I helped murder improv last night.
Which is a headliney way of saying: Last night, as part of the opening of the Improvised Play Festival, my troupe PAST LIVES did our final show. The post mortem reveals that this particular show performed about six times in public over the course of exactly one year (our first show was at last year’s festival).
Here’s a video of one our shows:
The premise of Past Lives is simple: follow a single “soul” backward through time, through all of his/her incarnations (aka, past lives), exploring a suggested theme in different wacky historical settings.
For example, in our final show last night, we started in a corporate skyscraper in modern America, then jumped back to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, then to a whaling ship in the mid-1850s, then back to mediaeval France and King Charlemagne, then to an Aztec sacrificial ceremony, then finally to some planets at the birth of the universe.
“Past Lives: Improv Reincarnated“ is still the best improv format/show idea I’ve personally had. It’s such a simple premise: follow past lives. But it offers such rich improv fodder. You can jump to literally any place or time in history and it makes sense. We didn’t have to fuss with justifying every jump, because the justification is built into the show’s format. If I want to go from 1950s San Francisco to feudal Japan in the 16th century, I don’t have to rationalize it to the audience.
I’m sorry to see Past Lives go. But it had to die.
Or rather, it deserved to be humanely euthanized. This show, while I think generally delightful for the audience, had become a little less so for the performers. Because as it turns out: There’s not much human history. Going in, I thought to myself, “Gosh, human history is such a diverse rich pageant that we’ll never run out of ideas.” But I was wrong. As Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us every damn week on COSMOS, human civilization is but a speck on the great cosmic calendar.
Let’s do some quick math. We did six shows. We averaged five “time periods” per show. Can you think of 30 distinct time periods in human history? Even with geography thrown in—e.g., 18th century America is quite different from 18th century Iran—it’s still pretty hard. (Except for beefcake Aaron Saenz, one-fourth of Past Lives and nine-tenths of our historical knowledge.)
So as performers, we felt we were treading over some of the same ground, and we were relying on some of the same stereotypes of places/periods/people. It reminded me why, for the performer (though certainly not the audience), improv is better than scripted performance. The liveliness of even the most lively scripts drains away pretty quickly once you read it aloud thirty times.
And as a good friend of mine reminded me after the show last night, “Leaving artistic projects is one of the best things an artist can do.” I agree. Time is limited, life is short, blah blah blah, and the ability to keep a long-view of your improv career, and to see the impending death of an improv project before it dies is a fantastic skill to develop. Because by hopping off the ship before it sinks you avoid (a) wasting time and (b) getting bummed or burned out.
And burn out, especially for nubile young improvisers like yours truly, is a real thing. I want to cirucmvent it. And one way to stay fully unburnt is to keep yourself entertained, inspired. If going to a rehearsal seems like more of a chore than a delight? Maybe something needs to change.
Goodbye, Past Lives! I’m sure you’ll turn up again someday.
But until then, brother, say “hello” to Jesus in heaven for me.