I’m really writing this because I’m terrible at watching improv. This is a blog written for me. You can read it if you want, but this is advice from a good me to a bad me. I’m at an improv festival (do I keep saying that?) and I’m watching 4 hours of improv a night. Sometimes I’m a horrible person and I’m just waiting until it’s my show, sometimes, I’m spellbound, sometimes I go into teacher or director head. So how should I watch an improv show? They’re not necessarily my team, but I should still have their backs. Here are some tips for getting better at watching improv.
When you are playing at a show, please watch the other acts. Yes, you may need to warm up, yes, you may be tired and you’re on first, but think how much you appreciate it when the other groups stay to see you. If you are aware the other groups are very new or not so great, see it as your good deed for the day. If you’ve never heard of them, you should definitely watch them and see what they are up to. If you’ve seen them loads, great, stay and see what’s happening with their show now; improv is different every time, right? Also, you don’t have to awkwardly pretend in the pub that you did see them, or say thank you with no returned compliment.
Don’t just sit in the shadows at the back because you’re a performer, there’s no reason you should broadcast that by segregating yourself. Don’t sit in the centre of the front row because that can be intimidating. You shouldn’t be taking up paid punter seats, but you can make a theatre (or a pub room) look more full by filling up the empty seats once everyone else has arrived. Some nights don’t always have enough staff to run the door smoothly (in London anyways) so if people need help finding seats, locating the bathroom or knowing if they have time to get a drink, try and help out.
There are sometimes nights in London when technicians, front of house staff and the host haven’t turned up. If you’re comfortable filling a role at the last minute, you should do that. If the night is better, your show will be better.
2.See a Broad Spectrum of Shows
Don’t just watch the same group over and over again. It’s all very well me watching Baby Wants Candy every day for several Edinburgh Festivals, but you need to see more than one thing. There are infinite ways of playing and there are a lot of shows and performers out there who can really inspire you. For a few years I thought that I’d seen all of short form, then I took a punt on an American group in Edinburgh and had a really great night. They were slick, funny and I learned a lot of new games. Now I like short form again. You might live nearer to one theatre or another, or have trained at one school. Push yourself to go and see work in other schools and theatres. You never know; their style might be your new favourite.
3.Go See Your Mates Perform
I can’t tell you how pleased I am when friends come to see my improv shows. I burned through all my favours in my first two years of stand up, but sometimes muggle chums and improvisers will come to my shows. When I see them there I expect that they’re playing and if they say ‘nah, I just fancied it’ I glow. So give that feeling back. You love improv, remember? So go see your friends in their other shows, see how your fellow students are doing in their new team and be a nice person. A nice person who gets entertained and maybe has a lovely beer. When I watch my co-improvisers perform in other shows, I feel so lucky to play with them. Just last night I watched lots of the Maydays perform in other shows at the BIG IF and I was so thrilled with how excellent they were. What a treat to get to play with those people, I thought. We can take our team buddies for granted, but they’re probably awesome and we’re lucky to have them.
4.Don’t Sit There Looking Like a C**t
If you don’t like a show, you really don’t need to broadcast the fact. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. You will come across as arrogant or mean or judgy.
You don’t have to pretend to laugh, or give a standing ovation just to yes-and the crowd, but it doesn’t help the act for you to sit there with your arms crossed, looking moody. At least look open and encouraging. I’ve certainly been in shows, where I’ve caught the eye of a person who looks like they hate it and it’s made me feel bad. That might even be in a sea of smiles and laughs. I’ve also seen fellow teachers in the audience do ‘edit’ gestures, wince when a performer denies something, point out a reality error like ‘she was a tree, not a human, right?’ (that last one was me). You’re not really checking, you’re showing off that you knew what they missed. Really, you just look like a c**t.
Remember that the audience gets 100% of the information that is happening on stage and sometimes performers only get 50% because of where we’re standing and looking. It’s much easier to think of funny bits and clever plots from your comfortable seat in the crowd.
5.Have a Cheeky Workout
You can always get more reps in by watching improvisation. It’s another gym trip for your brain. Ideally it would be such a great show that you can just sit there and enjoy the shit out of it without even thinking. Often though we can be exposed to a lot of mediocre work, or in a workshop where we are sitting and watching two person scenes forever but there are necessarily times when we have to sit and watch.
Make your watching active. In the audience, learn all the character names like you would on stage, look for when you might edit, think about the themes, get ideas for follow-me scenes or work out the subtext between the characters. Log where objects and scenery are placed, think of how you’d wrap up the story. I’m not saying you should be this in-your-head when you’re playing on stage, but it’s a great way of practising when you’re the audience in class or you’re watching a show.
6.Decide What You Love
It was the worst show you’ve ever seen. But what did you love about it? There must have been something? One of the initiations was amazing, that guy was great at object work, the pianist was really good. It’s a given that we dislike improv where people listen poorly to one another and treat each other badly, so let’s get over that and find things we love.
Also – did other people like it? Just because you didn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s shit.
7.Pick Something You Can Use
A person, a form, a style, an edit; anything you like. Here are some things that inspired me from the shows I watched last night:
8.Only Offer Advice If You’re Asked
I’ve had people come up to me immediately after a show and give me notes. Not my director, not a teacher, sometimes a friend (who doesn’t do improv) and sometimes a student of mine. It’s weird, guys. First of all, I don’t want my tiny little high ruined by this person being objective (and objectively negative) about the performance I’ve just given. I’m a pretty destructive critic of myself, so I really don’t need a third person adding to the poo poo party.
If you are asked for advice, check if that’s really what they want; do they just need an ego boost or is this really a demand for creative notes? If they want notes, make them general things they can apply to their next show, not things they should have done this time. Also, you’re not obliged to offer free advice.
9.Take Action for Your Show
So we’ve learned how not to be neg about everything. But what triggered you because you do it? I think it bugs me when people do a lot of love stories, awkward rom coms and play ditzy American characters because I do too much of that. I’m just retroactively watching myself and saying ‘enough’! So rather than deciding you don’t like that show, see if there’s anything you can change about your work, or the group you work with.