Monday, May 14, 2007

The debate that refuses to die

So, for the past year and a half or so there’s been something of a low boiling argument over on the Austin Improv forums, the gist of which, at least as expressed in some quarters, is that the Austin improv scene is biased against “Chicago-style” improv in general and the Harold in particular. This argument occasionally spills over into pretty heated headbutting. My own comments in this conversation, abetted by the rashness and intemperance with which they have often been made, have probably led some to associate me with some kind of anti-Chicago cabal among our community. Nothing could be further from the truth. My respect for the legacy of Del Close and the importance of Chicago improv should probably be the subject of another post, but I should state that fact right upfront lest people get the wrong idea of where I’m going with this post. I’m sure my improv partner Shana would discourage me from writing this entry lest I be misunderstood or stir up more confrontation. But it’s something I find myself regularly embroiled in, recently in a fashion that to my own shame led to some harsh words on my part. This post is mostly for me to set down some thoughts about why I react so strongly to the discussion and to maybe clear up these thoughts in my own mind so that I don’t go off half-cocked when the subject inevitably raises its head again. I’d also like to address any misconceptions I’ve perpetuated by my own hastiness in these arguments, and to provide fodder for a thoughtful conversation should anyone be so inclined.

What I’ve come to realize is that in no way am I against the Harold, at least how I’m going to define what that means here. What I am against, though, is the way the debate is framed, at least, as I’ve said, how it’s framed in some quarters, namely that the Austin community is biased against the Harold. This framing is what, I suspect, motivates my strong reactions. A sizeable portion of the Austin improv community have lived and worked in Chicago, have trained at IO or taken classes from people whose view of improv has come from IO training. That in and of itself would seem to mark out that there is a sizeable portion of the community that is obviously not biased against the improv philosophies of Chicago. Now, granted, a significant majority of these people are of recent Austin vintage, but from my vantage the rapidity with which these folks and their work have been assimilated into the Austin improv community, have become leaders in the community, in many instances the public face of the community, and are ambassadors of our scene to other cities, belies any sentiment that the community is biased against their style. In fact, I would say anyone holding these views is somehow arguing that they haven’t been fully accepted by the Austin improv community, and I think that says more about the person holding those views than it reflects the community’s responsiveness.

But perhaps what is meant when the sentiment arises that Austin improv is biased against the Harold is that people who’ve learned improv locally rather than elsewhere are the ones who have these feelings. But I don’t think that position holds any water, either. Again, I would say that the manner in which people from outside of Austin are embraced as they arrive argues against that interpretation. There are tons of Austin improvisers who have avidly learned from new transplants, been coached by them, been open to trying new things. There’s a whole crop of folks learning at new training centers who are also part of the community, so they aren’t part of this supposed anti-Harold claque, either. If one wanted to lamely scorekeep this kind of thing, one could easily make the argument that Austin-bred improvisers take to these new schools of thought more eagerly than people coming in from outside seem interested in learning a more Austin-centered Johnstonian approach to improvising. That’s not a bad thing at all, and nor should one extrapolate that anyone of that ilk is somehow anti-Johnstone or anti-narrative. It’s just that they’re indifferent to that approach, partly one assumes out of temperament and partly out of the fact that they already have well-defined and well-established artistic goals. But somehow, the discussion isn’t a two-way street, in that indifference or miscomprehension of the Harold is mistaken as hostility. I think this is what usually sets me off in these discussions.

Of all of the Austin-bred improvisers, I can think of two people total who are vocally and avowedly anti-Harold. One person has softened those feelings recently, however imperfectly, and the other person isn’t particularly active in Austin improv anymore. It would be fair to say, though, that there are a sizeable handful of people, myself included, that are indifferent to the appeals to the Harold. It isn’t, though, that we’re hostile or ignorant, or that we have chips on our shoulders. It’s just that our artistic interests and goals lie outside of what we perceive the Harold having to offer, no different than is the case for people who aren’t particularly interested in learning or performing narrative improv. I’ve tried to raise this issue before, but to my discredit I’ve expressed those sentiments rudely and derogatorily rather than rhetorically, which is how I mean for them to be taken. “Why don’t you want to learn how to improvise a narrative?” “Because I’m not interested in doing shows like that. My interests and talents lie elsewhere.” “Right. That’s cool. Please afford me the same prerogative without alleging I’m against the thing you like. I’ve just got other interests.”

