Man vs. God
An opinion on American vs. European improv
Online has opened up cross-currents across the Atlantic. During this time I’ve been visiting European workshops (The Nursery, Improv Generator, Liverpool Improv Comedy) and American/USA workshops (Hideout Austin, The Pack LA, Leela SF), along with a number of self-organized intercontinental jams. Now we can peer into the minds of not just the elite teachers who fly over the Atlantic Ocean, but also the students of the game.
I have this theory about “American-style” improv vs. “European-style” improv, which I call Man vs. God. Simply said, American improv is more Man (no relation to gender): players are empowered to bend the scene to their will. European improv is more God (no relation to religion): there is an invisible hand who directs the scene. American-style improv is faster, more aggressive improv where players make things happen, while European-style is often slower and more methodical, more theatrical, less on wit. More explanation later.
You don’t see it as much in the teacher level. Because at the top, American improv and European improv fuse into each other. The more experience a player gets, the more they round off their skills to be a complete improviser. However, among students the difference is clearer. I love watching/being a student because it makes me think about the learning process. And the journey an improviser takes, and the epiphanies along the way, can be wildly different.
It’s Not Just Comedy vs. Theatre
First, the question, “What defines European-style or American-style improv?”, besides actual geographical location, is not new at all. There’s been plenty of fun chats on the topic. There has been hostility too. I get it, humans do not like being categorized, and these categories tend to be flimsy anyway.* Americans resist improv in Chicago and NY and LA (to name a few) to be shoved into one “American-style improv”. (Some argue Chicago itself has a hundred styles.) Europeans see UK improv and continental Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern as very different, and resist to be called a pan-European improv. But there are general differences. For sure. So I’m talking with a very broad strokes here.
*Author’s Note. There’s no need to get upset about definitions. American theatres like Chicago’s TJ & Dave or Austin TX’s Parallelogramophonograph, BATS Improv SF are more «European» than many European theaters. European theatres like Boom Chicago (Netherlands), Improv Finland, Improv Comedy Copenhagen are more «American» than some American theatres. My goal is not to delineate improv, but to understand trends which aid us to learn.
One prevailing theory is that American improv is rooted in comedy, while European improv is rooted in theatre. Etymologically, this might be true. However, I think there’s much more to that. I think what differentiates more is not the comedy / theatre aspect, but the spirit in how you see yourself in the scene: Man vs. God.
American improv is Man. From the get-go, a lot of players are empowered to put their stamp on the scene. Players take up improv to create. Because I think that is the spirit of American improvisers from the entry level. I sympathize: that’s exactly why I love improv and hate playing in scripted theatre. I want to create. Even from the beginner’s level, players enjoy pushing their ideas aggressively. This is not a negative: I love improv that is bold and aggressive, and makes a lot of mistakes.
I don’t think this is about individualism, but about inspiration. When you get inspired, you make a move.
What it creates, there is a lot of fun in the moment (especially by players who create). This can manifest as American improv looking more comedic and being labeled as laugh-every-minute, because players are really having fun at the moment because they have the power to move the scene with their ideas. And I think this is a strength for American improvisers.
There is different degrees of empowerment, some more than others. Annoyance Theatre, for instance, is an extreme version where you are very empowered with your character to Stick To Your Shit. Upright Citizens’ Brigade teaches premise scenes which give you a lot of power to lay groundworks for the scene.
The caveat is that newer improvisers is not as well-tuned to follow on their partner’s ideas or a bigger scenic picture, because of a feeling that you must chip in your idea at a high tempo (lest others sneak in their ideas first). At intermediate level, players then realize that slowing down, listening and creating together is more fun, and that simple support moves still have a lot of your idea in them. That’s maybe why American Truth in Comedy tries to emphasize a lot on group work and get this message early, because I think American improvisers need this epiphany.
European improv is God. For many beginner improvisers in Europe, I observe there is a bigger sense of duty to be a part of. In this case, there is a belief of a really good scene out there, and players are training themselves habits to improve their choices to find it. It’s as if one is searching for the “God of the Scene” who tells them what to do. We might not hit the Holy Grail, but we are trying to inch (2.5cm, in metric) towards it all the time.
In beginner shows, there may be an actual “God”, which is a Director who side-coaches them to help find great choices. (I have seen professional European impro shows with directors, and also shows where players would momentarily step out to direct the scene and refocus). As players get better, the role of the Director is less authoritarian, until it vanishes, because players have trained their instincts of a director’s role themselves to view the scene as a whole.*
*This, coincidentally, help with narrative forms of improv — which has been mentioned as one of the things European improv do more of.
A focus on a grander scheme of things tends to create performances with a higher hit-rate of completing a circle, scenes are more structured and has a more poetic meaning behind the scene. One example is Platform / Tilt / Resolution schematic, which is more prevalent in European improv. And this may feel a bit like theatrical pieces, because we have seen this in another medium. The fun and enjoyment of the show might get delayed to the end of the scene, or but they are fodder for post-show deconstructions. Scenes feel more like a “piece”, not moments, that one remembers.
How this affects students is that they approach scenes with a little more caution and to slow down. And for that, European improv puts more time on the tools for it, such as more focus on object work (Americans always comment how European improv has more object work, compared to their talking heads), or being comfortable with tempo and pauses (which one usually associates with theatre). The goal is not theatre per se, but it feels like theatre.
Even though players still have free choice, they become more mindful whether their choices add to the scene. On the worst case, one might get overly cautious and passive, and that’s something to watch out for. Because there is, unknowingly or not, an adherence to what is good, I find European improv has more drills to condition “there are no mistakes”, “failing is good” to activate players to play freely, because that’s where a lot of the epiphanies lie.
The rest of the world
Which brings us to the rest of world. What is it? A mix of both. The rest of the world is a melting pot which are influenced by arbitrary American and European teachers who pass by. Bangalore has American-style improv with empowered players. Delhi has more European improv with a good sense of finding your role in the scene. Manila has hints of American improv in them.
But of course it’s not so simple. Bangalore also has influences from Playback theatre and Johnstone, which lead to tight scenes delivering strong messages. Delhi has imprints of American-style improv which give players free reins. And Manila, although have been influenced by Jason Chin, has experimented in their own labs through trial-and-error for almost 20 years.
And that’s the beauty, that you can have your room for trial and error, explore, play, and discover yourself. Like a scene, you may need an inspiration from outside, but then it is time for you to discover. And for the non-American, non-European part of the world, they have the time to explore what improv means to them, without having a constant barrage of what improv should be. It is a disservice to look at their improv scenes solely through the lens of European improv or American improv (which I just did).
Because they are neither. They are Bangalore improv, Delhi improv, Mumbai improv — each with their own style — together being Indian improv which is decidedly, and proudly, neither American nor European improv. They are Filipino improv, Singaporean improv, Japanese improv, Colombian improv, Brazilian improv. And it is up for American and European improvisers to go and learn from the rest of the world.