The Moneyball of Improv

MoneyballsbnI’ve just completed Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. You’ve probably heard of it. Maybe you saw the movie. Or maybe, because the book and film seem to be about baseball, you’ve avoided them. But Moneyball is about an idea—i.e., that by thinking anew, and by questioning inherited wisdom, and by finding inefficiencies in a market, you can become quite successful. It just happens to be set in the world of Major League Baseball.

Moneyball is a “fight the power” anthem for math nerds.

And me? I’m guilty of being a prisoner of the moment—specifically, prisoner of whatever I most recently read. I devoured Moneyball in three days—and half of The Big Short, one of Michael Lewis’ Wall Street books, and one-fourth of Liar’s Poker, the book that first made Michael Lewis the modern historian he is. As such, I’m currently fascinated by two things: 1. baseball statistics, and 2. identifying unseen value in the market.

My “market” isn’t stocks or bonds (yet); my market is improv.

And so the question I’m posing is: What in the improv world is undervalued?

Which improv concepts, pedagogies, lessons, exercises, and forms have–for one reason or another (usually because they’re tainted by poor execution)—hidden value? Where can we exploit the improv market to make shows better and audiences more robust?

Perhaps a rudimentary reminder of what constitutes value would help. Value is the “good” a particular resource can offer you, often in relation to the investment you must make to obtain that resource. Gold was, until the Great Depression came along, the determinant of the value of American currency. Why gold? Because gold was a rare-ish resource, and to accumulate a lot of it took a wealth of resources.

The corollary in improv—crude as it may be—is the rehearsal for an improv performance (i.e., the investment, the outlay) and the quality and popularity of the performance (i.e., the value).

Shows that rehearse three hours per week for two months, but then lay a stinking turd onstage during its performances, could be said to have low value.

(That value is reduced even more when the audiences shrink over the course of the show’s “run.” Because while a multi-platform cross-sectional statistical/psychographic/demographic survey of Austin’s improv audience is still a daydream, I can assure you that, were it ever to be a reality, that survey would reveal one big truth: Word of mouth matters greatly to an improv show’s audience size.)

Meanwhile, shows that come together for the first time minutes before their show begins sometimes put on an eloquent, moving, hilarious improv show. These shows can be said to have high value.

Analyzing the improv landscape here in Austin, I think I have identified a few “market inefficiencies”—i.e., factors that, with minimum investment, produce outsized results. Please don’t any of this seriously. I’m merely trying to quantify those improv “thingies” that can predict a quality show and healthy turn-out.

A Director With a Clear Vision

Stephen Kearin said, off-handedly, that “falling out of bed is slightly more difficult than directing improv.” He’s right and he’s wrong. If he’s referring to an improv director who nit-picks scene and narrative choices, he’s 100% correct. Because any jerk can watch a scene, interrupt it, and offer alternative ways of doing things. I think this is the type of directing that Kearin was referring to.

However, if a director arrives at the first rehearsal with a clear vision—and one, god willing, they can articulate in detail—it makes all the difference. I’ve done plenty of improv shows to have seen it go both ways. I’ve had directors who treat directing itself as an improv activity—which is a gentle way of saying that they were unprepared, tentative, too flexible.

Obviously a director’s vision should have some bend to it; like a bamboo stalk it should be strong and straight-ahead, while being able to sway if a storm erupts. But Austin’s primary improv ethic is “politeness,” and as such, I think directors are incentivized to be wishy washy—as if saying, “Here’s how I, the director of this show, think this show should work and look” were an act of narcissism or ego. Because ego is damn near verboten—as it should be, but not to the detriment of artistic creation.

So let me aim this next suggestion to all of you directors and to all who will become directors: Please have a vision, and please make it specific, and please tell it to your cast ASAP. They will thank you because you have narrowed, even if only slightly, the boundless universe that improv inhabits. In improv, you can do anything; unless a director puts on some blinders and lets you dig in to a singular style, format, genre, whatever. And digging in—going down instead of out—is usually more fun anyway.

