I just finished watching Mike Birbiglia’s excellent film, “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s the kind of brutally honest film that really nails its subject. That subject is us, the improvisation community.
What I loved most about it is that it seemed to highlight every stage of an improviser’s career. We see new students bungling their way through scenes. We see the performers with star potential, the improvisers who are quietly brilliant but unsure of themselves, the veteran who hangs on too long and a few weirdos who don’t quite fit in anywhere except the stage. It also does a wonderful job highlighting the push/pull between love and jealousy that marks this subculture so indelibly.
If you’ve been improvising for any significant amount of time, you’ll likely stare at your screen slack-jawed, wondering if that monster on the screen is you. Improvisation is a magnet for some of the most amazing minds on the planet, but it has a narcotic effect. We are seduced by the laughter and camaraderie. Suddenly, you turn around and a decade has gone by.
Improvisation is like writing on flash paper with a matchstick. No matter how brilliant or terrible your idea, it’s going up in flame as soon as the words escape. If you have a brilliant idea at the right moment, it could literally alter your career. The moments of genius that aren’t seen by the right eyes are forgotten forever.
Del Close believed improvisation could be its own legitimate art form. Second City believed it was primarily a valuable writing tool. Both views are possible, but here’s what I’m sure of: It’s far easier to sell something concrete than something ephemeral. Improvise all you like. Laugh, fail, crack open your brains and hearts and spill everything on stage. And if that alone satisfies you, keep doing it. However, if you want to get on “Weekend Live” or SNL or any other gig that pays significant cash, you have to convert that skill into something concrete. Write or make videos or record songs or do something that you can show to someone else. Yes, that requires forethought and follow-through (two traits usually lacking in most improvisers). But if you can thread that needle between inspiration and action, you can build a real career from your talent.
As long as you are aware of what you’re doing with your limited creative lifespan, you’re fine. Too often, we get caught up in doing the quick and easy improv shows while the more daunting work evades us. Don’t spend all your time laughing in base camp when you can start climbing mountains.
I recently spoke to an excellent improviser who told me she was on a team that wasn’t clicking. “Are you happy with the work you’re doing?” She shrugged. She said the team’s coach had been absent and there was one performer who was funny, but threw teammates under the bus to get laughs. For her sake, I hope she leaves the team or finds a more fulfilling outlet. You are all artists. Make sure you’re painting with the colors you like on the canvas you’ve chosen.
Oh, and if you’re an improv teacher, don’t sleep with your students. Being a decent human doesn’t mean you have to settle down with a Naperville woman and her illegitimate half-Brazilian newborn, but please avoid abusing your authority. Keep the environment emotionally healthy for everyone who comes and goes.
Want to get sucked up in the subculture yourself? Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. I’m teaching the Tuesday group that begins in January 2017.