Pardon My French
“You, the improviser, can ignore plot. Your audience is programmed to supply one, so you don’t have to.” — The Tao of Improv
I once watched an improv troupe from Paris do a longform show. In Chicago. In English.
Their English was pretty darned good. They were energetic and clearly knew how to perform improv scenes. I enjoyed the show, and was kind of amazed that they could do as well as they did in what was clearly a second language.
If you remove the degree of difficulty from the equation, the performance was less impressive. You could see the wheels and gears turning in the heads of the performers as they tried to translate their thoughts into English, tried to adapt their style to what they thought American audiences expected, and tried to adopt an American sense of what is funny. They tried to do clever wordplay. They tried to hit topics that were familiar to Americans.
Full marks for the effort and for the result. But they weren’t being themselves. They were not reacting to one another’s characters in an emotionally honest, unfiltered way. That’s only to be expected.
The next night, I saw another performance by the same troupe. This time, they performed in French. It was much, much, much better.
The interesting thing is, I don’t speak or understand French.
The performance in their native language (one which is Greek to me) was far superior. And despite the language barrier, I was more captivated by what was going on than I was the previous night. Their emotions were real. Their relationships and situations were honest. And if there were a few puns that sailed over my head, it was a small price to pay.
I knew what was going on most of the time. The rest of the time, I interpolated. Which meant I was intellectually and emotionally involved. And that was rewarding on numerous levels.
A good audience will always interpret what it sees. You don’t need to worry about conveying plot information. You don’t need to connect the dots for the viewers. Just throw down some dots. Both you and the audience will soon perceive a pattern in them. That will cause you to throw down more dots. The pattern will become clearer.
If you’ve done your job well enough, the audience will spend a happy hour or so joyfully drawing lines between the dots, making pictures. That’s their job. Not yours.
Your job is to speak the language of emotion. The language of physicality. The language of interpersonal communication between you and your scene partners.
Your job is to speak the language of improv.