The World's Oldest Improv Form?
If you’ve studied theater history at any point (or ever seen the movie Cradle Will Rock) you have most likely heard of the Federal Theater Project. The FTP was a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created as part of the New Deal in an effort to put actors and artists back to work during the Great Depression. Today, the FTP (which operated for just over four years), often serves as a cautionary tale of the tensions that pop and sting when arts are funded by federal money. The FTP did not employ improv comedians and in fact preceded the first professional improv comedy theater in the U.S. by more than two decades. Yet, the impact of one of its projects called the Living Newspaper on improv comedy is itself an under-reported news story of American comedy history.
The basic premise of the Living Newspaper was to dramatize current news events in a manner that was both entertaining and instructive. As a form, it addressed two pressing issues: the sheer volume of unemployed actors with varying levels of training and talent as well as the aim of the FTP to create cultural projects which served the overall social service and educational goals of the WPA. Using newspapers and transcripts from radio broadcasts as their resources, scripts were assembled into a series of vignettes based around a central theme such as their first production “Triple-A Plowed Under” which explored the impact of the Agricultural Adjustment Act on farmers.
Addressing contemporary issues and using direct quotes from government officials proved a recipe for controversy and the Living Newspaper struggled between forces which claimed it was giving voice to anti-democratic rebels or serving as propaganda for the New Deal political machine. Slightly too real to be taken as fiction and slightly too fictional to be called honest reporting, the Living Newspaper only survived for a few productions and disappeared from stages in 1939 along with the rest of the FTP.
One of the goals of the Living Newspaper was to give a voice to audiences who may have never had the opportunity to see their stories and experiences dramatized. This spirit translated years later into comedy in what became an improvised format by the same name. In the late 1950s, the Compass Players in Chicago performed their own version of the Living Newspaper by taking sections of the days’ papers to use as frameworks within which they could improvise short scenes. The Living Newspaper became a mainstay of their scenario-based improv performances, allowing them to connect with issues audiences would find relevant while providing fodder for topical jokes which could immediately energize a crowd. The Compass improvisers were familiar with and inspired by the FTP Living Newspaper but were in no way attempting to recreate the format. What was performed at the Compass was a new Living Newspaper for a new generation experiencing a new form of theater.
The concept of dramatizing the news is neither unique to the United States nor solely relegated to theatrical stages (any fans of The Daily Show or the Colbert Report out there?). All these versions, whether taking the form of improv comedy, televised satire, or dramatic stage production, are connected by the creative desire to explore our contemporary world. Whether we look at that world and laugh at it, cry about it, rage against it, or, maybe through a combination of all of those, change it is up to us.
The Improvisation News Team performs the Living Newspaper (or our version of it) every Saturday at 5:15pm at Triple Crown Ale House located at 330 7th Avenue, New York. Feel free to come and, if you like, bring a news article that you would like to see improvised on stage.
Coleman, Janet. The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Frost, Anthony and Ralph Yarrow. Improvisation in Drama. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.
Library of Congress. “The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939." http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/new-deal-stage/file.html
Sweet, Jeffrey. Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978.
“The Living Newspaper.” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma04/mccain/play/intro.htm
Improvology: Forever Young
“Can I get a suggestion from the audience?” It’s the only predictable line in most improv comedy shows. Improvisation is guided by the principle that the audience inspires the performance with their input and then guides it with their laughter (or their lack thereof…). This level of audience participation is what makes improv an attractive alternative to the stiff formality of most traditional theatrical performances where spectators are expected to sit quietly and avoid loudly unwrapping candy. So, if the audience plays such an active role in improv comedy, it may be worth taking a few moments to consider: who are these people in the dark?
If you turn up the houselights on the average Friday night improv comedy audience, who would you see? Most improv companies don’t operate their own theatres, let alone utilize subscriptions or audience surveys to track audience demographics. If marketing is an indicator of who improvisers hope and expect to attract to shows, a clearer picture appears. The Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, The Second City, The PIT: all of these titles bring up visions of scrappy underdogs. The quality all of these companies seem to share based on their titles alone is a priority on community – more specifically, a community on the fringe of elite society. A look beyond the marquee shows even more similarities between the top improv companies in the U.S. Beyond the spirit of rebellion and subversion in all of their titles, each of these companies offers inexpensive beers and cheap (or free) tickets. Who likes beer, free things and rebellion? Well, lots of people, but generally: youth.
