The other day I was watching a few Simpson episodes that I had recorded off the television to watch at a later date. When I was a kid, I used to watch every season of The Simpsons religiously but as I have grown older, it has been hard to keep on track. I may of seen every episode up to season 12 but after that I have missed a lot so I record them, so when I do have a chance I can sit down and watch them.
This time round I sat down to Season 19 and an episode I had not seen called He Loves To Fly and He D’ohs came on. In the episode, Homer saves Mr Burns life and he gets taken on a luxury jet to Chicago to have a deep dish pizza. There is a lot more to it but this is section of the episode follows them as they go to Second City to watch an improv show.
In this part of the show Homer and Mr Burns shout out suggestions for the scenes and the players do a scene which is welcomed by audience cheers. However, Homer stands up and protests and says that him and Mr Burns should be getting the applause and praise, not the players, as they were the ones that came up with the ideas initially that led to the audience laughing. This got me thinking and looking at improv from another angle – who technically is an author of an improv scene?
Now, us improvisers use rehearsal time to create ‘skeleton’ concepts that leads the format of our set or show. These concepts or formats may be ‘skeleton’ but depending on the style of improv that you are performing, you could have certain elements set in place that have to happen and the suggestions is just an item that makes the audience participate but may not be the be all and end all. However a lot of improv suggestions from the audience actually direct and lead the scenes very strongly.
From doing lots of research into this subject, as I found it really interesting, I came across an article from the University of Santa Cruz that makes some really interesting points in regards to the ‘Spectator of improv’.
“…the spectator of an improvisational performance may take on a much more active role, imagining future scenarios based on the unfolding performance, contemporaneous with the actors on stage.” (1)
This is a really interesting point, I do this as a spectator of improv myself, I listen to the suggestion that a troupe are given on stage and in my own mind I am imagining where the scene can go and what fun it would be if the improv scene goes that way.
If we are looking at this in the way of the audience being the ‘author’ of an improv scene, you could argue at one end of the spectrum, in a really extreme sense the audience is ‘manipulative’ because their suggestions direct the way that the improvisers do the scene. However, without the audience being ‘active’ there would not be an improv scene to begin with so in hindsight you need the manipulation of the audience to really give a show light.
“…Improvised theater then goes on to invite the spectator to collaborate in authorship in a sense by imagining would-be scenarios and completing or justifying narrative lines that remain open and unresolved at the end of the performance…” (1)
This is highlighting the fact that I was making earlier in regards to The Simpsons – if we think about the world of Improv as a whole, the audience does not act really like a normal spectator as they would for theatre, television or film. Instead they act, I suppose in some ways like a Director – leading the decisions to help unravel these worlds, exploring the outcomes of characters they have created and leading them on the narratives they help build.
At the end of the article, there is a quote that the writer has placed in from Frost and Yarrow that goes on to state that:
“…The audience does not only ‘read’ the performance—in a very real sense it ‘writes’ it, too…” (1)
Suggestions, act as a sort of ingredient to the story being told and if you were to use the theories that any narrative follows you will realise that an audience member actually are one of the cores of narrative dictation in improvisation.
Delving more into the world of authorship and improv, i came across another article that was written by The Media Institute (2) that explores the world of copyright and improv and this again raises a really interesting conversation.
“…Improv and sketch can give rise to intellectual property issues. Improv students take classes but also perform. To whom you might ask? Improv students need to attract an audience, ideally more than just fellow improvisers…” (2)
If you are heading to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, you will notice a lot of the Improv groups (Improvised Sherlock, Any Suggestions, Doctor? Ausentatious just to name a few) are based on a theme that audiences are familiar with and will be making narratives based on these worlds and the stories are made up from suggestions from the audiences. As the quote above states, you need some sort of USP for a non improviser to come to your show and a lot of groups create some sort of style of parody of an already well known or common medium.
This is another area in the world of improv that comes under the discussion of authorship. Whilst this particular discussion does not put audiences in the centre of the debate it is still an underlying factor. There are some improv groups that have been sued for ‘copyright infringement’ for producing a show that is based on a theme that already exists (such as Point Break Live! (2) )
Whilst these themes such as Shakespeare, Sherlock, Doctor Who and Harry Potter attract audiences to come and watch improv shows, it opens up the question as to whether people in charge of these brands should give permission or ‘author’ what is allowed on stage. However, improv is meant to be a style of theatre that is uncontrolled on stage and created in the moment. So if you went into a scene and made it about for instance Harry Potter out of suggestions would that be as much as a copyright issue as someone who goes into producing an improv show that is deliberately aimed at being a Harry Potter show.
As you can probably tell by the length of this article, it is a topic that I find really interesting and look to write more on the topic at a later point in the year. The other week I was writing on this article about finding inspiration for your games in the weirdest places – well considering this article was started from a 60 second gag in a Simpsons episode, I think it proves that it really can come from anywhere!
+ (1) Spectator with Agency
+ (2) Improv, Sketch and Copyright