CHAPTER 3: AUDIENCE. Historical influences on improv. Why did impro start when it did and why did it grow?

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Impro. Hoopla run improv courses, classes and shows in London and across the UK. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro.
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com

This chapter is part of a series of blogs about my personal opinions on the historical influences on improv, why it started when it started, why it survived and then flourished, and where it fits into the wider scheme of things.

CHAPTER 1: TV
CHAPTER 2: CENSORSHIP
CHAPTER 3: AUDIENCE
CHAPTER 4: EDUCATION
CHAPTER 5: COLLECTIVE JOY
CHAPTER 6: FUTURE 

CHAPTER 3: AUDIENCE RELATIONSHIP

I went on an acting course recently and the only thing said about the audience was “you want to pretend they aren’t there.” I thought “No I don’t – they pay us/tell us what shows they want to see/give us a reaction/bring the show to life/are our friends”. Many drama school acting styles seek the actor’s isolation from the audience, but then countless plays wonder why there’s eventually no audience.

In his book An Actor Prepares Stanislavski mentions the splendid isolation of an actress brushing her hair in front of the audience as if the audience wasn’t there, and this isolation can indeed be a beautiful natural thing, but I believe there has to be a balance.

Following Stanislavski and others at the start of the last century isolation and naturalism was in, and the fourth wall seemed to descend between actors and audience. Audiences started to become (first with music) passive and watch something, rather than be activate and participate in something. Even theatre design changed, with plays going further and further back behind the proscenium arch and actors feeling safe behind a fourth wall boundary between light and dark.

But TV does passive entertainment much better than Theatre, it’s got special effects and stunts and everything and way more budget. At some point theatre had to be honest and acknowledge that a huge chunk of the population couldn’t give a damn about plays. Musicals, stand-up, rock concerts, and pantomimes the population seemed to love, but not plays so much. Yes, of course you like plays, you’re reading a drama blog. In my opinion the main way Theatre can fight back against TV is by being active and open, not passive and closed.

In my opinion there has been a rise in impro, stand up, circus and clown as a much needed response to the overwhelming rise in disconnected acting from behind the fourth wall over the last century, and at the end of this there might be a more balanced relationship with the audience. I think this is also changing in drama schools, or has already changed. For instance Adam Meggido who is one of the best impro teachers I have ever met and he is also Head of Foundation at LAMDA.

There is an audience there, fact. You are on stage, fact. They are looking at you, fact. You are human, they are human, you are all in the same room, fact. If you don’t care what they think about you and your show, and can’t adjust to them, then don’t be surprised when there’s eventually no audience.

Coincidentally while writing this I happened to be having a meeting with Mark Beltzman, a lovely chap who is over from the U.S and was heavily involved with the birth of IO in Chicago and Del Close. We shared opinions on many things, but seemed to especially have the same view on the improviser’s relationship with the audience. Mark spoke about three points of focus – you, the other actor and the audience, and the magic happens when all three discover the same thing at the same time. We also talked about the difference between being with the audience (great), performing to the audience, and performing at the audience (not so great).

In plays you can get away with performing to or at the audience, as they know deep down that it’s a script and that you are effectively stuck on a linear pathway. The audience suspends disbelief, but the slightest disturbance (phones/sweetwrappers) can shatter this new reality as the actors end up in a different world from what the audience are actually experiencing.

Even more so in impro you have to deal with the big obvious things in the room so you can come from a place of being with the audience. If they know its improvised, which they do because you told them, and you don’t deal with what’s actually happening in the room then you actually look slightly mentally ill to the audience. The improviser can loose their humanity and become a performing object blindly spewing up their subconcious or the structure of the show, whereas the audience are thinking “how come you haven’t noticed the cat/annoying photographer/phone/cold draft?”

By not connecting to the room, the environment, the emotions of the audience it accidentally sends up a signal that the impro isn’t happening for us (the audience), and it ends up looking like the impro is for them (the actors), which is impro’s worse criticism. This doesn’t mean that all impro has to be facing the audience and constantly asking for directions, just that it’s at one and in the moment with them.

There was a great example of performing with the audience on Tuesday at The Miller, when Grand Theft Impro did an awesome show. Phil Whelans comes on stage and there is something so natural about the way that he gets suggestions, so friendly, its like he’s chatting to friends and you think ‘it’s just a bloke’  and that’s great. The audience are immediately giggling and opening up. Then in the very first scene the actors (Ruth Bratt, Briony Redman and Dylan Emery) were starting their scene when there was a sudden massive noise of a pub crawl from outside the room followed by loads of students in fancy dress accidentally walking in asking for the toilet. Rather than ignore it they used the outside noise, justified, and let it influence the scene for the better. The short-term effect was that we all laughed, it was really funny. But longer-term for the show it signalled that we were all in the same place, they were at one with us, they were performing with us not at us, and most of all that instead of objects they were humans.

Sometimes I think that’s all that impro is, being human with other humans so lots of other humans can remember what it’s like to be human in that moment. Impro can reflect back the lives of the audience (“Ha ha ha, that happened to me”), the repressed thoughts of the audience (“Ha Ha Ha he just said what I always thought”), the dreams of the audience (“Ha ha ha, I wish I could do that”) and things that don’t exist in the real world yet (“Ha ha ha that’s a great idea, whoahhh.”)

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Impro. Hoopla run improv courses, classes and shows in London and across the UK. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro.
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com

This chapter is part of a series of blogs about my personal opinions on the historical influences on improv, why it started when it started, why it survived and then flourished, and where it fits into the wider scheme of things.

CHAPTER 1: TV
CHAPTER 2: CENSORSHIP
CHAPTER 3: AUDIENCE
CHAPTER 4: EDUCATION
CHAPTER 5: COLLECTIVE JOY
CHAPTER 6: FUTURE 

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