There is an important distinction here. Improv isn’t for young people. It is not exclusively for any specific group. But there is something imbedded in the form that seems most aligned to the youthful attributes which can exist in anyone of any age. In a 2009 interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival, original Compass cast member and current Artistic Consultant for The Second City Sheldon Patinkin recalled that improv “was always intended to be about its audience.” The fact that improv comedy audiences tend to exhibit youthful qualities has much to do with the spontaneity needed to improvise and the environment created in the improv theater.
In this genre of performance where success is never guaranteed, improvisers need to be constantly risking failure. Improv comedy demands that the audience be part of the creative process which means they need to also take risks. This willingness to take risks repeatedly taps into an innocent sense of daring which is strongest in our youth when an act like jumping off the roof of the garage is viewed as a fun experiment as opposed to a painfully bad idea. A youthful mindset values the experience over the outcome. This mindset is necessary for us to experience play as children and adults. The improv stage becomes an adult safe space for facilitated play. We can jump off the roof a hundred times in a row and fly away every time.
Why should we consider our audiences? They tell us what to perform. They tell us what is funny. For improv comedy, it’s more than just needing an audience to perform to, we need collaborators to perform with. It is important to understand that audiences who attend improv comedy are looking to take risks and be adventurous just like the improvisers onstage. Audience reception is a notoriously tricky and under-studied aspect of theatrical performance throughout human history. In a form like improv comedy which demands so much of its audience, it can only benefit us to get a clearer picture of the people shouting out the suggestions.
A History of Couples in Improv
Roughly two years ago, just as I was beginning to feel a little crush on a fellow improviser, I started to notice a series of comments and advice from others in the community with the warning: “It is NEVER a good idea to date someone you improvise with!” Since one of the only absolute statements I am comfortable making is that I am ALWAYS suspicious of absolute statements, I decided to look into this rule. Was there any historical precedent for couples in improv?
It didn’t take long to start finding the love in the course of America’s short history with improv comedy. Some romances were brief such as the marriage of Paul Sills and Barbara Harris. Others endure to this day, like Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara who worked together as improvisers with The Compass in St. Louis during the 1950s. The couple has now been married for 58 years and still performs together. Watching them act side by side and make each other laugh leads me to believe one of the keys to their comedic success must be their strength as a couple.
By far the best story of a match made in improv heaven requires digging back to 16th century Italy. At the age of fourteen, Isabella Canali began performing with a commedia dell’arte troupe called the Gelosi. She was cast in the role of prima donna inamorata (the young and beautiful female lover) playing opposite an actor named Francesco Andreini. After two years of playing comedic romantic counterparts onstage, the couple was married in 1578 and started a successful and full life together. Francesco became known for his role as a braggart Capitano (one of the stock characters of commedia) and eventually became the director of the company. Isabella continued in her role as leading lady and branched out to become an accomplished playwright and poet. In 1604, after having given birth to seven children while working and touring with the Gelosi, Isabella died in childbirth with her and Francesco’s eighth child. The role she had played with virtuosity for so many years became known by her name: the Isabella role of the strong and comedic beauty. The Andreini’s eldest son, Giovan, continued the family business and became an actor as well as a poet (he dedicated a collection of poetry to his mother in 1606). It is impossible to know for sure what Isabella and Francesco’s personal life was like, but their accomplishments together and the legacy of their son imply a family that was happy and stronger because they had each other.
Some couples in improv crumble under the stress and competition of performance. Others sustain because of the joy and support they find in doing what they love with the person they love. Couples who improvise together are no different than couples who work together as scientists, librarians, or electrical engineers. Like improv, romance is spontaneous and unpredictable; it succeeds or fails based on the quality of the teamwork, not on the circumstance of the profession.
Ray, Meredith Kennedy. “Andreini, Isabella (1562-1604)”. University of Chicago Library: Italian Women Writers (2008). <http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/IWW/BIOS/A0003.html>
Rudlin, John. Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. London: Routledge, 1994.
Sweet, Jeffrey. Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players. New York, NY: Limelight Editions, 1978.
Hello! My Name is… IMPROV
What’s the difference between Othello and The Misanthrope? Erin Brockovich and Funny People? According to comedic theorist Henri Bergson, the difference between comedy and tragedy begins at the title. In his 1911 work Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson pointed out that tragedies tend to be named after a single character while comedies tend to be named after a class of people. This small detail signifies a distinct difference between the two genres: tragedy represents individuals while comedy delights us with types. While Bergson was writing before the dawn of improv as a popular entertainment in the U.S., his insight opens up a new way of looking how improv troupes and companies chose to label themselves.
Improv names say something about how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen. In the 1950s and 60s, American audiences were treated to companies such as The Compass, The Second City, and The Premise. All of these names point to a philosophy of improv as a building block, a source of direction, a little “fuck you” from the underdog. Improv comedy was positioning itself as an ant-establishment art form which was more fresh and relevant than “traditional” theater.
