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The Power of Planlessness

Arts & Culture | May 7, 2015

“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” ~Jean Houston

In improv comedy, something magical always happens on stage: we discover. The best part about improv, in fact, is that you never actually know what is going to happen. You could flop, or you could make everyone in the audience pee their pants laughing; you just have to trust yourself, and your fellow improvisers. Improv is about making it up as you go along, which makes discovering truths about the world inevitable.

The corollary to discovery is that anything can happen. Improvisers are encouraged to follow their instincts, and not to think at all upon stepping on the stage. In fact, one of the earliest writers on modern improv, Keith Johnstone, details inexhaustibly the importance of ignoring your filters when improvising. It should be like going back to a state of mental childhood, he says, when we didn’t know that S-H-I-T was a bad word and that picking your nose in public was socially unacceptable. I’ll admit, I have yet to pick my nose on stage, but in a sense, nothing is off limits in improv.

Now, improvisers aren’t performing to purposefully make anyone feel uncomfortable; we are just there to make them laugh! But even though people are laughing, improv can be about so much more. It can be a used as a tool for understanding and inciting change. Improv has taught me so much about social justice, and the two—social justice work and improv comedy—reflect so many of the same principles.

For example, the first “rule” of improv is affectionately known as “yes, and.” Yes and-ing simply means listening to your scene partner, accepting what they offer as the first building block of the reality of the scene and rolling with it. You don’t need to necessarily like what they say, but you must appreciate their viewpoint enough to make it a fact of life in that scene.

I see this same principle as a tenet of creating inclusive spaces where we listen and do not discount the experiences of others, and use it to build our own conception of the reality of a situation. Improv is also all about teamwork and supporting your fellow troupe members on stage. If they begin to flounder, and the audience isn’t responding well, you save them. Ideally, isn’t social justice work also about supporting each other so we can all benefit equitably?

This is where another magical part of improv comes in—I’ll call it ‘changeability.’ Changeability is, essentially, being masters of our own fates on stage. We have the ability to totally turn a scene in another direction. If we create an unsavory character who we all collectively hate (and you can always tell when an audience hates a character), we as improvisers can break him down, ruin his plans for world domination, and poke fun at his foolishly evil ways.

For example, in a recent show at Tufts, my troupe-mates Peter, Marcus, and Michele were in a scene. Peter and Marcus began the scene with some sketchy business dealings. Michele popped up behind Marcus, as a cute little girl, saying something like “Dad, I’m bored.” It was quickly established that Marcus had brought his daughter, Michele, to bring-your-child-to-work day. Peter’s character, the hard-ass mob boss, was not going to have some little girl insulting him, claiming, “We don’t need no stinkin’ dames in this place of business!”

A reality was beginning to form, maybe one all too familiar, in which women were not respected. Maybe we could feel that the audience didn’t want to watch such a scene, and we weren’t satisfied with the status of this character anyway, so we decided to make him look ridiculous. We blew up his misogyny to epic proportions. We filled the scene with phallic imagery—a delivery guy brought in a 6-foot sub sandwich and cucumbers—and Peter made his own character worse and worse, and more and more obtusely paternalistic and mean. With all of the absurdness we had discovered surrounding Peter’s character, the initial power the mob boss had was gone. He was made to be a hilarious idiot. Michele’s character could then fight back, and the scene ended as she stood up to Peter, breaking into an awesome rap complete with badass feminist rhymes.

This type of scene happens a lot in improv. We call it a “status shift”: one person begins high status and the other begins low status (like a master and a servant or a parent and a child). By the end of the scene, something has occurred so that the two characters have switched; The servant wins money, buys his freedom, and hires the old master as a servant, since the master has tragically lost her wealth from a gambling addiction. One of the oldest tricks in improv, and comedy in general, status shifting is reflective of this inherent changeability. People often laugh when this happens in scenes, so improvisers tend to do it a lot.

Laughter is exactly what makes improv a powerful tool. Somehow, we find it funny when we change the course of a scene while maintaining the reality of that scene. Why might this be? Slate’s Humor Code series, states that “the majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens.”

I would add that something becomes funny when structures we expect to be rigid are broken down in ways we wouldn’t expect. So if comedy can be used to show us that “the man” can be displaced by slipping on a banana peel, on a larger scale, it can also be used to show us that oppressive systems are breakable if we choose to look at them in a comedic light.

Improv is perfect for doing this exactly because of the power of changeability and discovery. Unlike scripted forms, we can always change the fate of a scene. Thus, improv comedy and laughter become tools through which we can understand power, and discover our own power to change the things we don’t like and can’t live with. So, if we are up against a misogynistic mob boss, we can disempower him, and we can have a hell of a lot of fun doing so.

Through this, improv becomes a tool which we can use to think about social justice work. We can think of improv comedy as live change-making. Improv serves as an artistic reminder, to both actors and audience members, that rigid structures are fallible and often times just plain stupid.

It reminds us that we should not be defeatist about this fact—we can change it! We can get on stage and be honest, lose our filter, and do or say something that not only fights the bad guys, but also disrupts the ideologies that they stand on—like the sexist mobster character. And the most magical part about discovering that we can change things is that we can do it with laughter.

Rachel is the on-campus producer for the Tufts University Cheap Sox.

Photo from YouTube.