Improvisers are failures. And not just from our parent’s point of view. We are masters of messing it up, falling flat on our faces in front of dozens, or even hundreds of people. I strive for it. It is an essential part of my work onstage. I enjoy it.
But why? Shouldn’t we be striving for excellence, comedy, uproarious applause? Should we not go out there and perform at the height of our skill, training and intelligence? Isn’t that what audiences are paying for, a good no a great show? Shouldn’t we do our best to avoid failure?
Keith Johnstone says that every few scenes you should have a bad one to remind the audience that you’re improvising. I tend to agree though not for the same reasons. Modern audiences, at least in Calgary, pretty well understand what improv is. However, if all the scenes are excellent than there is both extreme pressure to succeed on the performers and also no rest for the audience. Even the most masterfully crafted comedic films have scenes that are so-so, that lack the punch of the best ones. Audiences need a break. The peaks aren’t as high if you remove the valleys.
So how can we accomplish this? I don’t think we have to throw scenes on purpose or plan to do bad work. I think the best way to achieve this is simply to take risks. Each and every scene we have the ability to set ourselves up for failure. And if we do, the upside is huge.
When I perform I like to think of it as jumping off a cliff without a parachute. The sensation of freefalling is exhilarating and the risk of going splat is an incredible motivator. I feel like all my senses are heightened and my awareness of my partners, the room and my own body is augmented. When I take that leap of faith I’m truly in the moment. I’m ready for anything. Sometimes everything goes my way. Incredible unplanned words come out of my mouth and the scene writes itself. Other times I collide with the ground. Hard.
But here’s the next bit. I get up. I keep going. Unlike in true base jumping, no bones are broken by an improv fail. I smile, climb back up to the top of the cliff and jump off again. I don’t apologize to the audience with my face, my body or my words. I don’t beat myself up. Because they get it. This shit is scary. Performing in front of people is terrifying enough as it is, let alone without a single pre-planned line of dialogue. When they buy a ticket they know the risk. That’s why they come. They want to suspend their disbelief, not to absolve you of your improv sins. It takes bravery to fail with grace. If you let the audience know you’re okay with it you will truly win them over and they’ll enjoy it. If you show that that you’re embarrassed or upset, they’ll begin to feel bad for you and you will lose them.
There have been complete shows when I have lived in my head, recycled old jokes, characters and planned every line. When you’ve been improvising as long as I have, you develop cheat codes. But not only is this technique less fun, but I was cheating everyone: the audience and more importantly myself as an artist. Because when we risk failure we grow as performers and as people. If you are never failing you aren’t becoming a better performer. You’re developing habits that are stifling your creativity.
So take that leap of faith your next performance. That negative voice in your head is going to tell you not to take the risk, that you’re going to suck if you try something new and that the audience is going to hate you. That voice exists in all of us. But if you can overcome your own personal naysayer the results could be incredible. Or you could fail. Either way is a win for you and the crowd.