I don’t travel to improv festivals very much anymore, mostly cos of having two very energetic kids. That and setting up a new company with some pretty ambitious goals. I never did as much as Heather, but whenever I did, regular as clockwork, I would have a crisis when asked to submit my classes. What on earth should people want to learn from me? What could I offer which wasn’t obvious, which made a contribution to the conversation? Which people would want to take? It’s the curse of the newer teacher – you want a class title that stands out from the crowd. You want people to talk. I think it was inevitable, but definitely feel glad that I am somewhat past that point now. I haven’t yet reached the point of just calling every class ‘good improv’, but it might happen one day.
But here’s the thing about new classes with new titles and new ideas that stand out. It’s not just that they sell. It’s way worse: they also work. Teaching a class of experienced improvisers an unfamiliar way of playing will, almost magically, create great improv. If the teacher sets it up clearly and the players are open-hearted, you have the improv equivalent of saying “Two times two is four. What does two times two equal?”. The answer comes back full-throated and confident. Security and novelty are a heady combination.
I think that’s because of one of my Three Least Sexy Words in Improvisation. Indeed, probably the least sexy one of all: coherence. Art works when all of the elements form together to make a whole and the whole is composed of parts that match. When you introduce a new filter to how you play, coherence happens automatically. After all, we are all doing the thing we were just told. New experience is a short cut to common experience.
The real question is not, I don’t think, whether one can have a good time with a new idea, but whether, when and how often that idea can be applied after the workshop finishes. Can I take this thing out into the improv wild and do something with it? Can I use it regularly? Or is it the equivalent of a kitchen gadget too specific to get regular use? Did I just buy an avocado slicer when I already own a knife?
In the spirit of which, please allow me to introduce to you:
The Iron Rule of Improvisation:
“Any Old Bullshit Works Once.”
Now, like ‘You Only Live Once’, this can be read negatively or positively. The positive is that you can have a good time (and make some good improvisations) from just about any stimulus. Improv based on the periodic table, the name of your first pet, or IKEA product names. That’s great. Improv is a resilient, flexible art form mostly performed by passionate curious people. That means it sometimes works when it has no right to.
The negative is that you can’t always tell the bullshit from the gold. If everything works the first time, you have to do it a few times before you know whether that was a fluke.
That is not to say that all new ideas are bullshit (artists should always be pushing the envelope), but that any idea in such an ephemeral, unstable art form as improv has to be repeated and tried until we know if it is worthwhile. It’s only through seeing the repeated and repeatable value of something to many people that we can tell if it’s bullshit or not.
In Skin in The Game, Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes the Lindy effect:
“Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. This heuristic became known as the Lindy effect.”
His (grouchy, stubborn) point is that, given a limit on resources (especially time), we were best to lean on older, more storied ideas, one that had been tested by repetition and time. He quotes King Alphonso X of Spain: “Burn old logs. Drink Old Wine. Read old books. Keep old friends”.
This comes down to confusion which I think we often make in improvisation: we mistake the interesting for the important. And they are fundamentally not the same. A new conceptual framework, set of ideas, or parameters is very appealing, especially to a set of people who have chosen an art form of the ceaselessly, breathlessly new. But we are wise to keep an eye on the old as well. SAfter all, it has survived this long.