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Not just in jest

Improv comedy arrived only recently on Indian stages. The art form first emerged in the US in the mid-20th century, according to Sam Wasson in his book, Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art.
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:13 IST
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:13 IST

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By Krithik Vakil

Improv comedy springs from brave moments of unscripted uncertainty. While the art form itself went through much uncertainty thanks to the pandemic which hit live events hard, its recent resurgence in Indian metros has brought much cheer to the performers and the audience alike. Everyone seems to be enjoying the ride since no one knows where they are going — especially the people on the stage!

Improv comedy arrived only recently on Indian stages. The art form first emerged in the US in the mid-20th century, according to Sam Wasson in his book, Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art. The fundamentals of Improvisational Theatre are simple. There is no script; everything you see on stage is indeed made up on the spot. But spontaneity is a skill that can be acquired using certain distinct rehearsing techniques; to create a collaborative story on the spot.

“What is demonstrated [on a stage] to the public is only the exhibition part. The hard work is when we are jamming with each other backstage. Or when we are talking with each other. Or just being with each other and understanding each other as a person,” says Aravind Kashyap, a member of the Bengaluru-based Indian Improv Tribe [IIT].

Simple yet sincere, Improv comedy comes as a blessing to the modern world. In the human connections of the improvisers lie fundamental principles of humanity. To be sure, sometimes Improv may be misdirected, erroneously pandering to unscrupulous laughter. But, at the macro level, it remains unquestionably one of the most inclusive art forms of our times.

Risk and spontaneity

Three ingredients constitute a great rehearsal: some risk, some spontaneity, and some cooperation. This was apparent at ImprovLore’s recent workshop at Lahe Lahe, Bengaluru. The atmosphere at Lahe Lahe Santhe was as snug as its wooden floor tiles arranged in a stretcher-bond style. That evening, standing barefoot on the floor, a circle of participants assembled to learn the basics of improvisation. The circle spawned a sense of community, uniting everyone.

In one of the activities that followed, Arjun Mehra and Balasree Viswanathan, co-founders of the group, invited everyone to play a game called ‘convergence’. The game went as follows: in a pair, both participants try to say the same word together (or, converge) without any strategic understanding. The first guess probably doesn’t go right. Based on the two guesses (the most recent ones in case of subsequent attempts), both participants try to find an approximate median of the two words, again and again until there is a match.

But, to successfully converge, it is not enough to be spontaneous or take a risk betting on your guess. For instance, after several attempts, one of the pairs’ guesses had fallen in the ballpark: an “airplane” and a “bird” (both are flying objects). Now, if both of them had said “wings” (a plausible median word for flying objects), for example, they would have achieved convergence. As it happened, however, they didn’t. Such thrilling encounters of near-convergence were common. But they also carried an important lesson. As one of the regulars at these workshops said, “The key [to converging] is focusing on the other person and what they might be thinking,” rather than being lost in one’s own thoughts. Simple enough, this principle is regularly violated in ordinary life. It shows that genuine cooperative effort is necessary to build a connection. Self-indulgence, on the other hand, impedes any such chemistry.

During performances, the improvisers often use this chemistry to their advantage. “When we go on stage,” says Aravind, “we know the improviser, both as a character and as a person. We can [thus] make out what an improviser is talking about as a character and what they are talking about as a person.” This improves one’s ability to anticipate and respond to the needs on stage, an essential tool for creating a coherent act.

The benefits can also go beyond the stage. They can inspire love and understanding in relationships. Balasree deeply believes that Improv is a catalyst for connection. After careful reflection, Balasree says, “One of the seemingly obvious things that Improv teaches us [about relationships] is that the only thing people care about is being listened to and being acknowledged.”

The danger of tropes

However, Improv comedy isn’t always as innocent as it may seem. Several objections have cropped up. Evan Hastings, a theatre-of-the-oppressed (a form of theatre that tries to explore the relations of the oppressor and the oppressed in its performances) practitioner and teacher at Azim Premji University, observes that “Improv comedy can become problematic since it often ends up using racist and sexist tropes to get laughs from the audience.”

Ayush Raj, a teacher at Yours Truly Theatre, also shares this concern saying, “Because the purpose of Improv is to make the audience laugh, at times, it may also be cheaper laughs that the actors spontaneously come up with.”

