“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”
– William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
It’s a trite phrase, a fairly obvious cliché more than 400 years old. Yet like so many of these little sayings it has only stuck around this long because it holds a certain truth. We each have defined roles we play out, hoping that they both fit into the bigger production even as we standout as the star in our own monologues. Where the saying fails, however, is the lack of a written script implied by the credit given to the Bard. A play has to seem true and make sense – but life is rarely just as we like it. Life is more of an improv act.
I’ve been learning a little bit about the art of improvisation lately because of my commitment to the story Mythnology. It was set up to have a component of interaction that I have to respond to as people comment on what’s been written so far and tell me what works or doesn’t. One adjustment has already been made in the outline to accommodate a small error that cannot be allowed to become bigger. Responding to the audience is at the core of improv.
Most improv is comedy for one simple reason – it’s a lot easier. Drama that pulls at the heart is very hard to do on the fly, but schtick that hits in the guts is pretty easy. I think that humans in social situations like a big audience are much more ready to laugh at how strange everything is in the world around them because none of us have the instructions of a written script. We’re all just goofing our way through as best we can.
That’s at the heart of how the Daily Show, the Onion, and other nooze parodies work. I also would love to see Comedy Central sponsor a forum on race moderated by someone like Jim Lehrer or Gwen Ifill where the panelists are Dave Chapelle, Jeff Foxworthy, and Carlos Mencia (or insert your own ethic comedians of choice). I’d let them just bust on each other the same way we all deal with uncomfortable situations (when we deal with them at all). Duplicate this with another panel on gender issues (you know Sarah Silverman must be there) and we could have a killer series. Comedians with stand-up experience are all improv artists who know how to hit where it hurts – but leave you enjoying it.
Improvised storytelling beyond one-liners is going to take a lot more focus and determination, but it’s still a performance art. But I have come to believe that the performance is essential to brining our storytelling back to a strong sense of reality that has been missing for a long time. It’s true that many writers like to think of themselves as realists who are getting at the central truth of life, but most rely on hyper-realism where everything is painted in bright colors and inner thoughts roll off the tongue in a river of pithy language. Life ain’t like dat.
Music has a much longer tradition of improv. In the Baroque era, improvisation was at the core of any performance as written music had only recently come into its own in any form at all. Those skills became rusty from disuse in the Romantic era when the image of a lone genius took over and the composer became king. With Jazz the intimacy and immediacy of music brought improv back, and it’s been with us in some form ever since. While we’re still awash in over-produced corporate sounds there are still musicians in bars around the world responding to the evening even as they create it.
The need for a writing based on improv is, I think, quite obvious. The search for realism in a text can only go so far when we all insist that it has to be written in a place apart from the world, isolated in a luxury rarely affordable in an era of hyper-connectivity. We live our lives as improv, without a script. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plan and some skills necessary to make it move forward in its own time. If you want that sense of reality in your text, the text itself has to be built around the improv mindset. I think it’s worth a try.