In the seventies pop music made a huge artistic leap. Instrumentalists no longer had to shy away from comparison with their classical colleagues. The masses looked up enthusiastically to the masters like Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd and so on. But with that, rock’n’roll had lost its grassroots commitment. Suddenly a couple of kids took some cheap electric guitars: “We can’t play, you say? We do. Almost three chords. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!”
We as improvisers can draw a lot from the nonchalant approach of punk rock. We know that failure is always an option in our game. But we will not be deterred. And just as the Ramones, in the face of their many fans, shrugged off some critics who accused them of musical simplicity, we also know that improv theater can develop and has developed its own aesthetic. This aesthetic may sometimes overlap with that of conventional theater, cinema, poetry slam, modern dance theater or sketch comedy. But it can also go completely new ways. As an improv activist you don’t have to be misled, if you are criticized for not meeting some external criteria, as long as you yourself enjoy the cause and can inspire an audience.
Punk rock is largely based on the attitude “We can’t do it, but we’ll do it anyway.” Squinting for the great masters can blind us to the creativity that unfolds here and now. Playing improv has always its limits. You may be a good actor and singer, but then you may have your weaknesses in storytelling or dancing. Hardly anyone succeeds in producing lines of such dramatic and lyrical density as Shakespeare, Goethe or Tarantino live on stage for only three minutes. And the few who are capable of doing so have their weaknesses in other areas. But what we do have is the creative power to let our improvisation flow in order to create magical moments that connect us with the audience.
Because of its proximity to failure, improvisational theater is therefore very close to the amateur theater in many places in the world. The boundaries between learners and teachers, between actors and potentially on-stage audience blur sometimes so far that the only remaining perceptible difference is left: “The guys up there are doing something I might be able to do as well, but they are actually doing it.”