Improv is creation and destruction

I like to build ugly sandcastles at the beach. I don’t make pretty ones. Since I was a kid, I love to plop down near the shoreline. Then I hastily create moats and defensive schemes before the waves come in. If it’s a small wave the castle wins. If it’s a big wave, the castle is gone.

The distance to the water is everything. If the castle is too close to the water, the waves come so often, it’s impossible to create anything. If the castle is far up the beach, no waves can reach it. I have time to create the perfect castle, because there’s no risk. Boring. There is a sweet spot on the beach where the game is fun.

This is improv. Improv is balance of creation and destruction.

Creation. “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” We are building a scene brick by brick together with a team. That’s the creation part. A solid platform, good justifications cement your structure. Adding to it and figuring out what the scene is about.

Destruction. There’s “bad” destructive forces that threaten to rip the scene apart, like blocking. There’s also “good” destructive forces like curveballs and mistakes (gifts!) which can be turned around into a creative force. Absurd moves can be destructive: too much absurdity make the scene pointless. Yet, a small bit of absurdity gives a huge shot of energy. Destruction is not a weakness; it is the very essence of improv.

Take a mundane activity like bricklaying. It’s constructive, but dull. Give it an element of danger — one bad move and it crashes! — it’s now a fun game of Jenga. The most entertaining improv have a modicum of destructive force.

Danger is why an audience may at times enjoy an amateur show more than a pro show. In a pro show, everything is too smooth, there appears to be no risk. In an amateur show, there is tension that this show may very well flop. Big time. You kind of want this feeling that the players are at the edge of their abilities, though not toooo much. If a show is too raw and too destructive, then it becomes cringey because you start to feel sorry for the players.

Risk is why short form games is popular. You introduce a difficult rule of the game, tension shoots right up. Audience goes “OMG how can anyone possibly do that?” Then you play, tension is released, and people cheer. The risks are still there on long form improv, but they tend to be more invisible. Hence long forms are often more appreciated by improvisers than by non-improvisers.

Stage 1: Creation < Destruction (0–1 years):
When you begin doing improv, there’s a lot of destructive force that may be overpowering efforts to create coherent scenes. You block. You freeze. Everyone pulling the scene in different directions so nothing materializes. Occasionally, you may catch a glimpse of something being created together. You see your partners’ eyes, they lit up.. this is actually going somewhere! This is the moment you fall in love with improv.

Stage 2: Creation Destruction (2–3 years)
Year 2–3 improv you start to create stuff on a regular basis. Ironically, this is also the time which is very frustrating. Because, you know that something bigger is out there, but you cannot recreate it consistently. If your scene’s success rate is 50-50% (this is already amazing btw), you still get frustrated because you focus on the scenes that crash instead of the good ones. Remember the good ones.

Stage 3: Creation > Destruction (5+ years)
When you have much improv under your belt, there is a point where you can control all the elements. Ironically this is not necessarily a good thing! Then you get too comfortable. You know which moves lead to safe zones and which ones are risky and (unawarely?) take the safer choice. Complacency. If your improv is too safe, it’s time for you to dirty it up. It’s time to be more brash with your choices. It’s time for new challenges. Do a duo, solo, a musical. Push yourself to a show where you may fail.

Wherever you are in your improv life, always have a combination of confidence and cold feet before going on stage. That’s when you know you hit the right balance of creation and destruction. That’s the best show.

When you can create something beautiful in the midst of destruction, that’s when improv is magic.

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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.