It doesn’t matter what you do on stage

Here’s some thoughts about what happens at the very, very start of an improv show, before the improv even starts.

I haven’t done a lot of improvising in the last few weeks (sob). Instead, I’ve been working on my solo act (under the sobriquet “Human Loire”).

In order to try the material out in front of as broad a range of audiences as possible, I’ve been performing at cabaret nights, alternative comedy nights and regular standup nights. My friend Tim has come along to a couple of these, to offer advice and moral support (and because I was obliged to bring one audience member in order to guarantee my slot on stage).

Tim’s not a performer, and doesn’t go to a huge number of gigs, but after we’d sat through quite a vast range of different acts together, and I’d bought him a pint of Doombar, he said something very useful: “The weird thing I’ve noticed from watching all these performers is that it doesn’t matter what the act is. The important thing is to get a good relationship going with the audience at the start. After that, you can do whatever the fuck you like.”

If you’re a good clown, you can hold the audience’s attention performing the most simple and untheatrical of actions. If you’re a good comic, you can deliver ghastly, leaden puns and get a wonderful warm reaction.

It’s the same for us improvisers. Our success or failure doesn’t rely upon the out-and-out quality of the material we improvise, or upon its style, but rather upon its joyful assertion – the manner in which it is instantaneously shared with everyone in the room, bringing everyone together in the same act of discovery.

Establishing that relationship at the start of a performance is something I’d like to work on more. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially where improv isn’t well understood by the general public.  It’s a unique atmosphere that needs to be created – similar to that found at a comedy night or a sketch night, but also fundamentally different. It requires a great deal of trust on the part of both performers and audience, but the rewards are great if you can get it right.

That’s my goal, and I’d welcome any anecdotal or theoretical feedback from my fellow improvisers. If we want audiences and critics to “get” improv, we need to work on building that wonderful atmosphere of trust at the start of a show. After that, as Tim rightly points out, we can do whatever the fuck we like.

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One Comment on “It doesn’t matter what you do on stage”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think this is true: look at comics like Frankie Howerd or Tommy Cooper: they could do the corniest old gags, but they so clearly needed the audience that you loved them. Whereas modern comics seem, as Eric Sykes said, to be fireproof. They stand aloof from the audience, not really caring about them.


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