Impro Theatre

What is impro? What makes good impro? And should we actually call it impro or improv?
Three tricky questions? Well, let's try to clear the mist of mystery over the matter...

What is impro?

When people are confronted with this question, they tend to think of answers such as 'being creative', 'being spontaneous', 'coming up with ideas from nowhere' and 'making something from nothing'. Well, I think it's fair to say that these are all reasonable responses, although they are probably only partly true. The thing is that, as humans;

  1. We constantly have thoughts (or ideas) going round our heads;
  2. We are constantly doing something.
As busy, sentient beings, doing nothing simply doesn't exist, even when we are asleep (snoring, tossing & turning, grinding our teeth, talking, dreaming and, of course, breathing!). In that respect, we, as improvisers, are letting our ideas 'out' and making 'something' out of 'something else'. We might refer to it as 'sensory recycling' or 'conscience amplification'. The 'being creative' part here is probably more appropriately defined as 'being aware of ourselves and what's around us'. So, to summarise, let's say that impro is a combination of'letting out what lies within' with 'watching and listening to what's going on around us'. Now, that's not all that hard, is it?

What makes 'good' impro?

"You can't fool all of the pepole all of the time" said Abraham Lincoln. Well, here's the thing: most people come to see impro theatre to have a good time, laugh and be entertained. This side of things isn't particularly problematic, as long as you have actors who can open their mouths and move about occasionally. Things will happen, funny moments will crop up and audiences will be fairly easily pleased, with the understanding it's all made up and isn't going to be Shakespeare. However, there is a part of our brain that knows when something is 'real'; something with the weight of sincerity behind it. Now that's when the stakes are really raised. By sincerity, we imply truth; by truth, we imply a genuine response to a genuine stimulus. It's what's termed 'playing the moment'. Put another way, it's a natural reaction to any given moment. Now, in an impro performance, if this 'playing the moment' occurs once in a while, we'll talk about a show with some great moments; once a scene, and we'll look back on a great show; several times in every scene, and the audience say it was amazing, and definitely NOT improvisation!! There are other elements, of course, such as great characterisation, funny lines and skillful use of the vocal and the physical, but the heart of 'good' impro will invariably be sincerity.

Impro or Improv?

This is basically a shirt button thing, where 'impro' could be interpreted as two-buttons-undone, while 'improv' is just the one. We should refer to Keith Johnstone here, the godfather of the vast majority of modern improvisational theatre. His two definitive books, absolute bibles of groups worldwide, are called 'Impro' and 'Impro for Storytellers'. So, Keith was clearly a 'two-button-undone' man, and I'll happily stick with him! In all seriousness, though, the words 'impro' and 'improv' could be said to derive from 'improve'. That is what every actor should aspire to do, and that is the idea behind the original creation and week-by-week development of Mixed & United.

Daniel Sossi