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.