The 1980s saw an explosion in improv companies and indie teams across the U.S. making comprehensive observations about naming much more problematic. There are still many companies and troupes that select informative names, such as iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) and ComedySportz. Other troupes such as Sea Tea Improv, the WHOligans, and ImproVérité: The Documentary use names that are cleverly embedded with useful information (Sea Tea is based out of CT, the WHOligans improvise sets based off the show Dr. Who, and ImproVérité applies the cinéma vérité format to improv). While some of these troupe names are more difficult to dissect than others, they all share a quality of openness. From the moment the audience reads the name, they have an idea of what they are getting into.
There is one more type of improv name that is an interesting and fairly recent phenomenon: the intentionally meaningless name. Baron’s Barracuda? Blue Velveeta? Death by Roo Roo? Even the Harold form itself has a meaningfully meaningless name. The legendary anecdote is that it was a flip answer parodying the response the Beatles gave when asked what they called their haircut. The Beatles replied “Arthur.” So, the response to, “What do you call this form?” became, “Harold.” Troupe names now often arise in a similarly flippant way, either being chosen because they sound interesting, they are part of an inside joke or, they are purposefully un-interpretable. This levity in naming is a far cry from the philosophical intentions of The Compass and is more of a revitalization of the countercultural impulse of The Second City.
German author and critic Thomas Mann once said, “An art whose medium is language will always show a high degree of critical creativeness, for speech is itself a critique of life: it names, it characterizes, it passes judgment, in that it creates” (Andrews 502). Improv is an art form that is highly based in language, yet the only concrete printed words most troupes will ever be associated with are the names they select for themselves. Names carry meaning, even if they are purposely meaningless. Whether a troupe name informs, comments, or alienates, it becomes part of improv history and informs how future generations will view improv comedy.
Andrews, Robert. The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace, 2011.
In a commedia dell’arte company contract dated 1546, members signed in agreement to maintain “fraternal love” and avoid activities destructive to the ensemble such as gambling with fellow players. This means that over 400 years ago, improv troupes knew that a strong, trusting ensemble was vital to a good performance. It also means that these commedia dell’arte players, our Italian improv ancestors, had the same struggles with maintaining a strong, trusting ensemble that we frequently do today.
The group dynamics involved in creating a good improv troupe are hard to define. Outside of the large companies (Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, iO, etc.) that assemble teams based on auditions and course work, most improv troupes in the U.S. come together on their own. They are assortments of classmates, friends, co-workers and couples who decide to devote a certain number of hours each week to making each other laugh. Most improv rehearsals (professional and amateur) start with some sort of warm-up that gets the group energized and focused. These are the first steps towards syncing up a group of individual brains into one group mind.
A strong ensemble is essential for the elusive “group mind” that all improvisers desire but are hesitant to define. Group mind is that unspoken shared energy that causes everything on stage to click. It is the moment when scenes become fluid as if written and rehearsed for months instead of made up on the spot. It is when a member of your troupe strikes a pose and you correctly shout out, “You’re Brian Boitano!” even though you had no context for knowing it and no one had ever seen that impression before. Those moments of elegant group mind are what separate improv comedy from all other forms of theatre and make it a genre more reliant on the ensemble than the individual.
Various troupes have tried different tactics for maintaining the well-being of the ensemble. Ted Flicker’s troupe The Premise (1960-64) required that performers take 8 weeks off per year to separate from the anxieties of troupe life and be reinvigorated and inspired by outside endeavors. Many troupes take the opposite tactic and spend nearly every waking moment together. In her book Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City, Amy E. Seham observes, “Improvisers, as a group, drink heavily, especially after shows.” There are lots of things this penchant for booze could be attributable to, but one reason is certainly the desire for comaraderie and the knowledge that getting along as people off stage is going to help with getting along as performers on stage.
Whether sought through contracts, time together, time apart or hearty supplies of PBR, improvisers have always known that amazing performances require strong ensembles. Trust and respect are not easy things to create and maintain, particularly in an art form that can be biting, aggressive, low-paying and stressful. The contractual remains of these 16th century commedia players send a message to all troupes that struggle with coming together and finding their group mind: either we work together or we don’t work at all.
Rudlin, John. Commedia dell’arte: an actor’s handbook. London: Routledge, 1994.
Rudlin, John and Olly Crick. Commedia dell’arte: a handbook for troupes. London: Routledge, 2001.
Seham, Amy E. Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City. Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
“Tonight We Improvise.” Yale/Theatre. Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1974.
