Vulnerability in Improv

If you’re entirely present in an improv scene, you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable.

It is strange, then, that vulnerability is treated more like a tool in the improviser tool belt than as an essential component of the art form. Many comedians would argue that nothing should come above humour in improv. This assumption in itself is controversial, but I would like to defuse some of the misconceptions I perceive to exist surrounding the idea of vulnerability.

I imagine that when many improvisers think of vulnerability, their immediate mental picture is one of hokey “dramatic” scene work: two stationary improvisers using slow and quiet speech to craft a pseudo-emotional exchange. We’ve all patiently watched a pause-driven divorce scene or a quavering monologue about loneliness. These caricatures do no justice to the concept of vulnerability on stage.

Perhaps a clearer synonym for vulnerable is defenceless. Being vulnerable means that you put no guards up—that you force yourself open to whatever happens on stage. It is at the root of spontaneity. I presume that all improvisers come into a scene with at least some preconceived notions about the characters they can play, the story they might tell, or the styles of humour on which they can rely. Vulnerability is about resisting those impulses, and letting oneself absorb what his or her scene partner is offering. It is as much a part of ridiculous comedy as of drama.

Audiences and improvisers alike have expectations of how an improv show is supposed to feel. Scenes typically end on a laugh or a dramatic beat. When games are stumbled upon, their absurdity should escalate in a roughly linear fashion. These are useful guidelines, but to take them as rules is to close oneself off to vulnerable discovery on stage. The possibility, even necessity, of such discovery is one of improv’s unique strengths.

I’ll illustrate my point with an example. Suppose two characters, former secondary school classmates, are comparing their lives a decade later at a reunion. One is wildly successful, the other destitute. The usual game goes like this: richy rich boasts about her increasingly extravagant privileges while sad sack bemoans his many struggles. The game involves the one-upping of opposites. But for this game to get laughs, no listening is required from either performer—at least not on an emotional level. Played in the usual way, all it showcases is wit. These two improvisers are able to come up with increasingly disparate and absurd examples, ramping up the hilarity with every new,  outrageous contrast. Maybe they can each muster three or so examples before the game begins to lose steam. At that point, improv instincts kick in and the story is forwarded in some way. A change is needed. Perhaps richy rich has a sudden pang of sympathy, or sad sack pleads for assistance. Such decisions, in my experience of this type of game, feel artificial. They do not emerge from the interaction that has preceded them, but from some external knowledge of how plot should develop. The audience and the performers accept the shift, as is the convention, but it often needs to be awkwardly explained. “Wow, your life really IS hard. Why don’t I let you have a job at my company?”

Vulnerability can allow the game to grow naturally. Suppose, partway through the exchange of opposites, sad sack mentions an experience that is genuinely affecting. It gets a laugh, but something almost indiscernible about the language, or the tenor of its delivery, reaches the audience on an emotional level. The non-vulnerable scene partner misses this subtle burst of emotional energy, dutifully continuing the game as planned, and the ignored moment is never topped. The vulnerable improviser, on the other hand, is susceptible to the momentary shift. By being emotionally available, richy rich has the option to disrupt the game, or even radically change their character’s behaviour, without needing to give the audience any explanation. Even if the audience doesn’t expect a shift, they witnessed sad sack’s comment just like richy rich did. An unpredictable moment justifies an unexpected shift, a shift that may transform a game with diminishing returns into something larger. This kind of forwarding is internal to the scene, unlike the example above.

I hope that this argument is not starting to pretentiously point towards some kind of emotional realism in improv. That is not what I mean to say. Instead, I am arguing that improvisers should strive to let go of some of their comedy defense mechanisms and allow themselves to learn in the moment from their scene partners. Safe, predictable comedic scenarios have a lot of power, but too many of them can eat away at the core of an improv performance. By allowing one’s stolid wit and wisdom to be pierced by the unstable behaviour of one’s scene partner, a jet-pack wearing explorer falling in love with a talking crow may just become a thing of beauty.

by Thomas Toles