A Few Thoughts About “Improvisation”

Lance Davis as Truffaldino, the Servant of Two Masters

In the early 1960s when ‘improvisation’ was all the rage, Sir Tyrone Guthrie was asked what he thought of it. The grand genius of classical staging remarked, “Well it’s all very fun, but I don’t see what need actors have of it. Their lines are written for them.” This seemingly old fashioned remark was from the man who rocked 20th Century theater by bringing Shakespeare’s dynamic “thrust” stage back into the spotlight in Stratford, Canada and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The thing we all love about “improvisation” from an audience point of view is its seeming spontaneity. We like to believe it’s all happening on the spot, for the first time, though that is rarely the case. SNL is written. Most public improv presentations are culled from workshop rehearsals, adhering closely to the tenets of Northwestern University’s Viola Spolin and her son Paul Sills and their work in Chicago (Story Theater, Second City) as well as San Francisco’s The Committee, Minneapolis’ Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop, and Boston’s The Proposition.

Viola Spolin

Their work is based on “theater games” that have their own innate structure. Improvisation itself has  been used in rehearsal since the beginning of theater. “Who’s doing the lion? Try coming in from behind the rock and roar. Let’s see what happens.” The magical aspect for the uninitiated audience is that when seen as performance itself it’s branded as spontaneous.

My friend Dan Diggles, who’s taught Improvisation in NY for years and has the best book on it I know, stresses the difference between true “team” improvisation, risking boredom to stick to the development of the premise, as opposed to the more flashy and to his mind “shallow” scoring of points “performance” improvisation, easily rewarded by audiences, which is competitive rather than cooperative. For good work to become great it must risk failure. Like “reality TV”, it usually has a predetermined agenda.

Our job as actors, even when delivering poetic language, is to give the illusion of spontaneity. Comedy, as defined by Bergson, is often based on repetition and the disruption of repetition. He cites Chaplin’s work in “Modern Times”. The repetition of what’s expected is suddenly thrown out of whack. The Tramp’s machine speeds up, Lucille Ball’s conveyer belt speeds up. What will they do? How will this character solve this?

The Italians have “Pantalone”

Which brings us to “character”. Commedia was based on a predetermined plot outline and “stock” or common characters of the 16th Century Italy that had their roots in the earlier Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, and their earlier Greek inspiration from writers such as Aristophanes. The Greeks, in turn, go all the way back to theater’s prehistoric campfire origins in the telling of “The Story of Last Week’s Hunt – Part Two.”

I’m sure there was a cranky old man in every village who didn’t give a rat’s ass about anything other than getting his daughter married to the wealthy family in the next village, and increasing his own station in life. Thousands of years later in Firenze, same guy became Giacomo Medici, marrying into the nobility – wealth and privilege forming an alliance, and providing the character of “Pantalone”and variations throughout Moliere, Goldsmith, Dickens, Bronte, Wilde, Wodehouse and Downton Abbey.

The French have Moliere’s “Harpagon”

The same characterizations are true to this very day. Father (and Mother) encourage their daughter to go to Brown where she’ll meet the strata of people she – and they – will, hopefully, be hobnobbing with throughout her life. We actors don’t go to Yale or Juilliard because they’re the best schools but because they’re easily monitored by New York agents and their faculties are connected to the business. We Californians don’t necessarily go to USC Law School because it’s the best but because it’s got the best connections for practicing law in California. It’s a practice as old as nepotism, and can be very useful.

The English have “Scrooge”

Comedy comes in when the rhythms of Nature are subverted, thrown out of whack – in refutation of Thomas Aquinas “middle road”. When obsession goes unchecked balance is upset and the gyro goes spinning off its line. That miserly old rich guy finds out his daughter is seeing the beggar boy – who happens to be cute – for something as trivial as “love”. His own “naïve” young wife turns out to be smarter than he thought. (On the one hand it’s comic. On the other hand it’s been put forward that the Elizabethan audience would have seen the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as these young people putting their own indulgences before their extenede families’ needs.)

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America has “Jack Benny”

Today we are aswim in “situation” comedy, which gives us stock characters in certain situations. In “Friends” we have the more sophisticated girl, the ditzy girl, the everyday “Mary Tyler Moore” girl and their counterparts across the hall. What will happen – how will each character we know so well react – when (situation) Ross’s parents come for a visit?  We have the same age-old formula on every network, from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “The Neighbors”.

You can check off the entire cast of “Cheers” as “commedia dell arte”. The Harlequino servant scamp, Ted Danson, is smitten with the brainy Columbina managers – one more ethereal, one more corporate. At the bar we have older “Doc” as well as other “Dottore”s – Frazier’s psychiatrist and Cliff’s know it all postman. We have the Brighella “Norm” who’s just happy to be on his corner stool, and various other “types” who visit in various “situations”. There is nothing new in the formula, but we can see progression.

The beauty of classic stories is that we see in them the comforts and warnings of the cyclic nature of life itself. We see in previous reiterations of the story how situations arose and were handled. We see how those characters changed, learned, succeeded and failed, and that is both comforting and unnerving. “What are we going to do about our own situation?” Perhaps if, as in the ancient “Lysistrata”, Melania and the Congressional partners witheld sex till things were settled we might see more drainage in the swamp.

The Simpsons’ “Mr. Burns

What we hope to do at PNT is give the “illusion” of spontaneity, that “Servant” is unscripted. I think Goldoni was doing that too in writing in his Venetian dialect. We hope to capture the “street” spirit, just as he did. The audience will feel as if at their performance it all went differently, it all happened for the first time, and if we work very hard we can take that “commedia” spirit into all our work. – ld