The Sad State of Spectacle in Improv

Watching the Tony Awards last night—recorded on DVR so I could skip the duller speeches and any numbers from Cinderella—I felt both thrilled and confounded. For theater’s sake, I was thrilled; for improv’s sake, I was bummed.

First, the good: The Tonys is the best awards show and Neil Patrick Harris put on one fucking fantastic opening number:

 

I’ve been a Broadway devotee since my mom took me to see the touring company of Phantom when I was 12. I know every word of Rent; the only songs I wanted my piano teacher to teach were from Beauty and the Beast and The Sound of Music; and I have a Spotify playlist devoted to my favorite musicals—including Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal, and Spring Awakening.

And I love the plays too, of course. I was especially astounded to see Tracy Letts, who wrote the gorgeous play August: Osage County, win Best Actor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And right after the Tonys ended I went online and bought tickets to see a play here in Austin—something I haven’t done since giving up my season tickets at Zach Scott Theater last year.

But I digress…

The biggest advantage scripted plays and musicals have over improv is spectacle. Even the best improv shows are hamstrung by a lack of technical theatricality. There is no choreographed dancing; there’s no lush and detailed set; nobody comes flying in from the rafters on wires; no trap doors, no rolling set pieces, no score, no precise lighting cues, no nada. The closest improv can come is costuming, when the show exists in a pre-defined genre.

You may be thinking, “No shit, Sherlock.” After all, you’d argue, improv by its very nature can’t have anything planned, including the technical aspects. And even when those technical aspects are improvised—such a lighting or sound effects from the booth—it’s limited. There’s a fight scene? Turn up the red lights. A couple are driving in a car? Cue the car horn.

But to you I’d reply, “But why noooooooottttttttt?”

Kaci and Roy Danger—a couple of improvisers from here in Austin—just finished producing their first scripted work, Blood, Sweat, and Cheers. And while they’ll tell you that they used improv in the script creation, it was a fully produced theater work: dance numbers, set design, blocking, a large ensemble, lighting, original songs, the works.

And I totally get it! I totally get why these two improvisers—and the other improvisers in the cast and crew—joined them in this effort. Because it meant controlled creativity. It meant that on top of the words and the movement they could layer spectacle.

Improv is threadbare compared to theater. And while I don’t need a giant dance number every five minutes, I find spectacle-free plays to be missing something critical. Staging a play without spectacle is like a basketball player without a decent lay-up: it’s an incomplete endeavor. And it’s not that difficult to add.

But again, I reply, “Why NOT?!”

Why can’t improv shows have more spectacle? Why can’t we create a detailed set? Why can’t we fly people in from the rafters? Why can’t we figure out a way to improvise synchronized choreography?

I don’t know the answers to these questions—as they only just occurred to me last night while watching the cast of Matilda tear down the house. Perhaps it’s impossible. Hell, perhaps it’s antithetical to improv’s artistic soul, i.e., even if we could create spectacle maybe we shouldn’t.

Post your comments below if you have any thoughts about this. Let’s ignite this conversation. Let’s find a way to bring Broadway-style pizzazz to live improv, even if it’s just a small bit, and even if for no other reason than we can. Because we’re spectacular.

12 Comments

  1. Maitland on June 10, 2013 at 10:45 am

    The answer to the question “why not?” is almost “safety first!”

    There’s a fair bit of improvised song and dance out there — sometimes it’s even got more polish than many scripted shows. 😛 There’s a lot of improv that involves stage combat. Both of these require a lot more rehearsal than a standard improv show because you have to learn how to communicate very clearly and in different ways or else you risk injuring someone.

  2. Jordan T. Maxwell on June 10, 2013 at 10:50 am

    My question is not so much “why not,” but “how?” I’m all for making improvised theatre more theatrical…but I’m also not a fan of gratuitous spectacle for spectacle’s sake. One of the glories of improv is the audience’s sense of wonder and awe…”how did they do that? That must have been scripted!” And their minds are blown to discover, no, it wasn’t. That would be diminished if there was a giant helicopter or exploding fountain onstage. It would be spectacle for spectacle’s sake. There’s enough theatre of gratuity, that hides its lack of substance behind artifice and style. Improv has the power to be more stripped down and honest. Let’s strive for theatricality in our performances and staging, not in our special effects.

    • Andrew on June 10, 2013 at 10:54 am

      But don’t assume spectacle is there for spectacle’s sake. It doesn’t have to be. I’m not sure it’s possible, or what the practical considerations would be, but why not? Why must improv be just people in jeans and t-shirts pretending? Why can’t we ape some of theater’s style? And I want to make sure we separate “theatricality” and “spectacle.” Theatricality is almost a no-no to me, because it has the connotation of “inauthentic” or “put on.” No, spectacle for spectacle’s sake is not an ideal; but spectacle for the sake of entertainment and enriching the experience is a lofty virtue indeed.

      • Jordan T. Maxwell on June 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

        We have very different definitions of theatricality, then. But spectacle has to be planned and prepared to pull it off effectively. So either you ham fist it in for its own sake, or you gear the show towards it (which is practically the same thing). And since most improv theatres have neither the budget nor infrastructure for truly spectacular spectacle, it might just come off as half assed. In which case you’ve sacrificed the uniqueness of improvised theatre for not much gain. I don’t know, I need a better definition of what form improvised spectacle takes before I can tell if it’s worth doing (beyond what we’re already doing).

        • Andrew on June 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

          I’m using the dictionary definition of theatricality. 🙂

          • Jordan T. Maxwell on June 10, 2013 at 11:28 am

            “Of, for, or relating to acting, actors, or the theatre.” :p



          • Andrew on June 10, 2013 at 11:29 am

            staginess: an artificial and mannered quality



          • Jordan T. Maxwell on June 10, 2013 at 11:30 am

            There you go, we ARE using different definitions. 😉



  3. Maitland on June 10, 2013 at 11:37 am

    I think that by that definition almost all musical improv can be considered theatrical and/or stagey.

  4. Kaci on June 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    I have been working for years and years to put more theatricality and design in improv. Even though the designs are relatively simple at the Hideout, it’s in large part due to space and budget demands (which you witnessed in Manhattan Stories…what with our black futon taking up a lot of that one wing on stage left). For me, it’s often become about setting a tone and feeling without getting in the way too much. Too many elements and one loses track of connectivity onstage.

    The thing is, Austin is one of the leaders in the world for theatrical-style improv. I started painting set backdrops because it was something *no one had done before*, at least, not that I had ever heard of.

    This is all something I’d rather talk about in person, too.

    • Andrew on June 13, 2013 at 6:47 am

      Thanks for the feedback. And you’re right that, from everything I’ve seen, The Hideout does the most with lending spectacle to its shows, to elevating it to a more special theater-going experience for the audience. And we had a couch in Manhattan Stories!!

      Let’s continue the conversation offline. I’m mucho interested in lending a hand to these efforts.

  5. There Will Be Fake Blood | Yes Andrew on August 21, 2013 at 10:28 am

    […] decried the lack of spectacle in improv on this blog and in various post-show chit-chats. My argument goes something like […]

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