Explaining your vision has another benefit (aka, value): It will help prevent confusion and hurt feelings further along in rehearsals. Because eventually, one way or another, the show will develop a vision—it will start to become something, with its own tone and form. But if it emerges organically, instead of under the guidance of the director, it can be displeasing to some of the cast. They may simply not like what the show has become. But by now, it’s too late—the show is up, or it’s about to be up. So they play less inspired.

The vision that a director develops and institutes does require some investment—thinkin’ time—on the director’s part. But it has enormous value once it’s shared with the cast, who can buy-in and get to work right away. Rehearsals become more focused. The show’s shape appears more quickly. Momentum builds stronger faster.

Simple Forms

This one is a pretty classic inverse relationship: as the form of an improv show grows more complex, the opportunities to screw it up increase.

Because as you add more baubles and layers to your form you have more responsibilities onstage—more things you have to remember to do, more or less. For veteran improvisers, this may be less of a worry. But for newer troupes or less-than-expert players, more pre-defined “beats” in a show can confuse the vision and rhythm of the show.

Feel free to implement a detailed form, but be willing to invest the time necessary to get it right. And, referring to the first inefficiency listed above, make sure it’s part of a larger vision, a creative goal—not just for the sake of adding something.

samba-steps-menImagine a dancing competition in which the judges judge only the execution of each dance move. Execution matters. The number or complexity of dance moves is irrelevant to the judging panel. In such a competition, most dancers would do only one move for two reasons: (a) only one chance to screw up instead of many, and (b) fewer moves to learn during rehearsal. If you had to do only one dance step and had two months to prepare, you’d execute that single step perfectly.

To extend our stock market metaphor: Complex improv formats are akin to leverage in the stock market. Simply put, leverage is when you use your investment in such a way that it becomes “worth” more. It’s like buying stocks on margin or putting your money into stock options—you use some of the financial market’s odd constructs to get more bang for your buck. The beauty of leverage is that when it hits, you can get rich quicker.

The risk, of course, is that if things go bad, the effects can be extra disastrous when you’re highly leveraged.

 

Theatrical Training

I’ve taken about 150 hours of formal “level-by-level” improv classes at three separate theaters in Austin. In all that time (about seven non-stop days), I don’t remember more than a handful of minutes—and certainly no entire classes or lessons—on what it means to “create theater onstage.

I’m talking about:

  • cheating out
  • staging
  • finding the light
  • basic stage fighting
  • upstage vs. downstage moves
  • playing downstage (seriously folks, move downstage!)
  • volume and projection/stage whispering
  • split-scene blocking
  • facial movements
  • putting a little razzmatazz in your play
  • proper handling of chairs

I’m talking about all those thousand little moves—little “improv hacks”—that transform an amateur-appearing performance into a professionally lacquered one. (And I should say that in some of the one-off workshops and “intensives” I’ve taken, these topics have been addressed with a lot more intention.)

A little bit more Alan Cumming in your play would be helpful.

A little bit more Alan Cumming in your play would be helpful.

It’s hard to blame improv curriculum for not more fully annexing theatrical training. You’ve got your hands full just trying to do talky improv—to get students yes-anding, to get them being obvious and enthusiastic, to releasing their “play.” But in advance classes, once the basics are assumed to be learned, the focus should turn to what it means to put on a show.

This training—to get it right, anyway—requires a significant investment of time. And you have to harp on it throughout an improviser’s official training: Get in the light! Grab her with your upstage hand, not your downstage! Don’t walk right through the couch! 

But once these things really settle into an improviser’s armory of skills, their shows become next level. This is like a mega-corporate merger. This is Time Warner buying AOL, or Facebook nabbing Instagram. Huge outlays of time and focus early sows enormous rewards on show night. Big money in, big money out.

 

Say Your Name

If this blog has no other tangible influence on improv, I hope it has the effect of: getting improvisers to promote themselves AT THEIR SHOWS. 

When a troupe comes onstage, they should take 10 seconds to calmy and clearly introduce themselves.

“Good evening, everybody. My name is Andrew. This is Mia. And we are Mandinka!”

