Improv for audiences 101

How to be part of the fun at 2013 Calgary Improv Festival

Don’t worry — going to an improv show isn’t the same as being in an improv show. All the same you just might end up onstage. If not even rooted to your seat you’re still an integral part of the show and not just in a ticket-revenue-keeps-the-festival-afloat kind of way.

“The audience is everything… they are our bosses” says Rick Hilton artistic director of the Calgary Improv Festival.

The festival now stretches over two full weekends with local troupes as well as performers from Vancouver Toronto (that city’s Colin Mochrie is a regular) Chicago Florida and Melbourne Australia.

Here are a few tips on how to play your part as an audience member at an improv show:

1. Don’t panic. “You’re not going to be made fun of or ridiculed; that’s what we do to ourselves” says Hilton. “Come in with an open mind a calm demeanour and be prepared to engage in a realistic and positive way with the performers onstage.”

2. Be yourself. Improvisers will often ask for suggestions from the audience (a room in the house a profession a favourite love song) and while you might think you should come up with something wacky Hilton actually advises that you stick to ideas that resonate with what you experience in your everyday life. “We want to take everybody’s lives and make them extraordinary” he says. “Give us realistic things that you actually do: what is your actual job where did you actually go on a vacation when did you get arrested — that sort of stuff.”

3. Don’t heckle. It won’t work and you’ll become part of the show. Hilton says that untrained audiences sometimes confuse improv with standup comedy which actually has a script to follow. “An audience will sometimes in their misbehaving try to throw off the standup be mean to them as it were. The problem is with improvisation when they try to do that we engage them directly” he says. After all that’s part of what’s fun about improvisation: it obliterates the fourth wall and the audience is personally engaged and invested in the show just as much as the performers.

4. If you do end up onstage be prepared to squint. The lights are surprisingly bright once you get up there. (A prerequisite piece of advice might be to choose your friends wisely before coming to the show lest they volunteer you for the stage). But recall Tip No. 1 and don’t panic: The improvisers understand and anticipate the deer-in-the-stage lights reaction. Audience members onstage “become immediately vulnerable” says Hilton “which is why our improvisers take them under our wing to make sure they know that they’re safe that’s it’s our job to protect them.”

5. Share your ideas! “This art form of improv is an organic art form it’s evolving really under our feet” says Hilton. “Before our very eyes we’re seeing new structures and formats and styles evolving every year and this festival in particular is going to highlight some of the differences in the evolution in improv over the last 20 years.” Some examples include the Shakespeare/improv hybrid you’ll see in Improvised Hamlet the Women in Improv showcase Anesthesia’s Antique Road Show and Vancouver Theatresports. Where do you come in? Ideas for these new forms come from anywhere and anyone and Hilton says that the audience is “oftentimes where these ideas percolate from.”

Improv is a necessarily unique experience every time you take your seat and unlike many other art forms you have your own role to play in shaping where the stories go. “We deputize our audience so it’s not an antagonistic relationship we have” says Hilton. “We’re not above our audience and we’re kind and gentle and that becomes apparent very quickly in the work.”

The Calgary Improv Festival runs until September 29 at various venues.