Cheap laughs can in turn also impact the storyline. “For instance”, Ayush adds, “if there is a scene in which your other co-characters have already established something [such as a coherent plot], destroying that might lead to a lot of laughs, but it will prevent the story from reaching a proper conclusion. If you break that reality, the story will fall apart.”

Aravind responds by saying, “I agree it can be risky. And as a team, we are very clear that we’ll only do ‘Clean Comedy’. We never make a joke on sensitive topics, just to elicit laughs.” Sharanya Raveendra, manager of the Tribe, explains a bit further about the group’s philosophy about being funny. “A lot of people try to be funny”, she says, “but you don’t have to be funny. It comes automatically if you just stick to the fundamental principles of Improv.” But, is it as easy as it appears?

Balasree admits although she now tries to focus on the principles as much as she can, this wasn’t always the case. She describes earlier shows where laughter had been the focal point. However, the pandemic turned things around with Zoom performances. In these performances, it was difficult to gauge the audience’s interest. This, reflects Balasree, eventually made her less “guided by the audience”. It allowed her to focus more on the principles and the theatrical skills surrounding Improv and overcome an “unhealthy obsession to get the audience to laugh”, which is visible in certain Improv groups.

Balasree proposes four principles for good practice: openness, playfulness, spontaneity, and honesty. The bigger aim of any rehearsal attained through these principles is always to find comfort in failing (taken in a broad sense) and non-judgmentally building on those failures. As Sharanya says, “They always say there are no mistakes in Improv. They are only a start to a new scene.”

‘Like watching a magic trick’

According to Aravind, there could be several reasons why artists prefer Improv over traditional theatre. Not only is Improv free from sticking to a particular script or a character, but it can also be an easy fit in the schedule of a working professional compared to the rigorous nature of scripted theatre. Furthermore, the reason why Aravind likes Improv so much is because each show hosted and each scene performed is unique. Wasson writes, “[Improv] is like watching a magic trick, but while a magician always knows more than the audience, Improv’s magic is just as mysterious to its improvisers.”

The uncertainty demands inclusion. The audience member who is pulled from his chair is invited to jump onto his toes. It is as if the entire auditorium becomes a stage. Of all art forms, it is only Improv where “the first voice to be heard is of the audience [a common man]”, says Masoom Parmar, a Bharatanatyam dancer. The audience is constantly asked to participate. For instance, at a recent show by the Tribe, the first act gathered six audience members on stage who tried to build a story on the spot. This invitation to viscerally feel the unscripted uncertainty remains a signature at IIT’s shows.

Other forms of Improv, such as playback theatre, interpret “inclusion” as giving a voice to the marginalised. Radhika Jain, a playback theatre practitioner and teacher, explains playback theatre as an art form where a real anecdote from an audience member’s life is re-enacted on the spot. Sometimes, the audience member is even invited to replace the actor afterwards to enact their own story on stage. “It is to create a distance from your emotions”, says Balasree, “since this act of playing back allows you to see the story from two perspectives, both as an actor and an observer.”

More popularly, though, Improv facilitates social awareness through corporate performances. For instance, one of IIT’s shows was themed on the experiences women share when they return to the workplace after a long break. Similarly, a show by ImprovLore used Improv to develop a balance between seriousness and frivolity at work.

Interestingly, corporate shows often are the biggest sources of income for improvisers. This is because the cost of hosting a big show, which includes renting the stage and the necessary sound equipment, can easily exceed any income from the tickets. Consequently, most improvisers are working professionals during the day, whether as accountants, business consultants, social media influencers, or radio jockeys.

Some might think this makes Improv a “hobby of privilege,” a term Balasree uses to suggest how often Improv is for those who can afford to attend rehearsals without worrying about the profit. Meanwhile, others might see the disinterest in profit as an indication that “Improv is for everyone”; indeed, something Ayush strongly believes is the truth.

In any case, several voices are starting to regard Improv as an indispensable part of what it means to be human. “We are improvising all the time in life,” says Balasree. “Improvising is not just an art form; it is a behavioural pattern,” observes Aravind. It’s all about learning to fail, to be silly, and to be kind. Sometimes, to quote IIT’s motto, all we need is to be “spontaneous, hilarious, [and] dinosaurus.”

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Published 11 May 2024, 22:13 IST

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