I notice in teaching longform that some students are resistant to learning things that are slightly different to what they have learned previously. For years when people used ‘impro’ rather than ‘improv’ I would flinch because I learned with Del Close graduates and they had learned from the Keith Johnstone school. I imagined that what I had learned was way better because it was about emotional choices and making the other person look good rather than competition, status and narrative. It’s weird because we’re in an art form where we literally train to be able to drop ideas, adapt and say yes, but when it comes to Bunny Bunny with different gestures, we freak out.
Bill Arnett of the Chicago Improv Studio is the spirit animal for my longform company The Maydays and he suggests that we need to focus on adapting for the style we want to play in in any particular show. If you’re playing in a fast-paced gaggy show, you’re going to be edited before you explore the subtext in a slow burn style scene. If you wheel out a pun in a realistic show, it had better be a part of that character’s personality or it will take all the air out of the scene.
Baby Duck Syndrome is a type of imprinting that happens when people have learned a particular computer operating system and they judge all successive systems based on their formative experience. We are absolutely a slave to Baby Duck Syndrome in improv, so I constantly tell my students to learn everywhere, with as many teachers as they can. I’ll recommend another school I think is good, whether they ever recommend their students to me or not.
Let’s be freer. We have learned to be adaptive and creative in many different ways. If your director/coach/teacher asks you to pass the line of a song when you are used to organically choosing when it is time for you to do so, drop your imprinting. It’s great to agree on stage about how to play.
Having said that, it is great when different approaches collide. In Finland and Greece I had the pleasure of watching Patti Styles and Joe Bill play together. They were trained by Keith Johnstone and Del Close respectively and their shows were phenomenal. They weren’t questioning every move the other made against an internal checklist, but rather they were reactive and engaged. They allowed the rules and guidelines of their craft to knit them together, not to check the validity of one another’s choices against their training.
I guess what I’m saying (to you and to me) is; if the warm-up or the philosophy is different than the one you’ve imprinted on, go with it. The point where we are ‘done’ in improv is the point where we atrophy.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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