The Difficulty of Reviewing Improv

There was a piece in the Star Tribune that’s making its way around about how the Twin Cities theater scene does a bad job of self-critique. It got me musing about the difficulties of critiquing improv, for the audiences, journalists, and performers alike. These are incomplete and scattered thoughts but here goes:

More than once it’s happened that the first improv show an audience member has ever seen turns out to be bad, and from that experience they drew the conclusion “Improv sucks!” They never want to see another improv show again. The criticism extends beyond the company they saw to the entire discipline.

Years ago there was a website called improvreview.com, which has since been taken over by Japanese hacker spam. There were two problems. First, the reviewers wrote with an authoritative tone, as if their opinion were more than just an opinion. Second, improv is built on positivity, so a grumpy Andy-Rooney style clashes badly with the subject of the critique.

Mainstream reviewers have some major obstacles. They feel like they can’t review improv because it’s different every time. There’s also no budget for it – to cover improv, a newspaper would have to take away coverage from a scripted theater because they don’t have space for both. Reviewers also do not have the vocabulary and don’t know how to diagnose what makes improv good or bad. For example, they’ll say, “You couldn’t tell it was improvised!” as a negative critique or they’ll get upset if only one suggestion was taken and used in an indirect way. They’ll compare it to “Whose Line Is It Anyway” regardless of whether it in any way resembles it.

We wrote a nice piece about how to look at improv for the Fringe Festival last year, I think it helps some.

It’s hard for insiders to review improv because we don’t want to break each other’s spirits. Improv feels so personal. It’s you up there onstage, and the words and actions aren’t the fault of a director or playwright, that’s you too. Over the years I’ve gotten better at giving students the honest critiques they crave, finding ways to phrase them that are clear and make sense without hurting. Oddly, the students who beg me to give them a harsh critique are the first to pout and check out when it’s given. And so I proceed gently and thoughtfully and directly, and try to create a culture where it is damn clear we’re talking about the work and not the person. It’s still difficult terrain.

These are the challenges. I lay them before you.

– Jill Bernard