Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Improv Comedy and Deleuze

Early on in this course I became interested in linking Deleuze’s work to improvisational comedy, which I have been studying now for about a year and a half. Using Deleuze as a way to better understand Improv first occurred to me at the beginning of the class when we were discussing Nietzsche, and specifically the idea of a "new image of thought."

The mind itself that is used during an improv set creates a new way of thinking. It is a Group Mind, made up of all the performers on a team, which has no choice except to think immanently. There is no room for a priori notions. Even if every performer walks into the theatre with their own beliefs, once they got on stage this will be alleviated assuming they following one of the guiding principles of improvisation – “yes, and.” This rule ensures that a performer agrees to the reality of the world, and then contributes something of their own. With “yes, and” performers are able to agree quickly, and in doing so explore the world they have invented on the stage.

The task of the improviser while building a scene or a show is very similar to Sanford Kwinter’s description of Kafka’s writing: "The task of Kafka the writer was perhaps no different from that of “K.” the land-surveyor in The Castle or the accused in The Trial. It was, on the one hand, to chart the topography of this peculiar emergent world, to discover the laws of how things combine, and on the other, to trace by trial and error the mysterious principle of its functioning. But at the same time no sketch or figure is anywhere offered up, unless it be on of those deliberately scrambled and inscrutable images like the officer’s blueprints for the inscription apparatus in the Penal Colony. For in Kafka, the task is no longer to trace the visible form of the world by recourse to an external schema or representational mode, but to somehow espouse its very substance, to become of the world by becoming one with it" (107).

Improvisers have no choice but to live in the world that they create, since its creation is happening in the moment, on stage, in front of an audience. One of the attributes that I find most appealing in a strong performance is commitment to the scene. There is nothing that turns me off from a performance than ironic detachment. That is to say, when a performer doesn’t fully commit to the actions on stage, and rather than taking part in them, describes them in an attempt to get a cheap laugh. A note that is said constantly in classes and rehearsals is to make the scene more active. By making it active, we become one with the world in much the same way as Kwinter describes it. We are able to explore the world more fully, and are able to find the connections, trace the principals, and chart the topography of the world we have created from moment to moment, and from scene to scene.

A huge part of improv is about making connections. This happens on many levels of an improv set. At the theatre where I have been studying, another principle to scene work is called “game.” Simply put, it is the unusual pattern of behavior that is organically established within the scene, which is where the humor of the scene derives. Once the game is established it continues to be played throughout the scene. This does not mean that the game should lead the direction of the scene, in fact quite the opposite, the relationship between the characters should the direction of the scene, and the game will occur naturally.

Connections are not just found within the scenes, but in the set as a whole. The form that is primarily taught where I study is called the Harold. Quickly, the Harold is as follows:

1. Suggestion from the audience
2. Opening based on suggestion (this can be anything from a word pattern game, to monologues, to a sound and movement exercise) – all of the scenes that follow are rooted in this opening, this is where performers pull their initiations
3. Three separate scenes in which a game is established (again, all of which are rooted in the opening) 
4. Second beats of those same three scenes with the same game heightened (second beats can either be the same characters at a different time, or an analogous scene with new character playing the same game … either way the game should be heightened)
5. Third beats, same scenes, very short, heightened further. Often times all the scenes will mesh into one during the third beats

As an audience member, I find that the most satisfying Harolds to watch are the ones where all three scenes seamlessly come together in the third beat. These connections are certainly not preconceived. They occur organically as the set becomes its own entity and are brought together through the group mind. This is an example of the smoothing out of a striated space, which I feel often leads to the most interesting art.

A great improv set has an aura about it that I have experienced in few other places. I believe it creates a new image, a virtual image. The beauty of comedy, and particularly improv, is that nothing is untouchable. We are able to work with taboo topics, and pair ideas, thoughts and images that ordinarily would not be combined. The outcome varies greatly, but at times it creates a virtual image and an interaction with that image that is unique for players and audience members alike.

-- Jake


  1. Tonight I will make a distinction between filmed improv and filmic improv. Here is an example of filmed that I hope to show tonight. This is one of my favorite teams to watch live, and I feel that such a documentation of their live shows does not do their work justice:


  2. Hey Jake. I was thinking that an interesting addition to your project could be having a video crew work as part of the improvisation. Instead of just having a free roaming camera on a dolly you could have this video crew set different shot compositions and lighting setups as they see fit in relation to the improvisations of the actors. It could get a little chaotic but maybe that's what you'd want. It might also be funny to have the camera rolling as the setups are occurring simultaneously with the actors.

    --Jonathan Masino

  3. Thanks Jonathan. That's definitely a good thought on how to approach it. I'm still trying to figure out how to keep the essential elements of cinema in this type of piece. I feel like I have done that on the improvisation side, but am still missing something on the film side.

    My fear in the idea you mentioned would be that in trying to improvise the lighting setups etc. the majority of the action would not be well constructed images. It would sort of be a constant game of catch up, if that makes sense.

    Any other thoughts would definitely be appreciated!