I had been a critic for a year or two before the malaise set in. It’s not that there’s a lack of good theatre; I live in Los Angeles, one of the most productive communities on Earth. But…I was looking for something reliably pure. In the 20-something years I’d been paying attention, I’d noticed a general American trend toward 90-minute realism, much of which was not especially theatrical. While declining attendance and the folding of theatre companies grew more alarming, I saw more staged entertainment that seemed designed not to compete with television and movies but to emulate them. I was looking for a phoenix movement to inspire a resurgence of the medium.
Tony Frankel, my editor at Stage and Cinema, diagnosed my melancholy, and assigned me to cover a local company called Impro Theatre. “Improv?” I protested. “College students in silly hats? Don’t you have a real show for me?”
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Editors being editors, insistence overrode resistance, and no more than dutifully I prepared to go. I gathered that Impro was an “UnScripted” company, and during their residency at the Odyssey Theatre, they were improvising “in the style of” Twilight Zone and Anton Chekhov, in repertory. Twilight Zone, maybe, I thought; good luck with the Chekhov, kids.
As the performers took the stage, the first thing I noticed: They weren’t kids. The ensemble includes folks who worked with giants like Keith Johnstone and Roberta Maguire; some of them had been doing longform work since before I was in high school. I took in their Twilight Zone first, and in two hours, four wholly improvised stories demonstrated a superior understanding of Rod Serling’s stable of kitchen-sink fantasists. These were serious professional actors, classically trained, who could write on their feet better than many writers can type at a desk. The jokes were funny, the scenarios both original and comfortingly familiar.
Still, my prejudice was not entirely defeated. Twenty-minute sketches were one thing. But how could anyone possibly handle making up a full-length, two-act Chekhovian play? No English-language company had done his actual plays justice, in my experience. American Chekhovs were always serious when they should be funny, dull instead of deep, slick without the surprises of real life. Harrumph.
Well. Three hankies, a busted gut and an altered perspective later, in the lobby I paid the troupe the left-handed compliment that is the common curse of this startling genre: Surely, I wondered, they had decided on storylines and characters beforehand? As he has done for many critics before me, artistic director Dan O’Connor assured me that all their preparation consisted of book-study and improvisational rehearsals. These virtuosic talents simply were as superhuman as they seemed. And that’s hard to believe.
In the years since, I’ve been privileged to watch Impro rehearse and I’ve seen the company perform UnScripted takes on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Stephen Sondheim and John Ford. (They also do Tennessee Williams, Charles Dickens and L.A. noir, among others.) The beloved authors and genres they enrich are both refreshed and irrevocably altered by their touch. It is the most impressive sort of homage—the kind that tells you these improvisers are essentially slumming in some literary neighborhoods (sorry, but Rod Serling never wrote anything as good as Impro’s riffs on his themes).
Above all, Impro’s work has taught me to demand more from the theatre, and from the culture in which it is embedded. The people who would entertain us have got to reward our faith. Trusting Impro to invent a long, inspiriting story has become one of my life’s most reliable enjoyments.
And this is the crux of the movement’s value: Longform improvisation, properly executed, is a feat expanding the definition of human potential. Dilettantes need not apply. Besides character-oriented performance elements like emotional and physical dexterity, a performer must master the theories of intention; the use of space; the function of theme; the purposes of exposition, plot and story. It takes decades to become proficient in this art, which exemplifies the ephemeral, before-your-very-eyes nature of the theatrical experience itself.
Here might be the salvation the theatre seeks. Here is a thing you cannot get anywhere but in person. You cannot see it on any screen, you cannot rewind it, you cannot “share” it in a clip on social media. You can’t even go back and check the script. To be exhilarated in this way, you must attend a live venue in communion with other humans—and attend to the show as it is born, lives and dies.
Jason Rohrer is a theatre and film critic based in Los Angeles.
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