Six of the best minds in improv gathered at a rare symposium last month for some straight talk—sort of—about the past, present and future of the increasingly popular art form. The discussion was part of the first NYC Improv Fest, a four-day marathon hosted by the Peoples Improv Theater, featuring approximately 75 performances and workshops, nearly 400 performers from across the country and a number of celebrity drop-ins.
The speakers agreed that New York is currently experiencing a “golden age” of musical improv. According to PIT instructor Ashley Ward, who performs in musical improv group Baby Wants Candy, that form is changing too. It’s no longer a “spoof on Broadway musicals,” she said. Now the genre tackles more realistic scenarios—just with song.
PIT Director of Classes Chris Aurilio led the lively one-hour talk and Q&A among veteran “big three” New York improv theater performers and teachers: Megan Gray, Scott Eckert, Ashley Ward, Peter McNerney, Jodi Lennon, and Ari Voukydis, accompanied by his dog Walter. Together, their experiences span borders, styles and decades. Though the Saturday afternoon symposium filled most of the front seats of the PIT’s basement theater, turnout was nowhere near that of the weekend’s often sold-out performances. That said, much of those audiences was made up of improvers themselves—and that’s fine with the speakers.
“Outside influence is necessary,” Voukydis said as he petted his seemingly sentient terrier. “When someone comes in from out of town, reschedule what you’re doing and take that class,” he said. “When people start to suck is when they think they get it.”
The speakers traced New York improv from its skeevy beginnings in sometimes hardly converted strip clubs to its current mainstream renaissance, in which Magnet, Upright Citizens Brigade and The PIT function as educational and performance institutions that frequently inform network television comedies. According to Magnet Artistic Director Megan Gray, improv’s community ethos and accessibility have created momentum for the art form. “More regular people are doing it,” Gray said beneath her signature torrent of curly brown hair. “Everyone knows someone who’s done it.” That popularity means the speakers no longer have to explain long-form improv in terms of short-form TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” a reference that has become moot as a new generation of improv artists grows up without it.
Now, as ever, improv is a genre inherently in flux. According to former Magnet Artistic Director McNerney, who paraphrased his old teacher, “There’s no correct way to do improv because you’re getting up on stage and making everything up.”
The art form changes with time, technology and type. Voukydis compared different improv styles to different styles of kung fu—all effective, just involving different methods. These days improv is moving away from old staples like tag-outs, cut-tos and even the once-ubiquitous audience suggestions.
But as always, performers are urged to “play” and “follow the fear,” a slogan that’s painted inside the stage. The panel spoke of complacency as antithetical to progress and urged performers to continually do what’s uncomfortable. For example: killing off the characters from the start or immediately failing in an important mission. As Voukydis put it, “Sometimes you have to blow up a children’s hospital.”