Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Improv Spectrum; or, the local nature of our taxonomies

The 3 For All visit has got me thinking a lot about improv philosophy and technique recently. That combined with John’s post over here and the ensuing discussion made me realize something and then Kareem’s observation here reinforced the little epiphany I had. Rather than clutter up John’s comments any further, I thought I’d start this conversation over here.

John somewhat convincingly details a spectrum of improv approaches that range from longform narrative that clones some other narrative media (more about that in a subsequent post) to the other end, an improv for improv’s sake approach, where the narrative fetters don’t exist—I’m not doing John’s philosophy justice here, it’s just that I’m saving my unpacking of what John might be talking about for another, more detailed approach because I don’t think I quite have the elevator pitch for it down yet.

Anyway, I buy it to a point, but I think if you expounded on this spectrum to someone outside of Austin, the responses would range from “Hmmm, I’d never thought of that before,” to “What the fuck are you talking about?” In most other places, the spectrum lies between short form and long form, or between improv more generally and sketch, or even standup (a dynamic that pops up here only when anonymous snarksters hate on improv any time we get a good mention in the Austinist).

Whence those “what?” reactions I talk about above? Well, as far as I can tell, narrative improv as a discipline doesn’t really exist much outside of a few centers—here, San Francisco, Los Angeles to a certain degree, and again to a certain degree in Atlanta. But where else? I’m not talking about groups here and there who stumble into narrative formats like the cats in Omaha, whom Kareem points out are mostly working in a vacuum. There are narrative groups here and there throughout the country. I’m talking about places where there is a real cluster of people working on narrative as an approach and philosophy and building a body of shared work and techniques.

The narrative people here have obviously been heavily influenced by people from the BATS and LATS scene, but without the work of people like me and Shana and Girls and Sean Hill and the various Heroes genre shows and Jeremy and the WHJ guys and later the Cupholders and now the Pgraph guys, I’m not sure there would be the spectrum John talks about to even debate.

The dynamic we have here is unique in the country. Please tell me if I’m off base, but I can’t think off another scene around that so tangibly offers such a wealth of narrative and non-narrative approaches in equal strength and so closely intertwined in their personnel and casts. That dynamic colors the nature of the debate here, but I’m not sure if anyone outside Austin sees the same rainbow.

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