Why dramatic improv?

Theatre Momentum does dramatic improv. There. I said it. I’ve struggled with the best way to describe what we do in the simplest terms, and I’ve come to realize, that’s it. When people ask me “why?” or “who is that for?” or “are you not good enough to do real improv”? – that’s when I always have to search for the words, when I find myself getting defensive about integrity and vulnerability and realism.

People have come to our shows and said, “that wasn’t funny at all… but it was really good.” They have said, “there’s no way that wasn’t scripted.” When they say that, I don’t need to explain anything. That reaction, that impact- that is why dramatic improv.

Immediacy, Bravery, Vulnerability

I’ve been doing improv for 25 years of my life. What surprises me now is not the thousandth time I’ve hear this specific joke told, this funny voice done, this silly walk reinvented. I’m surprised when people are real. When realistic characters react to other realistic characters with actual emotions, vulnerability, and honesty. It gives me such joy.

When I teach or direct, I want my actors to act. To take the time to actually be vulnerable to one another, honest in the moment, and to play with real relationship stakes. Dramatic improv, done right, has the opportunity to explore truly unique moments and connect with an audience on a personal level, beyond just a great, fantastic laugh.

Now, I don’t do dramatic improv because no one ever laughs. Don’t misunderstand me. This is part of why I hate telling people that TM does “dramatic improv”, because they’re expecting something with literally no humorous moments, and that simply is untrue. But, I would say that the laughs that come within dramatic improv are often richer, more fulfilling laughs, for both audience and actor. When an audience has been quietly paying attention to your scene for 10 minutes and something strikes them as funny, it’s usually because the previous 10 minutes have set up stakes, emotion, and circumstances that make that one moment so damned funny. It’s a laugh that is well earned, not just a quick short drunken snort of an audience that appreciates a well-placed joke about dipping your balls in every chili bowl in the restaurant (actually happened, actual show, not making that up).

What is there to fear?

Too many of the actors I’ve worked with over the years have veered away from dramatic moments, when they arise, and it’s almost like you can hear the gears turning. They can’t run away from the consequences of the moment, if they are truly vulnerable and emotionally engaged, so they stagger off into familiar territory, and the tired old jokes come out again. Whenever I direct them back and refocus them on the emotional moment they were having, truly beautiful scenes happen. But that fear of failing is different with dramatic improv, much of the time. It’s not a fear of the unknown, of the next line of the scene being something you didn’t expect. That is old hat, after a while, for every improvisor. It’s a fear of actually being vulnerable, of truly acting and not just doing a trick that the audience is too shy to get up onstage and do themselves.

Realism vs. absurdism

In most improv shows I’ve seen in my life, it’s striking to me that there is an absurd acting style that permeates most of the work. The actors play caricatures, impressions, and jokey versions of human beings. Very seldom do I see the acting drift away from that. I’ve sat in my rehearsal studio lobby and can hear improvisors two rooms away, and simply from the cadence of their voices, I know they’re doing the absurd bits. It has a tone. I’d prefer to step away from that tradition and explore something else.

I would challenge improv actors to actually consider themselves to be actors. Consider yourself to be a playwright. Craft your words. Take the time to be emotionally vulnerable to your scene partner. Don’t chase after the laugh. Don’t chase the tears, either. Go where the story takes you, but be honest. Talk like real people.

Improv is writing. Improv is acting. Improv is Theatre.

Tony Rielage
Artistic Director, Head Instructor
Theatre Momentum
This is a repost from our old website. More blog entries to come!

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