Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Impro: Transient, or Permanent?

Is recording an improvised performance a good thing?

Most of the time, we consider an improvised scene to be a fleeting moment, something that is shared between the performers and the audience, never to be seen again. That's one of the things that makes it special and memorable.

Sometimes an improvised scene can become more permanent. Several improvised TV shows have made their mark, including Whose Line Is It Anyway and Thank God You're Here. Countless improvised productions are available on the internet, from websites, YouTube, or as podcasts. Those performances are now permanent, ready for you to watch or listen to, over and over again.

Is recording an improvised performance a good thing?

Problem #1 – Sometimes impro doesn't work. It's perfectly ok for a short-form impro scene to go down in flames – you take a risk, it doesn't work out, you kill the scene and move on to something good.

So… when you record something, do you take the good with the bad? Audiences sitting watching your scene go down the tubes know that you're improvising, they can see your panic and sweat - and they are sympathetic. Someone watching on their PC/TV/iPod won't have that same attachment to the performers, so they'll be more critical. A bad scene is just going to look bad.

So, you edit that one out. Now you're editing. Hmm. Editing impro sounds wrong.

Problem #2 - A really strong improvised scene, seen live, is a wonderful thing for an audience. But if you put that same scene on a television, where it might sit alongside Firefly or The Office or Deadwood? Does a viewer have a different expectation of the quality of entertainment on a television? Again, the home viewer hasn't seen the cast panic and work to make a good scene, they haven't been there for the offers/gimmes/ask-fors, they don't have the same attachment to the performance.

I readily admit to loving impro, from the moment I saw it at high school, to now – more than half of my life. There are moments from shows that I can still remember giving me goosebumps, whether I was watching the show or performing in it. I like replaying those in my head. So perhaps it's natural for me to like the idea of recording shows, for posterity's sake if nothing else. I went through a phase very early on where I recorded musical games in short-form shows, and several of those recordings made it on to the site as Songs and Operas from Theatresports Lightning Doubles. For the last few months, my SOP has been to record all the audio for my shows, and make them available for the cast. Yes, I mine that stuff for material for this site, like Joel's song about the Ipswich Mall or Tristan and Amy's What a Beautiful Day For A Walk. I think there is educational (and also hopefully entertainment) value in those songs.

Do impro recordings have broad appeal to a wide audience? I'm not so sure. Those successful impro TV shows have been engineered for success, moreso than a typical short-form show. Thank God You're Here controls the scenes very tightly, so the narrative can stray ever so slightly from the plan before getting pulled back quickly. And there's a lot of discussion about just how improvised Whose Line really is; at the very least, I imagine it is heavily edited to preserve just the scenes that are excellent.

We had a conversation amongst the cast of Prognosis: Death! about how we might use the video recordings of our shows. Put them out for the general public on YouTube? Or just for our (ahem) private collections? The general consensus was that they would be great for the cast to rewatch, and for dedicated fans to enjoy, but not for the general public. If you didn't already love the show, the performers, the characters, you probably probably wouldn't find the video entertaining. Without a lot of work, impro just doesn't translate well to the small screen, and you risk publishing something that reflects poorly on your company - even if the show was great.

I've had the same sort of chat about audio from entire long-form shows like One Bride for Seven Brothers. If you were there, the audio is great for keeping the memory alive in your head. If you knew the performers or were an improviser yourself, you could probably fill in the gaps and enjoy it. For the general public, though, it's just not going to be engaging enough.

Will that stop me recording shows? Nope. I get a kick out of re-listening to performances, and getting to enjoy my friends' brilliance over and over.

What do you think? Should an improvised show be left in the moment, never to be seen again?

Photo by Scott Meis Photography


Jill said...

We need video, as an archive. Any improv festival producer will tell you how awful it is to watch hours and hours of recorded improv, but elsewise how could they get an inkling of what they're in for?

I think it's a poor excuse to say it doesn't hold up in a recording. There is immediacy lost, but a good improv set is still entertaining. On video, it's possibly 12% less entertaining, which means a set you record needs to be 12% better than an average set. I think this is why so much improv on video looks awful, 12% is a huge dip.

12% is my immeasurable guess. I've no stats to back that up.

Dan said...


All the best moments in life are transient. The crucial factor in impro is that it's a unique moment for that audience. Something special for them to hold to their chest and love for a split second. Like an epiphany or a first kiss.

If the show isn't 'in the moment' how can we, as performers do it. I should have been totally focused on what I was doing as 'The under-dressed gay minotaur' but all I could think about was just how many camera flashes were going off in the audience.

On top of that I was supposed to be working yesterday but I spend close to two hours just listening back to episodes of Prognosis: Death! and giggling.


(I think this was the moral lesson that the film 'Strange Days' was trying to teach.)

Tom said...

We use video too: we tape whole performances, and afterwards see it (together): it's a great learning experience to see yourself play, sing, dance, see what works and see what doesn't. And it's a great group-feeling-building kinda thing to watch stuff with the hole crew, in addition to the learning it's great fun.

We've gotten gigs thru video. We've had organizers to send them video, and based on what they saw they booked us. SO there is a commercial value - and for organizers it's like what Jill said about festivals.

I actively mine youtube for improv videos. The average quality makes me cringe (quality of the tape as well as quality of the work). But I can learn from virtually any improv video. AND - even though the average quality is poor, I have found AMAZING stuff as well. I really like the audio that you put up on this site, Chris, for the same reason.

I agree with Jill: though you loose stuff in video, good improv is still good improv.

So yeah I like video. Would I put all our performances out there on youtube? Nah...

Anonymous said...

As a dedicated impro fan(...atic?) I love listening/ watching back on the performances that I have seen and loved. I can remember the good bits and appreciate them in a whole new way without that immediacy that impro normally provides. (Especially when I don't get the joke the first time round.) As I try to do impro myself I would love to see some footage of my own stuff because I think it would help me learn.

But, while I want everyone to have that "oh my god, this is freaking awesome!" feeling that I get while watching a show... it doesn't translate through video. So though I love when someone records it, I just don't really think putting it out there is going to do any good.

(And as I'm not very good yet, I think I would be really annoyed if someone put footage of me online!)

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