Celebrating Impermanence: On Improvised Theatre

“We’re going to fuck around on stage for you.”

Thus spoke Susan Messing, before launching into a tenderly woven tapestry of scenes with her that-night stage partner Tara DeFrancisco. Their work blended themes on gender politics, rape culture, male repression, ageism, and personal boundaries while deftly connecting scenes to scenes in a stage dance that addressed the audience directly and folded in the spectator with their visible enjoyment.

And it occurred to me midway through the work, as my mind was undergoing ritualistic sacrifice, that Messing was, indeed, just fucking around. This is her version of fucking around.

This brought to mind ideas of mastery, of what it’s like to own an artform so fully that one can’t help but be compelled to express in a fluidly transcendent manner.

A hallmark of improvisation is its impermanence. Like shuffling a deck of cards, no work is the same as any previous. The improvisor churns out pieces with unprecedented productivity, a mode of operation lacking any intent in holding onto what happened last.

Having attended classes at iO Chicago for just two weeks, one cannot help but be imbued with this culture of impermanence already. Geniuses, working tirelessly at the form in a manner unmirrored in places across the world, speak to novices such as I with an alien willingness, as though we are equals.

The real mind fuck being that, in a world such as this, we in a strange way are equals. It seems as though something about the philosophy of improvisation, the essence of it, allows for an open-armedness that requires acclimation for an introvert gremlin such as myself. Liz Allen grants me the time of day like Devil’s Daughter sits me down for dinner like Dave Pasquesi’s presence in the same room doesn’t ignite some spontaneous combustion.

Writing on the work varies most in seriousness, with gurus such as Del Close, Charna Halpern, Matt Besser, Mick Napier, and TJ Jagadowski expressing with differing tenor on whether the improviser is the ultimate artist or a goof having a good time.

“You payed 300 dollars to make shit up for a few hours a week,” a local friend reminds me. “Have fun and don’t be too serious.”

“If this isn’t a source of joy for you, don’t waste your time. I fucking hate my day job and I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t give me happiness,” advises a ten-year veteran.

Seeing TJ and Dave live, a towering act of creation that begs analysis and deep thought wrapped in a casing of Seinfeldian wit, ends with a beta announcement that “We do this every week, come back if you want to see something like it.”

“Come back if you want to see something like it.” Oh, you mean that spontaneous performance of earth-shattering skill?

Throw it away. Throw it away.

We’re fucking around.

As a student of Film, I cannot help but compare these attitudes to those of the masters I’ve spent years studying. Bergman fell into deep depression between productions, never able to sustain a healthy human relationship. Tati bankrupted himself to create his magnum opus, a work of tireless choreography and unparalleled construction. Kubrick placed the value of his work above the safety and comfort of his collaborators, spending two years of his life filming his last work at a snail’s pace.

TJ and Dave? “Come back if you’d like to see something like this.” And they leave.

We’re just fucking around.

Sergei Eisenstein believed his work could overthrow governments and unlock the revolutionary potential in the lower classes. Hans Richter proclaimed that film could uniquely unlock hidden rhythmic biology within the human, and reacquaint us with some ancient emotional truth.

In a medium as young as improvisation, TJ and Dave are not off-base analogs. 

Throw it away. We’re fucking around.

One wonders whether this attitude is a product of the work itself, whether it is a quality inherent in improvisation that lends itself to this type of wholly unpretentious presentation.

Then one strolls into the massive white walls of mall-Second City, plastered with giant murals of the Gods they worship like Akroyd and Murray and Ramis, amid a crowd of working blue-collars and shiny young yuppies, and one can’t help but take note.

“Each show is different,” an instructor warns. “TJ and Dave exist on one side of a wide spectrum.”

One then remembers the strange classism involved in feeling pleasure, the constant note that at iO you don’t have to be funny, the Second City mechanics behind explaining exactly what’s happening on stage to avoid any potential confusion, and thoughts get muddled. 

One wonders where the pretension truly lies, in the obscure brilliance of a theater trained duo or in the reliable enjoyment of the clear and concise short form game.

Throw it away. Throw it away.

We’re just fucking around.

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