Allen Iverson might not need to practice. But I do. This is Sam. I'm going to write a blog about why improvisers practice.
I was on the phone with my father last night. Dad is so excited that I'm a co-founder of Happy Valley Improv.
"Whose Line Is It Anyway? is my favorite show!" Dad reminded me when I told him about what's happening with our improv company. "Tell them your father taught you everything you know."
I laughed at Dad's remark.
I remember watching Whose Line in the 90's when I was a kid. I've always loved comedy, and Dad is a big part of that. I can't deny my father is a comedian. He's always made people laugh, and I'm sure my appreciation for comedy can be traced back to his sarcastic, playful sense of humor.
I'm an outlier when it comes to the relationship between improvisation and comedy. I can't deny that most improvisation is comedic. Still, I don't think that improv is inherently a comic art-form. In fact, I think improvisers often kill an improvisation when they try to be funny. There's so much potential to explore our collective psyche through improvisation, and humor can serve as a defense-mechanism that protects us from opening ourselves up to that shared and potentially vulnerable exploration.
Back to my dad. He gets humor and he is great at thinking on his feet. Even at age 70! But he was confused when I was talking with him last night. I told Dad I had to go to improv rehearsal when I got off the phone.
"Rehearsal?" Dad asked. "How do you rehearse improv?"
Dad's question is one I've heard hundreds of times over the last fifteen years. People seem so astonished by the idea that improvisers would practice, take classes, or attend workshops.
No, improv theatre is not planned out. Real improvisers never know what is going to happen during a show. But improv is also one of the most demanding art-forms I know. Good improvisation requires rigorous practice and carefully crafted forms. Performers have to learn and practice the formats and dispositions necessary to participate in and sustain improvisation. What are the attributes of a good improviser? Here's a few. A good improviser (a) says "yes, and " to everything that happens in an improv scene, (2) defers to the collective, (3) shares power with their fellow improvisers, (4) overcomes their inhibitions, and (5) perceives, accepts, affirms, and builds off the offerings of all other participants in the improv. These are seriously difficult traits to learn, let alone embody. They require serious practice. Further, troupes that work together need to trust each other without hesitation. They need to achieve groupmind. Collective consciousness. Talk about difficult. Talk about important!
I've written it before. I've taught all sorts of content during my career as a teacher. Nothing has been more difficult than preparing students for an improv performance. Shakespeare is a breeze by comparison.
I've attended weekly improv practices with Happy Valley Improv for nearly two years now. I've rarely missed a practice. I've learned so much about working with other founders of HVI. Our new company members, too. Still, there's so much more to learn. Improv is impossible to master. The possibilities for what might be created in an improvised moment are endless. Still, there is a discipline to creating and sustaining improv. And I don't think myself or the other members of HVI are even close to improvising up to our potential. And so we practice. And learn and grow. New forms and new structures, yes. But dispositions too. An improvisational ethos. Improvisation requires us to be open to this work. And it is work.
So Allen Iverson might not need to practice. But I do. And frankly, Allen Iverson did too. He was just loathe to admit it. James, another co-founder of HVI, often likens preparing for improv to practicing basketball. I've used the basketball comparison with students in the past too. My drama workshop and acting classes in high school seemed receptive to this metaphor. It's impossible to know what will happen during a basketball game. But good players work daily to prepare for all the different things that happen in a game. So too, good improvisers have to be ready for all the different things that might happen in a show. And if a show is a receptacle for all the possibilities and limitations of the human mind, and I think it is, then we must be prepared for an infinite expression of thought, emotion, and spirit. The psyche. Human beings are infinitely creative and improvisation is a transparent performance of what is happening inside of us in relation to each other. Get out, man. That's powerful! But this power can only be harnessed well through the disciplined work of practicing a craft.