Impro(v) in Australia

Ernest Hemingway on giving up betting on horse races: “By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.”

Being in Australia for five weeks means I am missing out on performing improv and stand-up in Missouri, which I normally do at least two to five times a week, depending on the week. But I’m lucky, because my friend Scott has been doing improv in Australia since arriving half a year ago, and arranged for me to do an improv show with he and some of the best improvisers in Australia. And I’m being “totes for realzies” when I say that. Several of the players are national champion improvisers, highly ranked Australian-wide or worldwide in various competitions. I didn’t learn this until after the show ended, and I’m glad I didn’t know it before, or I would have behaved meekly and felt intimidated, like an unworthy invader of their cast.

It is always interesting to perform improv with players you don’t know very well—there’s usually some question of trust, you are trying to discover each other’s rhythm and sense of humor, as well as cohesively build a reality together. I think it’s pretty easy to tell when watching a scene whether or not the players know each other well off stage. Everyone I met in the cast of IS GAME! (that’s the name of the show) was incredibly kind to me and accepting of me. We did some fun warm-ups I had never done before in the States, and I just tried to stay out of my own head, and let characters, dialogue, puns, actions, and/or points of view flow out of me like I was rehearsing with my friends back home.

I was speaking with another improviser for a while, and when our conversation ended, a friend who had overheard us talking filled me in on something: I was doing small talk all wrong. In America the first question you typically ask someone you don’t know is, “What do you do?” That’s not normal here, I was told—people don’t want to be defined by what they do (and why would someone, really?). There’s more to them than that, plus it might be too personal. It’s better to ask them how they’re doing (“How are you going?” in Australian speak), or what they’re up to. The here and now is more important. It’s a subtle difference, but I guess it comes off as friendlier, more acceptable. It’s the difference between asking, “What’re you drinking?” (good) when you see someone with a drink, and asking, “What do you like to drink?” (not as good)

I had been talking with a fellow improviser about our improv backgrounds. My friend informed me that while I was polite, receptive, and engaged in the conversation, it is quite possible I came off as a self-obsessed, competitive, stereotypical American chump. It depends on the person, but to some people, discussing experience, credentials, or work could be a way of trying to prove yourself as above them—like you’re trying to “win” the conversation. This was terrifying to me. In America so many of us just learn to talk about ourselves—I’M DOING IT RIGHT NOW IN THIS BLOG! AHHH!

Luckily, there isn’t “winning” in an improv scene. When done well, it is a group creation, and real people lose who they are to create someone else with someone else and discover a world that is grounded in realism, forcing the audience to draw connections, which hopefully produces laughs. The show was about to start and I was excited to lose myself for a bit.

Going back to the Hemingway quote, I don’t think that Australian improv is better improv, necessarily. So it didn’t completely fill the gap that Chicago-based improv back home left, but it did provide me with a new perspective about improvisation. Australian improv (or “impro” as they tend to call it) is more about narrative, about building a plot, which may not necessarily be grounded in reality. Based on what I saw, the fantastic and exciting tends to be chosen over the dry and realistic. This isn’t wrong by any means, it was just different to me. I certainly prefer to play a character with a strong point of view, one that reveals how funny the truth can be.

The show was hilarious, though. The host is a vaguely Italian character who speaks in all gibberish, and I don’t know if that sounds dumb, but it was impressive and super entertaining. He calls up players at random and they can either get their inspiration for the scene from a spinning bike wheel covered in prompts, or from pulling random items out of a bag. Benny Davis, the fantastic piano player from the Axis of Awesome, an Australian musical comedy group, played piano throughout our scenes. (If you haven’t seen their “four chords” medley, you need to.) The second half was long-form, with players being inspired by a discussion of an idiom, which someone in the audience shouted out. The second half was much stronger than the first—the cast was pretty large and I think the players had a hard time establishing a rhythm, which tends to happen when a lot of people are sharing the stage.

I had a great time playing and watching the show. My insecurities about being the new guy never left me, but being a part of a good show, one that can only be good if the group functions like there are no “new guys” or “old guys” or “hilarious guys” or “lame guys,” helped me to ignore them. I am thankful I could perform improv in Australia, and with so many world-class players, and hopefully they saw me as just another guy trying to create laughter in a group, and not as a big-headed American trying to steal spotlight.

Tomorrow morning Scott and I leave for our road trip up the Austrian coast. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to get online, but I’ll be writing on the drive.

“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.” Hemingway

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4 thoughts on “Impro(v) in Australia

  1. Don’t be a self-hatin’ American. If language barriers create distortion of perception, then so be it. You are not pompous, if you come across that way it is possible your audience brings that stereotype with them. If they associate Americans with trashy t.v. peeps then shame on them. We (Americans) are different, if we weren’t then we would just be the same with bad accents. “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

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