The History & Science of Making Things Up
A few months ago I was lucky enough to meet a historic figure in American improv: David Shepherd. Founder of the Compass, inspiring force behind Improv Olympics, and co-founder of the Canadian Improv Games, Shepherd has touched almost every influential improv company in the US and Canada over the course of his prolific career. He spoke at a screening of a documentary about his career called David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre (available free on YouTube) at the Boston Improv Festival. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, the only people in the small theatre were Sea Tea Improv (the company I am in) and a few other miscellaneous improvisers and improv enthusiasts. On the whole, the audience consisted of roughly twenty people.
After the experience, the members of Sea Tea sat around with beers and talked about how lucky we were to have close to a private master class with such an important figure in improv comedy history. There’s a million reasons to skip a viewing of a documentary at an improv festival (sleeping in, sightseeing), and it wasn’t largely publicized that Shepherd would be present. But even with the lack of publicity and a less than popular time slot, it was frustrating that in a city swarming with improvisers there for the festival so few showed up to an event that talked about the history that brought us all there.
The only book I’ve ever been asked to read for an improv class is Truth in Comedy. It wasn’t a requirement, just a book that came recommended by the instructor. From talking to other improvisers and instructors over the years, I've noticed that Truth in Comedy seems to be the common text recommended for students of improv. And that’s fine. It’s a good place for a new improviser to start. It’s important for anyone taking improv seriously to know the basics of the work that Charna Halpern and Del Close have done with iO and in the formation of the Harold. But reading it made me think about all the other books about improv I’ve read along the way. Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier, Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City by Amy E. Seham, and classics like Something Wonderful Right Away by Jeffrey Sweet and The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman. These are just a few of the dozens of wonderful texts out there about improv history, practice, and theory. Not to mention documentaries, television shows, audio clips, photos, podcasts, people: all part of the rarely-tapped wealth of material that exists on the history of our art form.
Homework has a negative connotation. But if improv is something you love to do, something you’re passionate about, you owe it to yourself to learn your history. A little improv homework here and there can only enrich your craft and expose you to new forms to play with. There are learning opportunities that exist beyond (frequently expensive) improv classes. So if you’ve read Truth in Comedy, you’re off to a good start. Now… what more do you want to know?
The History & Science of Making Things Up
A few months back I heard a story about an improviser who was looking into copyrighting an improv form he had “invented.” I don’t know how much truth was left in the story by the time it reached me, but the debate it sparked among my group of friends got me thinking. Did someone “invent” improv?
There are plenty of claims out there that Del Close invented long form improv along with Charna Halpern. Certainly both of them are visionaries in both the art and business of improv and the specific form of the Harold was clearly the brainchild of Close. But to claim that the Harold came solely from Close’s mind like Athena bursting forth from the head of Zeus runs contrary to the way improv is created. It is an inherently collaborative art form and the information gained from rehearsing and molding new forms with an ensemble makes the generation of those new forms essentially collaborative.
That collaborative nature makes it hard to pin down a single creator among all the big names of improv leaders in the US and abroad. David Shepherd, Paul Sills, Viola Spolin, Mick Napier, Keith Johnstone: all improv gurus, teachers, practitioners, and visionaries. But not inventors.
Even tracing the art of improv comedy back to its roots in 16th c. commedia dell’arte leaves the search for an inventor cold. Those actors worked as ensembles, building on dramatic models of fools/masters and young lovers that had existed since ancient times. And given that 16th c. commedia worked off of scripted scenarios (much like the Compass Players), it is difficult to prove how much shows became “set” over time. Finding an inventor of improv becomes even harder as it requires defining what we think qualifies as improv.
I think in the U.S. (and maybe all over the world) we like having inventors. It’s comforting to say this person invented this thing and now we have it and it’s done. For example, saying the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered WWI is a lot easier than delving into social/political/economic factors that had been brewing in Europe for decades. But saying someone invented an art form is just too reductive because it makes improv seem like a complete and finished product.
Long form as we know it today may have begun with the Harold, but now there are ASSSSSSCATs, monoscenes, montages, Sex and the Sea Tea, and more. A group somewhere in the U.S. right now is probably clearing aside the furniture in the middle of the living room they rehearse in to get to work on their own new twist on an old form. We are all inventing together every time we step onto that stage together. Everyone who has ever stepped off the back line with no plan has invented improv. And we’re not done yet.
Laura Merrill is a strong comedic actor and writer. She has recently contributed as a writer and performer to "The Beverly Bonner Show" at Broadway Comedy Club, and "In Transit" and "Something Outrageous" at the 45th Street Theater. She has experience in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and scenic design.
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