have studied at both theatres and been to numerous workshops from practitioners from both. I’ve also been incredibly lucky to perform with great people from both theatres. I know I prefer the UCB’s outlook but that doesn’t mean I don’t love what the Annoyance does – I think what they do is incredible. I sometimes feel, when reading improv articles or rants, that I am being forced to choose.

Let me be clear. I would never recommend taking classes at both theatres at the same time. I think that would confuse the hell out of you. In fact, I’d recommend you chose one theatre, studied there for a bit and practiced, so that you got a real sense of what they did. After that, I’d encourage anyone to look at other ways of doing things. Broaden your mind.

Equally, I’d encourage people of similar outlooks to play together. In my opinion, if you are trying to engender a particular feel for your troupe / team or forward a particular agenda with your work, you will achieve the group mind you want so much easier with a similar stylistic outlook.

I learnt so much from people from the Annoyance like Susan Messing and Rich and Rebecca Sohn. And despite my stylistic preference, if you ask me to name the best teacher I’ve ever had, that would be Mick Napier. And I don’t just mean best improv teacher – I mean best teacher of anything. I’ve never known someone to pick out such incredible forensic detail from my scene work, feed it back to me and make me understand what it is I do well and how I can improve on that. It was like he could see the improviser I wanted to be and gave me a bunch of information I could use on my journey.

There’s a difference between knowing what you prefer and indulging in it, and arguing over which style is “best” or “right”. Let’s be confident and comfortable enough in what gives us joy that when we encounter another way of improvising it doesn’t threaten us but rather compliments and enlightens us.

Lloydie (James) Lloyd
‘Lloydie’ is a friend, collaborator and regular performer with The Maydays. He performs with MissImp (Notts), Two Seats Four Cheeks (with Jen Rowe) and has a comedy blog here

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