Why Improv is a Legit Art Form

Tess Nakaishi

Some actors swear by improv, viewing it as an indispensable part of a performer’s education. Others scoff and dismiss it as theatre’s inferior cousin. Some love it and leap to their feet the instant a game is mentioned. Others hunker down in their seats and wish for a script to hold. Wherever you locate yourself, the theatre world sometimes seems split on the topic of unscripted, made-up-on-the-spot performances. Improv is certainly a form of performance art which draws crowds, but some theatre artists question whether it should be considered art in the same way as regular drama.

Let’s start with some of the common negative ideas concerning improv. There is a tendency to view it as a non-serious form of performance which focuses on entertainment over real artistic value. It is easy to see where this idea originates. Improv is generally structured into “games,” which immediately creates childish imagery. Because of the unscripted nature, actors may often rely on stereotypes to portray characters effectively and quickly and, admittedly, they rarely have time to craft a story with much depth. And, of course, improv is almost always comedic. Especially with the popularity of Whose Line Is It Anyway, improv tends to be seen as focusing more on making an audience laugh. However, though improv lends itself particularly well to comedy, there is nothing inherently comedic about improv. Dramatic improv is also possible, and those who study the craft know it is not supposed to be about pushing for jokes.

When performers are open and free, the humor usually emerges naturally. 

Because improv does not have to be rehearsed and meticulously practiced in the same way as scripted drama, there is room for it to be viewed as a “lazier” art form which requires less commitment. This idea is simply not true. Just because improv is fun and freeing does not mean it requires less work or commitment on the part of the actors. However, improv and scripted drama are indeed different tasks. Scripted drama is about acquiring knowledge and understanding (i.e. lines, blocking, music, timing, relationships, motivations, etc.) whereas improv is about learning a skill set. The difference can be understood better by comparing it to education. Some classes, such as math or science classes, require the student to memorize information and rules and then use what they memorize to produce specific results. In much the same way, an actor memorizes lines and blocking in order to produce the result requested by the director. In other classes such as English, you learn rules but there is no specific result required. Instead you synthesize information to create a new essay for every prompt. Similarly, there is no right or wrong for improv players, just creation or lack of creation.

The school metaphor is useful for understanding the differences in process, but also over-simplifies the situation somewhat. Improv and scripted theatre blend together more than we might think. Both produce characters, story lines, and live performance for an audience. Really the biggest difference (and the most obvious) is that improv lacks a script, specific direction, and prior knowledge of what will be happening on stage. Improv is acquiring a skill which can be applied anytime, anywhere, with anything. It could be argued it is more difficult in that sense, but it also could be considered easier because it does not require memorizing lines, long rehearsal periods, or fitting your performance to a director’s demands. Which is easier and more enjoyable depends on the individual, but the overall difference has to do with process rather than amount of work or commitment. 

So what about the idea that improv is merely fluffy comedic entertainment? Firstly, there is absolutely nothing wrong or inferior about making people laugh. We live in a harsh world. If I can brighten one person’s night with laughter, I consider it a night well spent. Second, there are quite a few plays which also aim for entertainment rather than trying to achieve some deeper message, so claiming scripted theatre is inherently better than improv in that way is false.

Finally, improv is limitless in the sense that it can be anything. However, deep wisdom and earth shattering revelations are not usually the first thoughts to come to mind, so it is much less likely to walk away from an improv show feeling like your world view has been substantially altered. So, yes, if provoking thoughts and spreading profound messages is your goal, your best bet is to use a script. At the same time, improv is enticing in a way scripted theatre never quite can be because the audience is aware no one knows what is coming next.

The excitement of improv is a bit like that of attending a sports game where the end result is unknown. Every movement is unfurling before your eyes and you know you are part of a completely unique experience. The bottom line is, both forms have their strengths and weaknesses. A script allows you to be more specific and prepared. Not having a script gives the audience the thrill of seeing a performance being born. 

Improv is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that is okay. Learning the basics of improv to prepare yourself for ad-libbing on stage or keeping your cool during cold reads is tremendously helpful for any actor, but no one should be forced to play improv games. However, the attitude that improv is a lesser art form than scripted drama only breeds division within the performing arts community. They are different performance forms; each has its strengths and most people have a preference, but both are legitimate. Improv is an art which deserves the same respect as a carefully rehearsed theatre show.

Above all, performers should remember there is no need to feel ashamed or shame others for their involvement or lack of involvement in improv. We’re all artists here. Instead of being negative, let’s embrace the principle of “Yes, and” by supporting each other.