There is talk about improv types. And they exist, heck I wish there was more talk about it. But it is just talk. These are all just labels, really, and like labels they are only there to help us get organized and talk about something we love. None of those labels, I add, are ‘good’ and ‘shitty shitty bang bang’. Some people think they put a cramp on creativity, which is fair enough, labels are just labels they can be ignored or peel away. But I think labels give you permission to see different elements of improv as skills in themselves, that there isn’t one size fits all type of improviser, and one element isn’t in itself more important than another (but it may be more important to you).
Because improv is hard. I mean, yes it’s also the easiest thing in the world, but when we proudly say its writer and actor (and director, set and costume designer, composer, every singer, band, sound effects, editor, and audience liaison) this means that each of these skills can potentially be ones you don’t have the same level of skills in. It’s ok. Just keep working.
This is why we are a team. As much as we like to look at ourselves as utility players, indeed that’s why many of us joined the fold, it’s ok to be a baseball team of specialists. Ideally, we are a basketball team: everyone has their positions, but we’re all over the court and really doing the lay-ups, the shots, the dribbling, the defense, the lot.
It’s ok to play to your strengths. You are here because your good at this is the first place. Its stupid not to play angry in a scene if your good at it, or sing, or play lots of characters, or mime panic. Yes, there is a danger of over-saturation, but this can be over compensated by simply doing a lot of other things too. Being good at something doesn’t mean you can’t add arrows to your quiver. Strengthen your strengths. Improve your weaknessess (and if you can’t, embrace them as strengths. Better yet do both!). There is no one perfect improviser, or one perfect singer or painter or actor or tool. But there is plenty of great ones that do certain things well. The great ones got hired because they were good for long enough they got great, and they got good by sticking at the things they plain stunk at until they were OK.
Improv is great. If you’re great, it’s really great. If you’re not great, it’s pretty great. If you’re mediocre, mediocre’s a pass. And if your bad, well then lucky you were just making it all up then. If you think what your doing, or about to do, is funny or could become very funny, then it probably is. In every audience could be you.
And that is my real point. Where I think the ‘body vs head improvisers’, ‘mars and venus’, the ‘writers and the actors’, ‘robots and pirates and ninjas’, ‘material and glue’ debates and whispered cat fights have gotten away from is nobody mentions: is it funny? Not if people are delivering the joke, but whether the joke is any good. And this is elusive, and doesn’t belong to either kind.
The best argument of this I’ve seen was said by Susannah Becket, coaching the group Junk Rope. It is probably my improv advice down into three key words: Hearts, Smarts, Farts. You need all three. Every scene needs all three. Every person needs all three. The balance is up to you. And they feed into each other (Hearts puts it on the line, as does Farts). You need heart, you need people to care, you need to be bold and brash and visual. You need smarts, you need plot and wit and game heightening and references and treating your audience intelligently. And you really really need farts, that sense of silliness, in the moment, what the scene needs in your guts (where do farts come from). Farts are synergy between hearts and smarts, people get confused thinking a poor scene has too much or too little heart or smart; it’s true, but if you follow the fart you’ll get a good scene (or if you smelt it, you dealt it) . Hearts, smarts, farts. Hearts, smarts, farts. This is your mantra.