But what does ‘yes, and…’ have to do with improv? Before I explain, let’s explore how improvisational theatre actually got started.
It’s presently undergoing a tremendous revival, having slowly reemerged in the early 20th century in both America and England, and then snowballed in the last half of the century. Improv theatres and theatre groups are springing up all over the world: across the US; across Europe; even in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and now Phuket. However, it’s much older than a mere hundred years. The earliest theatre we know of involving improvised comedy is the Atellan Farce dating back to 391 BCE in Rome. The first concerted attempt to build a professional improvisational comedy theatre troupe took place in the 16th century in Renaissance Italy, and Commedia Dell’Arte was born.
Commedia performed improvised plays around a lineup of stock characters and familiar situations with lots of slapstick, mime and running jokes. Each character, with the exception of the ‘lover characters’, wore stylised masks, and they all had special movements and characteristics. Commedia was extremely popular, its influence on theatre felt right up to the present day. We see elements of Commedia in the plays of Moliere and Shakespeare, in many operas and in such characters as Charlie Chaplin’s Gentleman Tramp and Buster Keaton’s sad sack underdog hero.
In modern times, around the turn of the 20th century, improvisation was used extensively by the great Russian director, actor and theatrical entrepreneur Konstantin Stanislavski. However, Stanislavski used improv as a tool to help actors in their scripted roles, not as a performance piece in itself.
It was in the 1920s that the vaudevillian performer Dudley Riggs was credited with being the first actor to ask for audience suggestions to improvise sketches onstage. Starting in the 1940s and continuing to the 1960s, Viola Spolin developed hundreds of improvisation exercises that are now codified in her book Improvisation for the Theatre, called ‘the Bible of Improvisation’ by some. Her work led to the foundation of Second City Theatre in Chicago under the leadership of her son, Paul Sills, and from there improv burgeoned in many directions.
Many of the original comedians of Saturday Night Live came from Second City; people like Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi. Keith Johnstone, an improviser in England, created Theatre Sports, a competitive improvisational event that has become very popular today.
Today, when we think of improv, we often think of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Drew Carey and his team were extremely funny. That show did only short-form sketches, but there are troupes who perform long-form improv, which to me is very fascinating; an entire play created on the spot from audience suggestions. Often these are very funny, but they can also be serious and highly poignant. In the words of one of the earliest long-form improvisers and the creator of the form called The Harold, Del Close, “You don’t always have to be funny, but you always have to be interesting.”
And what could be more interesting than seeing theatre that is made up by a team of actors who get their ideas from the audience? Just think, what you are watching and/or performing is being created at that precise moment and will never ever be done again. And you were part of that creative process.
Oh, yes. I almost forgot. What do we mean by ‘yes, and…’? In short, whatever you receive from your fellow actors, you say, “Yes” to and then add on, building a story together as a team to the delight of your audience.
(Yes,) The story is not built if an actor denies:
“Hi, Mum. What’s for dinner?”
“I’m not your mother.”
(And…) The story is not built if you don’t add something:
“Let’s go swimming.”
“Good idea, can I bring my pet elephant along?”
That’s what we mean by ‘yes, and…’ It’s that simple and so much fun.
And now for the best news. OUTTA THE BOX, Theatrix’s improv team, will be performing an evening of improv comedy theatre at Shanti Lodge in Chalong tonight (Jan 26) starting at 7:30pm for just B150. This is part of a monthly series of improv nights now in planning. It’s interactive, never the same twice and lots of fun for performers and audience alike.
And that’s not all. On Valentine’s Day (Feb 14), LOVE BITES, a dinner theatre evening of comic plays on love and marriage, also at Shanti Lodge, will be on the boards from Theatrix! Contact Theatrix or Shanti Lodge or look for details coming soon.