In this final installment of my interview with Dana Andersen – inspired by the question “can improv be reviewed?” – we talk about perceptions of improv, the differences in improv across various countries, and whether improv should be reviewed.
Jenna: What are your thoughts on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Dana: I know for a fact that they do some of those scenes over and over again and they’ll patch together a show of all the good stuff. So, it’s not always gold. There’s a lot of stuff that’s never on TV – it just doesn’t work. That’s improv. It’s going to work 70% of the time, 80% maybe, it’s never 100% of the time. But that’s all they show, because they don’t have time to show the mishaps… My friends Ryan and Colin have told me that they’ve rejigged scenes or done it again when they have a great idea for a joke…. There’s safety nets that you can use, at least in short form improv. In Die Nasty, we have two hours basically to tell the story so there’s no rush – we can just be quiet for a minute on stage and set something up. Which is another form of improv – just not speaking at all, just emoting physically to the audience that isn’t just “yackity, yackity, yackity.”
Jenna: I’m wondering if you think Whose Line is it Anyway? being available on television or the internet, if that affects audience’s reaction to live improv, or if it affects expectations, or if it really doesn’t have an impact on how, for example, your audience perceives Die Nasty?
Dana: I think when people hear “improv” they immediately expect funny and our show kind of tends to play with that – there is comedy, but there is just as much poignancy to what is going on, just as much seriousness to a relationship that doesn’t need to be funny. You’re making it up and it’s got an actual heart to it. Or some profound statement that comes out of two characters that just resolved a problem between each other and then you realize “wow, that wasn’t funny, that was a good scene – just like you’d see in a play or a movie.” But when people go to improv they’re expecting that they’re going to be in stitches all the time. I think Americans think of improv as stand up – a night at improv is just a bunch of comedians standing up with a mike. Using material that makes it look like they’re coming up with it on the spot.
Jenna: So that’s Americans in the U.S. or do you mean North Americans?
Dana: That’s what I think for Americans in the U.S. It’s like, the word “improv” just means jokes and funny, it doesn’t mean… “Improv” versus “improvising” – the word doesn’t come up too much other than in show business but there’s a lot of people who are like, “oh I was working on the rigs and a wire broke so we had to improvise and we used a shoelace instead.” You don’t say, “oh there was improv on the rig yesterday.” People would be like, “were there jokes?” It’s a totally different context. I think people are geared up for a laugh when they hear improv and even “improvised” seems to be a ticket for laughter, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Jenna: So, if that’s the American version of improv – how would you say that differs from Canada, and I know you’re just back from England, so how would you say those three cultures are different or similar in how they view improv?
Dana: Everybody is quite proud of their sense of humour. Britain is more forgiving of wackiness, but they love their skills – they love games that are really smart. But I think Americans like their stand up and sitcom comedies. Canadians are, I think, more character based. They’re all about big characters and funny characters.
Jenna: Does that affect what you do when you’re performing in Canada versus England versus America?
Dana: I think because of TV shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and versions of our Die Nasty show that have developed in other areas, that it’s kind of all melding. It’s becoming a new world of improv where people are starting to understand that it’s not all fun and games, that it can be serious and difficult. There’s lots of singing that goes on that’s totally improvised. England never did a lot of that before we came over there. They did a lot of short form, but the long form stuff that we did for, like, 50 hours really opened their eyes about what is possible with character work.
Jenna: Interesting. That was your troupe specifically that helped with that change?
Dana: I would say kind of. We sort of got involved with it… it was obvious that these people were never allowed to be on stage for more than 2 or 3 minutes before people said, “okay, get off that’s boring” or “your scene should end by now.” Like, I would have people doing 5 or 10 minute scenes and they were thrilled that they could be on stage that long without the lights going out on them or some sort of critique of what just happened. So, they sort of embraced this new calmness that we gave them, I guess.
Jenna: Do you think it’s desirable that improv be reviewed?
Dana: It’s sort of hard. We get reviewed in the Fringe – they say, “it’s reliable, Die Nasty comes through with a show, people’s skills are great” and this and that, but if they’re not there for the one that sucks – there’s always some times that the improv doesn’t work… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s bad, but there’s better improv. Just more uplifting or more seamless or more care taken in the technician who can light the stage while you’re doing a scene. When you see everyone working together – a good scene will have good music, good lights, good acting. You realize that took five different people to do that, so there’s a lot of teamwork without anyone ever having to talk to each other. So you’re sort of a jazz group in that way where you’re all improvising and complementing each other’s work. That’s sort of important, too.
I think it’s being aware of everything that’s going on – the music, the acting, and the technical side of what’s happening – the soundscape that’s being created. Suddenly you just realize, well, that was the best scene I’ve ever seen, I wonder why. Well, it’s everyone was doing their job and you didn’t even notice that there was music.. you just immersed yourself in that scene like a good play would do. So, that’s a good way to judge improv… The worst thing I hate about any improv review is when someone slams the show and says “I can’t believe all the other people around me were enjoying this so much.” Well, there you go, right there. A comedy show that gets reviewed by someone who says “well, it didn’t make me laugh..” well, then you’ve got to go with a room full of people and what they’re digging… If you’re reviewing on your own personal taste, then I don’t know how to change them. But if you’re reviewing to tell an audience that these people are a really finely honed troupe of people who work well together… just judging it on their chemistry is important. Having a review that says “this one person stood out the best” … well, sure they stood out the best because they had a lot of people supporting them.
– Jenna Marynowski