This is Part 1 of a series documenting and analyzing the steps to producing an original improvised comedy show.
Start with the target audience, then build your show; otherwise, be prepared for an uphill battle.
Sometimes you’re inspired by a thought, a scene, or maybe it was a dream about a bunny with a stethoscope. Whatever the idea, you thought to yourself, “That would be a really fun show.” Now ask yourself one question first and foremost, “for whom?” If you had to think about it or you answered yourself, then you need to step back for a moment.
Think of improvised theater as “Theater, improvised.” Pop quiz: Which show are audiences more likely to attend: Hamilton or Anton in Show Business? Both are great shows, but you’ve probably never heard of the latter (and it definitely is less likely to draw ticket buyers). Here are a few ways to source a theme for your show:
- Current Events
- Reality TV
Consider a show I’m currently a part of: Isn’t it Too Dreamy, a Twin Peaks parody and homage. Twin Peaks and its creator David Lynch has a cult following, and with a new season releasing 25 years after the show went off the air, there is a dedicated and specific audience to target for the show. That doesn’t mean marketing is easy (how do you find them?), but it does mean it is easier.
I may never be qualified enough to tell what would make a good show structure, but once you have an audience and a theme, it’s time to get a general idea of what, if any, structure your show will have. For instance, if your source material is another work of fiction, your show will most likely work best with a 3 or 5 act structure. Some established forms, such as the Harold, lend well to this structure. Remember, the first thought is understanding what the audience would expect, then using that as a starting point. Remember, you can still surprise them.
For my show Three Minute Fiction, the theme is basing an entire night on a well-known fiction book, drawing on an audience of book lovers and specifically those who enjoy the world or setting for a particular book. Secondly, the structure flips an improvisers biggest tool, a hard sweep, by delivering it into the hands of the audience. Every three minutes, a timer (i.e. structure) goes off and the audience’s applause will determine whether the scene they see on stage continues or whether it should change (i.e. sweep). Most importantly, each new scene is started with a line from the book itself, provided by the audience before the show (and supplemented by me, the producer, to ensure there are enough). Including audience participation before and during the show can dramatically improve their engagement and investment in the show. How excited would you be when a scene starts with your favorite line from a book you love?
Originally, the timer would require the audience to provide a negative reinforcement (buzzer sound) to change the scene, but this was altered for one key reason:
Don’t encourage your audience to be negative or feel uncomfortable with your request.
Also, it takes them out of the show/moment they are in by having to remember what they need to do. By simplifying it to applause (positive action) and nothing (inaction), it doesn’t burden the audience with instructions beyond what comes naturally: applause.
That’s enough for now. In part 2 we’ll talk about the audition process.
Featured Image: Lost in Thought by Marina del Castell (CC-A)