Artists shouldn’t feel compelled to be all things to all people. They should be able to pursue what they want to pursue without having their lack of interest in another thing be taken as a sign of hostility. I can’t imagine a jazz trumpeter trying to perfect his craft being taken to task for not being interested in learning how to play Handel and Strauss trumpet parts in the classical repertoire. Nor can I imagine moving to Chicago and griping about how no one is interested in learning Johnstone-style techniques. If I wanted to see more people do what I love, I would, I hope, try to lead by example and instill my beliefs by putting on shows so compelling that people would want to emulate me rather than wasting time assuming that the vast hoards of folks uninterested in me were somehow operating from a position of bad faith.

Another couple of sidelines that arise in these conversations is the idea that Austin-trained improvisers don’t like the Harold only because we’ve never seen a good one. Again, I think this misses the mark to a degree, and from a certain point of view it’s insulting and infantilizing, as if people can’t develop strong artistic identities in improv without having been exposed to the whole improv buffet. While it’s true that some Austin improvisers haven’t seen that many Harolds done well, I’m not sure if seeing a group like Cog or the Reckoning (whom, by the way a number of Austinites saw in Dallas a couple of years ago) would change much of the way Austin improv looks. Last year, 3 For All came down for Out of Bounds, and while they’re some of the world’s best improvisers of sustained narratives, hardly anyone who wasn’t already into what they were doing had a religious epiphany that made them compelled to start doing hour-long linear stories. This doesn’t mean people would be unreceptive to a killer Harold; again, it just means that people are already following what’s interesting to them. And besides, there’s something to be said for carving out new artistic space in the discipline rather than trying to get reasonably good at something tons of other people have already perfected. Nor does it take seeing that many sub-par Harolds to lead one to believe there’s nothing inherently magical or mystical about the form or anything more compelling about it than any other form executed to perfection.

The final little sub-argument that often comes up in these discussions is a feeling that people who haven’t gone through a Chicago-style curriculum or seen tons of good Harolds are somehow disqualified from having an opinion. I do think it’s worthwhile for people to explain misunderstandings, but creative misunderstandings, incompletely digested influences and even disagreements and outright hostility are time-honored ways that art changes and progresses. Again, to use the jazz analogy, jazz wasn’t born out of a bunch of people treating their musical influences as museum pieces; it was born out of musicians messing around with those influences, being irreverent toward them, even having incomplete understanding of what they were messing with. If someone in Austin cooks something up worthwhile based on an incomplete understanding of the Harold, or even if they’re motivated to do work in complete reaction against it, I say more power to them if they in truth make something worthwhile.

The great thing about the Austin improv community is how open we are to all different kinds of things without devolving into camps or factions, and I hope the arguments that have transpired in the last year are so are a sign of our strength rather than the nascent buds of factionalization, although I sometimes feel the latter is more likely. I feel bad about whatever part I will have played from my rash remarks in any splintering of the community. In truth, I really am open to people here doing anything they want and carving out their own little corners of improv excellence, and I suspect that people who disagree with me on any number of philosophical points can agree with me on that one. At least I hope so.

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Blogger apthorpe said...

Well put. It's unfortunate that (the memory of) Del and/or the Harold generates or exacerbates such divisive and dogmatic attachment.

I don't feel an anti-Chicago bias in my troupe (especially considering who we've had coach us) but frankly I'm not dying to perform in or watch a Harold any time soon. Other forms appeal to me more than the Harold and I have limited time and attention span.

I'm not some narrative flag-waver, but like you, I was really taken in by Six Degrees. It's a hard format to play but extremely satisfying and memorable. A lot of my issues with the Johnstonian take on narrative improv were well addressed by a dose of Annoyance theory and I've learned a lot about using subtext and theme from workshopping through formats like the Deconstruction and the Harold. There's real value to be had in playing outside your normal range. That said, I feel that the Harold specifically is neither necessary nor sufficient as improv training. Likewise for Theatresports or Comedysportz. I think a performer unnecessarily limits themself by ignoring short-form, narrative, or thematic long-form, but I believe the techniques learned in practicing each of those forms are more important than the forms themselves.

This will be construed as an attack on the Harold and be taken personally by someone, somewhere, I know...

2:26 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Well put, Bob, and thanks for engaing in the conversation. I feel like I've been kind of talking to myself over here, so it's nioce to know someone read this.

1:07 PM  

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