Before I tell you about the new syllabus we are creating, let me share some of the most wonderful improv scenes I have witnessed. In no particular order: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, ‘Chris fails to go back in time’, ‘Pick up the letter!’, ‘the Death of the Queen’s Consort’, ‘Two Other Bears’, ‘a Method Director’, ‘Tene mi Brache’, ‘Lots and lots of moxy and a twelve inch dick’, and ‘Proust improvised by those who haven’t read him’. Just a few without thinking much about it. Now, unless you were there for any of them, that list probably didn’t make much sense. It almost certainly wasn’t very fun. Because improv is a very wasteful artform. However beautiful, hilarious, spine-tingling or just plain satisfying these scenes were, they have now passed into the ether, reduced to a memory fragment I struggle to explain the joy of, a story that can (at best) be nodded along to. It’s one of the reasons cooperation in improv can be so challenging. Unless you were there, you weren’t there (man). The most enthusiastic description can only communicate so much.
But what does this have to do with the new syllabus?
Our aim in rewriting the syllabus is not to define the best form of improv, but create a set of habits and ideas that a community can form around. Just because a restaurant specilises in sushi, doesn’t mean the chef hates roasts or thinks fried rice is morally suspect. But you can’t git gud if you keep changing everything. Of course there are many other ways to make things up, but like the rifle in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, this is ours.
So what will the AndAlso style be? Well, we’re working that out, piece by piece. It’s not an instant process and it wouldn’t be interesting if it were. Our influences are the connectedness and group work of iO, the physical boldness of Carpe Haute and Teatribu, the unselfish selfishness of the Annoyance, the rigour of Razowsky, the sheer infectious delight of Jill Bernard. Oh, and the professionalism of the Showstoppers, the relentless open-eyed curiosity of PGraph (and the Hideout Theatre in general), and the freeform sugar-rush of Improv Boston. I could add and add to that list. Heather and I get enthusiastic about things, and we want them all to be part of what we do. It’s a fault and we’re working on it. But as we start running shows and jams, this hodge-podge will boil down into something clearer, less cerebral. In time, things should just start to feel AndAlso-ish.
With all this in mind, we are doubling (you heard that right) the length of our courses to twelve weeks, running in line with the school terms (including a week off for half term). We believe staying together for longer periods of time will build group trust and a shared vocabulary. A plan for a six-level system, means a core syllabus of two years, with teams and advanced classes after that. It’s ambitious, but we don’t expect to do it faster than it can be done. At the moment, we are building the ‘how’ and trusting that the ‘what’ will come.
There is, of course, a danger that all this feels like gatekeeping. A Doomsday cult with T-shirts. (Improv and Scientology are very amusingly elided in a few episodes of Bojack Horseman – you should watch them.) But our syllabuses will not be hard-edged prescriptive. Our aim is to be an inspiration, not a straitjacket. Something that creates just enough agreement for us to work together, always with space for what the teacher brings and what the students love. And to make sure our students get a range of points of view, we will be rotating teachers every term and welcoming guest improvisers from across the world. Heather and I will run the company but never assume that we have all the answers. The balance that is the very origin of the AndAlso name.
(For anyone worried about the affordability of longer courses, we are making fees payable in installments and dropping the concessionary rate to half of the full rate. We will also be making scholarship places bookable on the site without any application process. We have to keep the lights on, but we know money is tight for a lot of people. Again, balance.)
It would be easy here to get lost in the decisions and improvements we have made and want to make. I am excited about them and the details are, in the end, the design. But the heart of it all is this: In any art, you have to build your taste. To see and do enough that you can distinguish between what you do not like, and what is not good. It would be naive to pretend that Heather and my taste will not be a big part of how we build the new school. At least at the beginning. But as we grow, it will create an eco-system (as I wrote in my last blog), where improvisers are able to collect their own best-of lists. This (people will say) is the kind of thing they do there. In the end, it will come from everyone.
Below is the first draft of our level flow, clumsy over-precise titles and all. There is more work to be done on it (especially the titles), and a lot more work to be done on the syllabuses themselves. I present it here so you know where we are. This is where we are.