One of the most sacred of improv conventions is the suggestion. Whether it is the classic ‘one word, any word’, the more specific ‘relationship between two people’ or my personal bugbear, ‘a non geographical location’ (what does that even mean to anyone who is not an improviser?), nearly all shows start with the audience’s input.
So I got to thinking about why we take them. What makes taking a suggestion such a core part of what we do that not doing it is still a faintly transgressive act (“Have you heard of TJ and Dave, they don’t even take a suggestion” “Woah!”)
Here are the two main reasons I have heard for taking suggestions at the start of a show.
“We need a suggestion to inspire us”
Really? Do you? I bet you don’t really. If the call out is a bakery, I bet the inspiration comes from the characters and not from rising dough. I bet it comes from Amanda’s envy that Jerry’s ciabatta is better than hers, or her happiness that they get to make pound cake together. And that doesn’t come from the word ‘bakery’, it comes from either a choice that the improviser makes, or something they notice in themselves or their scene partner.
When I was in Edinburgh with Music Box a few years ago, we would ask for a suggestion of where an adventure might take place. More than half of the time it was one of the three following: in a castle, in space/the moon or under the sea. Good suggestions, but had they been all we working from, we could have had some very similar shows. We didn’t, because the suggestion was just the smallest part of what we brought to the stage every day.
Honestly, you don’t even need suggestions to inspire you, no one really does. Try playing a bunch of scenes with no suggestion if you don’t believe me. The fact of there being another human facing you is enough. People make scenes.
“We need to prove that it’s improvised”
There’s something in this catch-22. When we do great shows, people say “that can’t be improvised”, but when things don’t go so well, people say “see, that’s the problem with improv”. How do we convince people that we’re really doing what we say we are?
You know what, it doesn’t really matter. If someone thinks what we do is so good that it can’t be improvised, let’s concentrate on the fact that they thought it was really good! Smile, put the ol’ twinkle in your eye and leave them guessing. Cos no one really cares. Think of the great films you have watched, do you really care if they were heavily scripted, improvised or somewhere between the two? No one ever asked for their door money back cos the show wasn’t made up! We care whether it’s good.
I call bullshit on those reasons, so why take suggestions at all?
In one of the twoprov shows that I do, Ten Thousand Million Love Stories, we wanted to base the show on romantic stories from the lives of the audience, but we worried that just asking the audience for their suggestions would lead to certain types of stories and people getting all the air time. We wanted to get the most honest stories from the shyest people, so we designed an elaborate ritual that involves the audience closing their eyes and us giving them ideas to think about (to eliminate favouring the fastest responders), then chatting to each other while music plays (to license sharing, because everybody is doing it). Heather and I then go into the audience and collect stories while everybody is still talking (to gather stories from everyone, not just the loudest people) and tell them back anonymously. It is a bit of a complex process, and takes almost ten minutes, but we have always found that people respond very openly, and when we start to improvise based on these suggestions, the audience doesn’t feel like individuals, but like a group functioning together.
Which brings me to why I love suggestions. Why I think improv need them. Not always of course. There is no always.
“We want the audience to feel involved”
Here is a symbolism that I really like about improv and theatre. Where do the performers and audience go after the show? In theatre, the performers go to an actors bar, to mix with other actors. In improvisation the performers and audience joyfully pile into the same bar, which may even be the room where the performance took place. We are all in this together.
Because in improvisation, and here’s a phrase that I love, we are creating temporary communities. Everybody in the room, whether they are the audience, the tech guy or the performers, was part of something that only happened that way that night. If they have never seen improv before, it’s the reason they’re there. If they haven’t, it’s out best chance of getting them to come back. Because they were part of something.
So, whether the show has suggestions in it or not (and it can be fun both ways), remember that the audience needs to feel part of a special group. The group of people who were there and saw this thing that we did. And although it won’t do the whole job, you can do much worse than by asking them which non-geographical location they want the piece to start in.
Jules is one of the Nursery’s main teachers and will be teaching the new Scenework Drop-in class from May. Ten Thousand Million Love Stories is touring later this year to Finland, Brussels, Dublin and around the UK.