Making it up as you go along
Whether it is an comedy show, an improvised play, or improvisation to make discoveries during rehearsal, improv is a direct line to the truth.
You know that jerk at the party who says, with some gross cocktail in his hand, “Oh, you’re an actor? So, like, you’re a professional liar,” then he smiles like he didn’t just minimize your entire life’s work? Worry not: all us cool kids know he couldn’t be more wrong. The actor’s job is not to lie, of course: the actor’s job is to tell the truth, as hard as he or she can. To tell the truth more desperately than that jerk has likely ever had to do.
You can’t force catharsis on an audience by lying to them. You’ll never convince them that since, say, your brother left for war and your boyfriend killed your dad, that you, the dutiful actress who is playing this same role for another three weeks, is going to drown yourself tonight. No lying could be good enough. For the audience to have the experience they are looking for, the actor simply needs to very truthfully feel those feelings.
Ninety-nine percent of what the actor does is false. He pretends there aren’t lights overhead and stagehands 20 feet away. He pretends to live in a universe where an entire fleet of newsboys can spontaneously sing and dance as one. He pretends that he wasn’t here in this very spot, wearing these very clothes, saying these very things seven times already this week. On top of all that, there are the script’s designated circumstances. “Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” as Meisner so famously described the work of acting, is awfully hard when you consider all the circumstances, technical and character-based, an actor must make invisible. For it to be at all truthful, the 1% left that isn’t circumstance must be improvised, as are our actual lives. Viola Spolin, the great pioneer of improvisation, referred to “the space”—the reactive moments and physical space in between the dialogue, in between the blocking, even in between the players themselves that makes up the entirety of the truth in performance. That’s where the life is, and it is improvisation that will fill those spaces to create reality under the most extremely fictional circumstances.
Improv may forever be inextricably linked to comedy. This is because if we were to follow a person around for any length of time with the freedom to have a truthful, open emotional response to what they are doing, we would laugh a lot more than we’d do anything else. Laughter, however, is more than just a simple response; laughter is a visceral reaction. Laughter indicates something resonating so powerfully with an audience, they have an involuntary physical reaction. Improv is often good for a laugh, but it is always the surest way the audience and the performers can be honest with each other.
— Kevin Laibson, Artistic Director, The People’s Improv Theater (The PIT)