At the moment, I have a slight aversion against “This is how it is!” or “This is how you have to do it!” kind of statements, because they imply that there is exactly one way of doing things. But I don’t think that this is the case, in fact, there are usually several ways of doing things. And sometimes, even paradigms that apparently contradict themselves can be valid at the same time. A couple of examples from the wonderful world of improv:
Asking for suggestions: Should you take the first one you hear, or should you ask for a couple and then decide for one? I say: Both!
How you hold it to ask for suggestions – it doesn’t matter. Why should you take the first suggestion you hear if it doesn’t inspire you? On the other hand: Are we really still improvising if we gather a large bunch of suggestions beforehand and then pick the one that we like best? I say: Yes! Of course we’re still improvising! (A well-known German improvisor and facilitator, Ralf Schmitt, once said in a workshop: “Those guys are improvisers, actually, they should not need any suggestion at all, they should be able to play any way!”; in the same way, I consider the request for suggestions mainly as a means to get in touch with the audience, to communicate – and not so much as an indispensable part of improv theatre.) Why always take the very first suggestion like “Red – violin – hammer”? But on the other hand: Why not? All in all, I think everybody should handle this in the way he or she is most comfortable with! And that can even change during a show, especially if the hosting is shared between several people – the first one takes the first suggestion, while the other one prefers to ask for a couple of suggestions to select the one he or she likes best. Why not!
Are there things like “levels” (beginners, intermediate, advanced) in improv, or is it all the same? I say: Both is correct!
Berlin has a very famous trainer and improvisor (Deniz Döhler) who believes that there are no levels in improv. When I did a course with Deniz two years ago, I was a bit upset about this attitude, because I felt my skills / development not acknowledged. Since I’m teaching myself, though, I understand, what he means and I agree with him to some extend: the problems that people in my class struggle with are basically the same that a lot people in my improv group struggle with (usually, it’s the continuous attempt to control the events); and at the same time, I see that there are indeed certain skill-levels. Of course, a beginners class can perform certain Theatre Sports games just as good and funny as a group of professional players. Still, I think there is a point in dividing players according to their skill levels, for several reasons: 1. I guess there are a couple of people who feel the same way about that topic that I did: they simply feel better when it’s recognized that they’re doing something for quite a while already compared to others, which implies that they in some way have a higher skill-level; 2. Over time, improvisors develop a kind of routine or “stage-toughness”, which is something beginners often do not yet have; this routine allows them, to react more freely and spontaneously in certain situations (and this has nothing to do with their actual level of skills); 3. improvisors who have been improvising for some time know more “tricks” that they can refer back to, because they know what’s going to work and what’s not; 4. improvisors who’re doing improv for some time have had more time to internalize certain basic rules, e.g. “Let your partner shine”, or even not to be discouraged by their mistakes. Nevertheless: As far as I can see, the intermediate level, and properly even the “advanced” players, are struggling with the same topics as everybody who starts playing improv. In scope of a course system like many improv teaching groups offer it, the difference between those is not clear to me, except for the fact that the ones with the higher level have trained for a longer time already, so that you don’t have to explain certain basics again. Still, it’s giving the players a better feeling if they have the impression to go through some kind of evolution and to become better or “more advanced” – and I think, this is good! The real differences though in the performance level cannot be captured in a course system, because they are hard to verify (and I think it’s more a mater of attitudes than a matter of skills).
Silliness vs. seriousness: Shall the maxim of playing improv be being silly or rather being serious? I say: Both!
A big appeal of improv theatre at least for me is the silliness and sometimes childlike playfulness. So why give up on that asset for a more serious way of playing? On the other hand: If rehearsals are drifting apart solely into silliness and fooling around, I feel empty afterwards. I’m missing the seriousness, the “substance”. Still, I would not sacrifice the silliness and playfulness for seriousness! I think you can be serious in playing improv, and still be easy, playful and silly. The seriousness here is on a different level than the silliness: If you take what you’re doing (playing improv) serious in itself (not too serious, though!!), and you have the vision of really telling something, really communicating something – then you can be as silly and playful in the implementation as you want! The other way round, though, is a rather bad combination, I think 🙂
And, as often, all of that can be applied to life in general: There is no black and white. There is no “This is right and this is wrong.” There is no “We are like that and you are everything we’re not”. Usually, it some kind of “both … and …”. So, if somebody is trying to sell you some kind of dichotomy, I’d rather be skeptical…
Translation by: Claudia Hoppe