A new year means there are lots of new and exciting shows, music, albums, comedy and much around the corner and we have an exciting month for you! In true Phoenix Remix tradition we are chatting to lots of different acts all about what they have in store for 2022. To celebrate the new year we have something truly special for you, improviser David Escobedo has returned to The Phoenix Remix to discuss the Permanence Of An Impermanent Art. Over the next few weeks David will be discussing different areas of this topic.
“Moreover, as Stanislavski so elegiacally pointed out, a theatrical performance vanishes the moment it is completed – indeed, is vanishing as it is performed.”
Mark Fortier, 2016
One of the romantic elements of improv, is arguably it’s ephemeral nature. You perform a show, never to be seen again. This is enticing because there is more appeal for taking bigger risks, and there is a certain magic to being in the one place at the one time you could see this one show.
This article is about the documentation of improv.
My name is David Escobedo, and I’m currently pursuing my PhD in Drama at the University of Chester, and my research is about improv. While researching improv, I have discovered that this same draw toward the ephemeral has also made it difficult to find previous documentation surrounding improv.
One of the challenges of improv is our preconceived notion of improv. We expect it to be ephemeral. We defend its temporary nature. I love the impermanence of improv. You must value it as it happens, because you will never experience it again. This short-sighted forgiveness means that every night is unique, with its own personality. Never seen before, and never seen again. I think because we want to view improv like this, it can cause blinders as to other ways we can (and already do) document improv.
One reason I want to explore documentation of improv, is to decentralize the influences on improv. For years it was proselytized that Chicago was the epicentre of improv. Now with improv going on all over the world, there are more people from more countries making new discoveries and contribution to the artform.
With that in-mind I interviewed a few other people from different backgrounds so that the observations on documentation in improv, are not just my own. During the interviews, one of my favorite definitions of documentation came from Ben Macpherson, of Nottingham, UK.
“Documentation of improv is the process by which a practitioner tries to capture something about their improv for future use. This can run the gamut of individual development to creating promotional materials to make money.”
Through my research of improv, I entirely agree with this. Documentation of improv is not consolidated down to the recording of shows, but as Macpherson (2021) identifies, “can run the gamut of individual development to creating promotional materials to make money.” As an example of this, I want to bring in Cows on Ice.
Jeff Michalski of the Fanatic Salon in Culver City has been sharing past publications including this one from a show called “Cows on Ice”:
At the time, it was a promotional poster and now it’s documentation. It counts as documentation, because we glean information from it. We can see what resources were available to improv teams at that time – no xerox machines (or not common), no photoshop, no emailing, no social media posts, no podcast interviews, predominately one person drawing the poster by hand. This gives us a glimpse into the technology available to improv teams at the time. It also tells us the location, “Second City, e.t.c.” This took place in Chicago, and is documentation of the “e.t.c.” Second City is one of the first improv schools in the United States. It began as the Compass Players, and became the Second City in 1955. Second City takes its name from an article published in the New Yorker when they claimed that Chicago will always be second place in comparison to New York.
In the Second City location there was an alternate stage they used to perform the best sketches from the touring company. Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris (also of the Fanatic Salon in Culver City) began putting on original material in the space when Bernie Sahlins was out of town. Bernie Sahlins was the executive producer at the time. He only found out about it after reading a fantastic review about it in the newspaper. He threatened to fire everybody in the whole company! The e.t.c. goes on to become their second stage and one of the most popular improv stages in history. “Cows on Ice” comes from this whole situation, and this poster is documentation of that. You can read about it on page 139 of “Second City: Backstage of the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater.”
Anisha Pucadyil, of Citylamps and Road Trip Improv, offers this about documentation,
“Documentation for me is recording the aha moments, that hold a portal to deepen my understanding.”
She goes on to say:
“I feel the effect of documenting akin to chewing one’s cud…to sit with what holds true to me in this moment and could provide nutrition and deeper skills over time.”
It resonates with me in a similar manner to Bobby Anderson of Sturik Improv, when he says:
“I’ve seen documentation in improv take many forms: obvious ones would be videos of a show or notes from a director for feedback. Show diaries from a director are another; a large chunk of Mick Napier’s Improvise is dedicated to a show journal of his. I personally carry around a book to record thoughts in most of the time.”
Sometimes when speaking about documentation, the concept of distribution comes up. Some people automatically assume that “documentation” is meant for a wide audience such as a book or movie. One can extrapolate from these observations, that documentation can be personal. Documentation can be solely for the individual to digest and reflect. This concept of reflection is important and still carries weight in Ben Macpherson’s comment when he says “for future use” he could mean for the individual or for future generations. Either way, the value sits there … for future reflection.
Bobby Anderson – co-runs the Sheffield Improv Jam and Stürike Comedy with Alex Keen. Their improv searches for truths and meaning in the absurd.
Anisha based in London, follows her passion for playback and improv by collaborating with various in person and online teams like True heart and citylamps among others.
Ben Macpherson is a Nottingham based improviser and writer, with a decade of experience making spontaneous comedy. Ben is also part of Missimp and offers improv dramaturgy.