Can you think of any other art form where the artist gives the audience any degree of control?
Painters, musicians, filmmakers, sculptors, writers and actors set out to follow a vision. Their vision. Even if one is commissioned, one usually takes that as a sign their prior work was appreciated, so you’d be expected to come up with a variation on that theme. (Really, how many more Frank Gehry buildings can we commission at this point?)
Somewhere along the line, we let the suggestion screw with our heads. Beginning improvisers, especially, will take a suggestion literally. An audience member says “goats,” and the team becomes a bunch of goats. Is that fun? Maybe. Whenever I take a suggestion literally, I feel like an idiotic dancing bear.
The only reason our improvising forefathers took suggestions was to demonstrate that what they were doing was truly made up. And still, every time someone sees improv for the first time, they ask, “How much of that did you write?”
Way back in the day, Second City would actually huddle up during intermission to discuss scenes they were planning to do. In one case, an audience member shouted “dog” as the suggestion and a performer had enough time to go home and bring his own dog to the theater. That’s not improv, that’s a drive-thru order.
The suggestion only has as much weight as we give it. In some cases, you deliberately elevate the suggestion to absurd heights. (Take the Invocation, for example.) Most teams pay homage at the beginning of the show… then abandon it for greener pastures. My favorite teams incorporate the suggestion at their leisure. If someone suggests “spatula,” we don’t need to see ten people on stage flipping pancakes. The scene could be anywhere, involving any characters. If you choose to directly reference a spatula, so be it. But merely mentioning the spatula is not a toll you have to pay to begin your show.
When I coach, I want my players to treat the suggestion as though they have synesthesia. Those people assign flavors or colors or musicality to words. We all have some measure of this. You probably have a different reaction to the words “wet” and “moist.” As many women have told me, “moist” makes their skin crawl. (Similar judgments fall against words like “tits” and “panties.” Women generally prefer “boobs” and “underwear.”)
When an audience shouts “sex,” and they will, how will you take that? Will you start having improv-sex with your teammates? Will you form a giant penis? Or will you think about what “sex” means? It is an incredibly loaded word. It conjures memories and hopes, joy and pain, embarrassment and pride. I’d love it if “sex” ended up being the subtext of a first scene. Or if it was the endgame of the entire show. Simply by saying “sex,” the audience will be primed to see it in places it may not be. It’s like calling your movie “Saving Private Ryan.” You expect they’re eventually going to get around to saving Private Ryan. But it’s the journey and the characters that matter more than that brief moment of the film.
You are not under an obligation to get a suggestion. TJ and Dave don’t. Mick Napier shows nearly outright disdain for the idea of giving any weight to the suggestion. But if you do get a suggestion, it should influence you somehow. That’s the contract you make with the audience when you begin a suggestion-driven show. Just remember you control how it affects you.
There are times you may get a suggestion you don’t know. I once had a show when the audience member shouted “caltrop.” No one on my team knew what the hell that was*, so we just jumped into our show with a guess or assumption about it. It was strangely liberating. Maybe we were doing the Caltrop Show. Maybe we weren’t. But we were at least trying to do whatever the hell “caltrop” made us think of.
Audiences like giving suggestions. It makes them feel like they made the show happen. We know that’s not true. But the illusion is the point.
The next time you get a suggestion, let it wash over you. Don’t let it pull you out to sea.
* A caltrop is a small antipersonnel weapon made so a sharp point always aims up. Caltrops were used to slow the advance of horses, war elephants, and human troops. Now you know.