I think reviewing improv is on a night-to-night basis. It’s not like a play – the chances of it being very different every night is incredible, but I guess just how much you believe they’re improvising and how good they are at making you believe they’re improvising.
This is Dana Andersen’s answer to the fundamental question that drove me to interview him. I wondered: Can improv be reviewed? And if so, how?
This question came about after I wrote a think piece on my alternate blog, After the House Lights, about my first experience with Die Nasty’s improvised soap opera forma. After some interesting discussion on the article, I decided to get in touch with one of Edmonton’s improv experts – after all, who better to discuss the idea of reviewing something in which every performance, by its very definition, is different? I’ve broken our incredibly informative 46 minute interview into several articles.
Jenna: As one of the founders of Die Nasty, is [how much you believe they’re improvising] one of the things you look for in your actors or your troupe?
Dana: I guess it’s trying to always make it so that you don’t call people on the errors they make in terms of saying something wrong or getting someone’s name wrong. I’m not a big fan of when other actors call people on others’ mistakes or if the director calls a mistake. I like to make it seem like everybody’s always doing their job perfectly. If you don’t bring up a mistake – it’s obvious if someone makes a big mistake – but if it was a just a little glitch, there’s no need to point that out to make the other actors look bad or get a response from the audience just due to somebody’s oversight. It’s kind of supporting each other is what I look for when people are doing scenes.
Jenna: I guess it’s pretty important to have a lot of trust.
Dana: Well, that’s what you try and gain in people because there’s nothing wrong with a really good improviser who can run circles around people and everybody loves them, or if an improviser is not always consistent but if you’re working together, there’s no need to make the other person look foolish. I mean, somebody who has the chops for it can easily run around in circles and want to show themselves off, so I think it just depends on what kind of improviser you want to be. If it doesn’t hurt the show as a whole, it’s always up to the person as to how much they want to participate without being a dick on stage.
Jenna: Ha ha, yeah, I guess that’s important for cohesiveness, especially in a production like Die Nasty when you guys are on stage with each other every week… Someone mentioned to me that there are improv coaches – do you guys use that in Die Nasty? Or how do you guys…
Dana: Never. Everything at Die Nasty is completely improvised based on what happened the week before. And they never have a clue what the director is going to blurt out or make them do. They don’t know what actor they’re going to be on stage, or what story lines the director is going to pick to follow. It’s always pretty random… So that’s why people do it. It’s more fun to be surprised and kind of jump out of the airplane without a parachute, so to speak, than having a grid to work with.
Jenna: Okay, so no sort of coaching. How would an improv actor improve – or what’s your professional development path been over the years?
Dana: It’s just been learning how to listen to the other actors, so you’re hearing what they’re saying not just hearing “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line,” kinda thing. You want to be able to take what the other person is saying and make sense of it so the other person isn’t just spewing off at the mouth. So, being able to develop the art of listening and of comprehending what the other actor is saying is a really important skill… I just think that a really good improviser is a good mathematician, in the sense that they can remember a formula and figure out the equation and always have something that has been said by another actor that they can use again later on in the scene to reincorporate what that actor has said… I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum when I’m improvising. I’m like a goldfish – going from one idea to the next idea to the next – so I don’t always get the reincorporation jokes… My thing is just trying. If you make a mistake, it’s like jazz music: just do it two or three more times and it seems like it’s part of the scene. It’s just trying to make sure that you cover the other person. You can always tell that it’s improv – the way it’ll go off the rails and backfire. Sometimes you can just see an actor digging a hole in the ground , bigger and bigger, but he’s kind of enjoying it at the same time. The pieces of sweat that come out of that are part of the rush of doing it in front of a live audience.
Jenna: While you’ve been on your path to developing in improv – have you had to become more comfortable with that uncertainty with where things might be going, or have you always been comfortable with that?
Dana: I’ve always kind of just enjoyed the whatever of it. The hardest part to get over … [that is], what happens to an improviser is you’re only as good as your last show, so if you have a really good show, you’re really primed for the next one. If you have a really bad show and things don’t work out, you’re always [thinking] “I’ve got to score big this next time or get on track or listen better. Why didn’t I have a good time in that other show?” and then the next show you suddenly have a great time. What makes it inconsistent? But that’s the odds of having 14 people on stage and everybody throwing you in the right direction or getting the right scene with the right person, or just the inspiration you get at the moment by the improv gods who are giving you the way to follow through. That’s the fun of it – sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s really great. And then sometimes you try to forget. You can’t let that bog you down and be afraid to do it again next week, just because something didn’t work. Or if something did work the first time and then you try to repeat it and that’s the nail in the coffin. It’s always based on the moment of truth.
– Jenna Marynowski