Can Improv Be Reviewed?

Last night I attended Die Nasty – “the legendary live improvised soap opera” for the first time. Despite having been to improv – mostly during Improvaganza – Die Nasty is one of those events I kept hearing about (after all, it happens every week), but never got around to seeing it.

I had a great time at Die Nasty – the show was hilarious and it was hard to believe it was all improvised – I could never be that good at thinking on my feet! However, the show got me thinking about reviewing improv – is it possible? Does anyone do it? If they don’t, how do the actors improve? Of course, there’s the immediate feedback the actor gets from the audience – did they laugh? Did they “get” it? But, I’m talking more about the kind of feedback one receives after a reviewer has gone home, thought about it, and carefully crafted a critique of the performance they just saw.

A quick Google search reveals  VUE Weekly’s reviews of a couple improvised Fringe shows – reviews limited to around 100 words, and strangely enough, both expressing the sentiment that if you’ve seen improv before, those particular shows are nothing special.

So, my question: can improv be reviewed? Even just thinking about applying the same basic principles I use to review theatre leaves me shaking my head. For example – did the story hold together and make sense? Well, no – it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense in order to be effective. Did it move the audience? Improv isn’t exactly known for moving audiences – to tears (from laughing), maybe, but not in an emotional sense. It’s probably not even supposed to – isn’t the point of improv to respond in the most natural/outlandish/nonsensical way?

Sure, we could talk about the music and the lighting, but how many people go to a show specifically for the technical components? Not very many of your average Joe’s, that’s for sure.

How then, do we review improv? Critical thought about any industry helps it improve – not that I’m suggesting that Die Nasty or any other improv show needs improving – so how do I, as one of those people who reviews the arts help contribute to the growth and progression of that industry? I know that as an audience member, I’m satisfied when I leave an improv show if I didn’t spend too much time wondering what was going on, if I laughed until my cheeks hurt or tears ran down my face (surprisingly easy to do, FYI), and if the people I brought with me had a good time. But I suspect that knowing that those things were accomplished doesn’t help the improv actor’s ability to improve the experience – whether I had a good time or not.

I’ve been in contact with Die Nasty requesting an interview – I’ll update After the House Lights once I have a conversation which can give me a bit of insight into my questions. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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There are 16 comments

  1. John Richardson

    I would suggest that improv certainly can and should be reviewed and it can and should be reviewed in a way that could be useful to both the actors and the audience. And, yes, such reviewing will be different in many ways from reviewing other theatre, and it can be more than whether it worked or didn’t or whether it was good or bad.

    It strikes me as obvious that at the heart of improv is the unexpected. The actors begin with the unexpected situations, words, objects, etc. with which they are to create the scene, and what they produce is necessarily unexpected by the audience. At the most basic level, the actors must aim to produce an *entertaining* unexpected — this is, after all, what the audience expects. But what then is entertaining about improv?

    Most of the time the entertainment of improv is humour, the humour of the unexpected twist. The audience knows shares knowledge of the tools the actors must use and will imagine what might be done but will likely be surprised by what the actors come up with. In well executed improve the surprise will be pleasant and satisfying. I would suggest that in excellently executed improve the actors will rise far above anyone’s — including the actors’ — imaginings of what the material had to offer. In these rare moments the actors will seem to be channelling some pre-existing script and may move the audience with something other than the humour of the unexpected, perhaps even entering the tragic mode. Such a possessed shift of mode will be the most unexpected of events at improv, and I think perhaps the most deeply moving for an audience.

    But the good (and great) improv artists have more tools than spontaneous imagination and the unexpected things they’re expected to work into their piece. I would argue that good improv is, like Homeric poetry or cryptic crosswords to some degree formulaic. I do not use the term the way it is most often used today as a variation of “predictable”. What I mean is that improv has developed and each improv team develops a collection of verbal and gestural and narrative tools which make the improv producible by the team and comprehensible and perhaps familiar to the audience. We all have a shared collection of words and rules of syntax which allow us to communicate with each other. The poets who improvised Homeric poetry thousands of years ago also had words and syntax, but they also had a shared collection of metrical phrases and sentences, of type-scenes and descriptions. These formulaic elements were ready to hand for all poets, good or bad, and their audiences (the poems were performed ex tempore) were familiar with the tradition and had expectations. The bad poets didn’t meet the expectations very well, the good ones satisfied the audience. The great ones moved beyond the expectations, surprising and moving the audience (and likely themselves).

    Does improv not have similar sets of situations, frameworks to hang the story on, verbal bits that recur? Die Nasty very obviously has an overarching framework in the soap opera format. But I fully expect that there are smaller, briefer recurring elements, formulae which, rather than words, are the tools of the improv actor.

    I suggest that improv can certainly be reviewed. After all, countless generations of Classical scholars have for thousands of years been reviewing that venerable improv star Homer.

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    1. jennamarynowski

      Hey John,

      Sorry it took me so long to reply – that’s such a great answer, I didn’t know where to start.

      I really like your suggestion that it’s the element of the unexpected – as well as how well the actors use the tools and conventions available to them – that indicate how SOMEONE should be reviewing improv. To me, that implies that there’s definitely a way to learn (at least the basics of) improv, but in order to review it… you just have to go to a lot of improv, in order to see whether their conventions and tools were used effectively.

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  2. John Richardson

    I guess it’s true of anything that you have to spend a lot of time with the type before you can knowledgeably discuss the specific. Colour commentary on a hockey game would be rather odd if it came from a lifelong NFL fan who had never seen a puck before 🙂

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    1. jennamarynowski

      Exactly! I think my point here is more, how do you get to that stage where it’s “okay” for you to review a certain type of art? I’m a firm believer that everyone is entitled to share their opinion, but at what point can we start calling it a review?

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  3. John Richardson

    First a disclaimer: I don’t think I’d ever claim to review improv until I’d spent a lot more time with it than I have. But I also don’t really think what I’ve posted on my blogs are something I would call reviews. That’s why they’re usually called “An Appreciation of”, “A Response to”, or “Thoughts on”. My feeling about “Reviews” is that they evince a confidence of opinion I’m not certain I have myself, a confidence that too often perhaps the reviewer has no reason to feel 😉

    I’ll close with a favourite passage from Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones”:

    Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to
    acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as
    often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any
    pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to
    mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works
    which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by
    which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their
    jurisdiction.

    🙂

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