When The Dark Knight Rises came out, an improv classmate mentioned having heard that Christian Bale’s costume was so elaborate he had to be sealed into it at the beginning of each filming day, necessitating a catheter until the costume was removed. “That’s why I’m sticking with improv,” another classmate observed. “I’m Batman because I say I am.”
I was reminded of this exchange the other evening, when a friend and I amused ourselves while waiting for a performance to begin by compiling a list of reasons we prefer improv to “legitimate” theater:
• No lines to learn (and no frustration with fellow actors who haven’t learned theirs)
• No props to keep track of
• No uncomfortable costumes
• No blocking
• You get to determine a great deal of your character’s makeup and to influence the story line
• “Legitimate” actors work hard to make each performance appear to be happening for the very first time. In improv, it really IS happening for the very first time.
What’s funny about this is that these are the exact reasons why I avoided improv for so many years. I felt fairly safe inhabiting a character someone else had written, camouflaged with makeup, costume and props, and guided by a director who choreographed my every move. There is a lot of room for creativity within those restrictions, but for me, they were also a way of hiding, of diffusing responsibility for artistic choices. I could grumble about second-rate writing or inept directing, without having to take these risks myself.
I enrolled in my first improv class because I though it would help me be more flexible and spontaneous onstage. I did not expect to enjoy it; I thought I would hate having to field suggestions and create scenes from scratch. I have never been someone who enjoys surprises or who goes into tests or performances unprepared. I am not, or was not, a “winger.”
And when someone told me there was such a thing as musical improv, I almost passed out. Singing was terrifying enough; the idea of having to create and perform a song—much less an entire musical—on the spot was almost too much to bear.
Yet, a measly three years later, here I am, not only loving it all but co-creating bullet lists about why it is better than what I had once hoped to spend my life doing.
I have discovered that I have whatever is needed inside me, and the more practice I get, the more readily accessible this material is. I have also experienced excruciating, public failure, and lived to laugh about it. I am a better, happier and more spontaneous person in my personal life, as well.
I would not have pursued this course of study unless I felt that I had to, in order to get somewhere else I no longer wish to go. Which is why, when college students gripe about core curricula, I think, and sometimes say, “You believe you know exactly what you want to do, and you may be right. But why not try something new as well?” Because you never know—it could change everything.