Slapdash: D is for “Danger”Posted: 28 May 2013
Lots of people say to me: “I could never be an improviser. I’d be too scared.”
Despite what you have been told, improvisation is not a dangerous activity. So long as the theatre technicians have done their job properly, the chances of being hit on the head by a falling lamp are low. Basic safety precautions are, of course, necessary. Care must be taken when jumping on and off the stage – a misplaced step can send you tumbling into the front row, thereby smacking your face on the back of a chair or a wine glass. If a scene urgently needs to take place in a restaurant, don’t grab the necessary chairs too hastily – you could strain an abdominal muscle or dislocate a shoulder. While delivering a monologue, remember to keep your breathing slow and regular. Too sharp an intake of breath could cause you to ingest a small flying insect (common at certain venues), which may lay eggs on your lung. When the larvae pupate, typically 3–5 days later, death is swift and painful.
Despite these hazards, recent studies have revealed that performing in an improv show is still statistically safer than crossing the road, milking a cow or mending a pair of shoes. Yet improvisation is often described and marketed as a dangerous activity. It is not uncommon for groups to give themselves names that suggest physical risk, violence or danger. I’m sure you’re familiar with the following great teams: “Without a Seatbelt”, “Skin of our Teeth”, “Running with Scissors”, “We are Maniacs”, and “Timebomb Kablammo!” Strangely enough, all “Timebomb Kablammo!” seem to do is stand around, talking. Sometimes one of them will mime a cup of coffee.
The fact is, in the real world it is considered risky to say the first thing that comes into your head. We are taught and encouraged from an early age to fear ridicule and to hold back our thoughts until we can be sure they will be met with approval. The flip side of this is that we fear jumping too enthusiastically on other people’s ideas – lest our own status be somehow lowered. Above all, we are encouraged to keep our emotions locked down. We are never more vulnerable than when we allow other people to know how we feel.
In the real world, these are the risks, and they are real risks – so pervasive that we spend practically every moment as slaves to them, and the habits these fears engender become our defining character traits. What improvisers do is to create an environment in which these risks are played out safely, due to the emotional, physical and intellectual trust that exists within the group. One reason, I think, why improv is so joyful is because the audiences see that the greatest creativity is possible when our greatest fears are set to one side. It is liberating. And improvisers need to be putting themselves in this kind of danger for creativity to be liberated. A great improv performance is often as heart-stopping as this:
I’m looking forward to such edge-of-my-seat thrills at this year’s Slapdash Festival. But remember, kids: play safe.