The twin joys of improv (Or, who do you love?)

There you are. The show is over. The lights are on you. The audience is applauding, hooting, whistling. They loved you. You kicked ass! You are the improv ruler of the universe.

Feels good, don’t it?

Approval. We all crave it. We all do/have done/will do stupid things in our life to get it. It is a glorious drug more dangerous to art than heroin. Hyperbole you say? Consider: Heroin will kill the artist. But approval will destroy his soul. We lost Jimi Hendrix at the height of his artistic powers to drugs. But, seriously, who even knows where Vanilla Ice is these days?

I know what I want for X-mas

That’s the thing with approval. Approval makes you want it more. That desire for more makes you want to be successful, and that desire for success leads to a fear of failure, which leads to lack of risk, which leads to really bad sophomore albums.

Or repetitive improv shows.

Think of any artists who came out of the gate with a hit and 9 times out of 10 they will shrivel and die as quickly as they rose up, a one trick pony who has had his 15 minutes of fame (Andrew Dice Clay, anyone?).

I’m camping out for tickets

Improvisers, we must learn from this. Approval is a cruel mistress (or master depending on your preferred sexual metaphor), fickle and fleeting. Seek her out and she will desert you faster than good intentions after a couple of tequila shots.

But there is another love. She is quieter. Shyer. But if you seek her, she’s really good in the… ok, too far, too far…

I’m talking about discovery. You know discovery. Discovery is what you find when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You are in a scene, you’ve thrown out all your preconceived notions and you are just going for it. Discovery is what happens when you give up control and ride the scene wherever it is going to take you. You are on the bus, but you are not driving the bus.

My top five improv moments in life are all moments of discovery. And I bet if you think about it, yours are too.

Actually, that is what the audience wants too. They crave discovery. They love it when their favorite improvisers find the solution of the problem without even knowing that was where they were going. Sure, a drunken audience that doesn’t see your show very often might love whatever shtick works, but the discovery is what will keep them coming back for more.

Approval and discovery: one is extrinsic, one intrinsic; one you have control over, one you don’t. And here is the trick: good discovery will always lead to approval, but approval (Remember Roseanne Barr?) will not lead to discovery.

At last! An alternative to Michele Bachmann

Today’s Improvmantra: Discover. Give up the need to plan ahead and just see what is around the next bend.


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
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12 Responses to The twin joys of improv (Or, who do you love?)

  1. Great blog. I think we can use this reasoning for all forms of creativity. I definitely agree that getting out of your comfort zone and into “the zone” is the best way to go. Tightrope and no net is scary as hell, but glory on the other side.

  2. wendy says:

    I agree, too. Having audience approval as the goal makes for awkward contortions and probably leaves that little core of truth out there on the stage unexplored. And being scared might mean you are onto something.

  3. Nick says:

    Love it. You’re absolutely right. I always figure that the audience never really knows what it wants and that’s another reason why pandering to the fickle bastards can give a distorted view of a good improv show. It probably won’t work on the next lot.

    • improvmantra says:

      How many groups have I been in where someone has asked: but does the audience want to see X(longform, Harolds, naked performance art)?
      On the other hand… I think you have a responsibility as a performer to put something “watchable” on stage, something you would want people to see. In other words, you wouldn’t want to do a schlocky show. If you are into performance art, great, just make sure it’s quality performance art.

  4. Kate says:

    I’m sitting here screaming, YES! to this post. You write such truths- we do seek approval but the larger goal should be discovery. When we stick to approval, we stick to safety. Being uncomfortable is the best way to grow.

  5. Jessica! says:

    This is great, and triggered an “Ohhhh that’s why I started doing this!” brain response. The discovery aspect, as I’m re-learning, is what makes this all worth while. Awesome read!

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