The pre-show intro is underused, but the post-show promotion is slightly less popular than Yeti sightings. Which is a shame, because it’s so simple and powerful.

  1. Your show ends on a blackout.
  2. The audience applauds.
  3. The lights come up a few seconds later. The audience is still applauding.
  4. You and your troupemates form a simple line onstage. You smile as the applauding continues.
  5. Maybe you nod, maybe you a take a full bow. But mostly you just stand and smile while the applause continues, until…
  6. … the applause ends.
  7. When it ends, then one of you (determined ahead of time) speaks:

“Thank you for coming tonight. Our name is Mandinka. Spelled just like it sounds. And you can find us at mandinkaimprov.com or by searching ‘Mandinka improv’ on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks again. And please welcome to the stage, Statutory Crepe…!!!”

The audience applauds again, you leave the stage, the next troupe comes up, and their show commences. But that’s not what happens, ever. What really happens is this:

  1. Your show ends on a blackout.
  2. The audience applauds.
  3. The lights come up a few seconds later. The audience is still applauding.
  4. While the audience is applauding, and therefore unable to really hear you, you scream “Thank you” and “Please welcome to the stage, Baby Wants Its Bottle…”
  5. The audience continues to applaud, never having stopped, while you dash offstage.

Can you imagine any other theatrical performance that would end so sloppily? Would you watch an hour-long scripted play and expect the actors, upon the final curtain, to incoherently scream something and then run away? Of course not.

walter-white-saymyname1

The benefits of a calm, measured, controlled post-show moment are obvious. For starters, word-of-mouth is hands down the best way to build an audience. But an impressed audience member can’t use their mouth to spread the word of your show if they don’t know what words to useMake sure they know your name. And make sure they have a quick way of finding you online, if they’re so inspired.

Take your moment. Your show isn’t over until YOU say it is, until YOU leave the stage. The blackout is the end of the improv, not the entire performance.

Why this light-spreed ending happens in improv is a tricky concern, but it involves (a) improv’s legendary inferiority complex, and (b) the next troupe lingering in the wings. I’ll tackle (a) in a future post, but (b) can easily be stamped out.

Hey! Troupe that is up next, listen up! Don’t leer at the troupe before you! Don’t non-verbally force them offstage. Their show isn’t over until they leave the stage!!!

Taking 10 seconds at the beginning of a show, and another 25 seconds at the end, is such a minimal investment that could produce exponential results in the future. Help create buzz by telling the crowd who you are. Please.

The Last Bit

Let’s summarize, shall we?

Here are four “market inefficiencies” in improv that, if exploited, can produce vast improv wealth:

  1. A Director With a Clear Vision
  2. Simple Forms
  3. Theatrical Training
  4. Say Your Name

With the exception of #3, all of these are rather simple, inexpensive investments that can explode in value down the road. Your improv improves and your fan base expands. Even #3—theatrical training—promises enormous dividends if the initial capital investment is made.

burns_tickerAnd the best part, I think all of these are low-risk moves. Because investing in the stock market is almost exclusively about managing risk, about making only those bets that justify the potential loss. Saying your improv troupe’s name before and after a show is 30 seconds, maximum, but someone might actually LIKE you on Facebook after the show. Bringing on a director who’s outlined a specific vision for your show will reduce confusion and increase productive rehearsal time. And keeping your show’s form relatively simple reduces the chances for poor execution.

But what do you think? Would you make these investments?? Comment below.

2 Comments

  1. Jason on November 17, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I love the notion of Moneyball applied to improv. I suspect that there are even more “little things that make a big difference” that can dramatically improve the value of a given show.

    I will stop assuming my improvisors know the basics of acting and make it a part of rehearsal.

    Have you tried any metrics for basic acting skills?

    Cheers,
    Jason
    kinkonauts.com

    • Andrew on November 18, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Jason – I haven’t considered how to measure (or metric-ize!) acting skills. I wonder if such a thing is possible, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

      If you think of any other small adjustments that can produce large improvements, I’d love to hear about them.

      -andrew

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