Thursday, July 26, 2012

Art vs Craft

“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
Tony Beeman recently posted a list of quotes from non-improvisers that could be applied to improv. The quote above sparked a comment on a Facebook post from my friend Adina:
makes me is so important for us for the audience to constantly be reminded and appreciating that HEY, [WE] ARE MAKING THIS UP RIGHT NOW, AREN'T WE AMAZING. So my topic/question would be, is Improv a weak art form, as so much of it is about showing off our skills and being funny, vs. having something interesting to say/a message?"
And that brings me to the title of this post. I think that the argument above is analogous to the question of art versus craft.

To me, the desire for the performer to make sure the audience understands that we are indeed making this stuff up as we go is very much the performer as craftsman talking. The craftsman wants to show off his technical skills. The knitter and the blacksmith do not purl and forge to express themselves, but rather to show off his or her skills. The improviser who reassures the audience member that this is all made up, or the one who worries about the rules of the short-form game is doing the same thing: concerning themselves with the craft.

Now of course, this is not to say that knitting and blacksmithing are not artistic. Certainly art can be created using the skills of knitting and blacksmithing; there are obvious examples of both in the real world. The difference lies in that the artist who knits concerns herself not with the skill with which her knits, but rather the feeling or whatnot that she wishes to express.

The years of craftsmanship I would argue are paramount to becoming an artist who smiths or knits. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the person, that is when the art can flow without the interruptions of limitations of skill. Can the art happen without the craft? Certainly, but the quality of work from an artist with intense passion but little skill will pale before the work of one with years of craftsmanship under her belt and equal passion.

I would say the same applies to improv. The years of craftsmanship are important: doing the short-form scenes where you sweat the rules, reminding the audience that we are indeed making this up (whether by actually saying those words, or by frequently coaxing suggestions from the audience and implementing them as the show progresses), concerning yourself with the reaction the audience gives you. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the performer though, I think that is when the performer may begin to yearn for something more than the showing of craft. That's when the performer wants to say something to the audience and creates a method for himself to do just that, whether it is solo performance, creating a show that speaks to your sensibilities as an artist, or whatever other way she can think of to connect with others.

I think I am at this point in my improv career, as are many of my fellow improvisers in Seattle. We have completed our apprenticeships and are full-fledged journeymen, though perhaps not yet masters. I think that is why we strive to find ways to break games in our short-form shows, and why the tone of the scenes swing wildly from one to another. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and much more fun. My only concern is that we may be throwing those fellow improvisers who are still focusing on their craft headlong into our experimentation. Whether this is detrimental to their apprenticeships is up for debate.


  1. Interesting observations & well stated, sir. I always enjoy reading your blogs.

    As to Adina's original point I absolutely hate improv that's really trying for some kind of "message". Actually I hate that in any art form because I find it preachy. I vastly prefer the performers allowing for some vulnerability in their characters and playing the truth of the moment in scenes. I never want anyone to specifically try for "drama" in improv because usually it ends up being a giant wet blanket - an insincere attempt at sincerity. When the moments come genuinely it's much more satisfying.

    As to art vs craft. My mantra has always been: audience first, scene partners second, artistic direction third. What I mean by that is that when you are performing in front of a live audience that has paid to see you, it's important to be aware that your improv should not be masturbatory or cathartic. While it's important be aware of making the show good for the audience I believe you also have a responsibility to your fellow performers to not dick them over in order to get a laugh and to work to support them. More advanced improvisers can have fun pimping each other, play with being meta & commenting. The artistic direction of what your overall goals are as a group or the ideals regarding how a game "should" be played or how a long form "should" work are all nice to have in mind but don't always serve the scene in the moment which is why I kind of keep that on the back burner.

    This brings me to your final couple of sentences about apprenticeships. When I was still learning but far enough along that I was doing shows, I got thrown in with the big dogs. While sometimes I felt woefully behind everyone else, for the most part the "sink or swim" situation forced me to rise to the occasion. That's not to say that they left me to drown because they did support me but they also didn't treat me with kid gloves and I really appreciated that.

    I didn't mean to post a lengthy comment but did it anyway. Shocking! I'm usually so brief =).

  2. I would agree with you on the "message" point, mostly because I think authorial/artistic intent is crap. The audience gets what it gets from your art; what your intention as artist was is irrelevant.

    I took the quote to mean more about Adina's first point, the making sure the audience understands we are making this up part. I would say this plays a lot into the "getting multiple suggestions throughout the show" that I see a lot. I tend to see these suggestions as most often superfluous, sometimes detrimental, and only rarely interesting.

    For an Inside Baseball example, in Lost Folio (the improvised Shakespeare show Elicia and I are both in), at the beginning of Act 3 we ask for an animal that later a soliloquy will be based on. The entire point of this suggestion is to show our craft. We are given a hoop and expected to jump through said hoop. Is it impressive? When executed well, yes, but it never seems to serve the work as a whole. The suggestion is not used as inspiration for the improv, but rather as a neon sign flashing the message "SEE? WE DID THE THING YOU SAID! WE COULDN'T HAVE PLANNED THAT!"

    That's more what I think of when I read the quote: the improv that is concerned with showing off its craft (executing challenges) rather than its art (the relationships and characters) is the "poor and melancholy" one

    1. I agree with you completely. I am not a fan of getting suggestions just for the sake of doing it. It can be a fun moment for the audience & sometimes a fun challenge for the performer but often it becomes a matter of being determined to shoe-horn something in that's not needed and doesn't serve the story.

    2. The audience gets what it gets from your art; what your intention as artist was is irrelevant.

      I feel like it's the other way around. As an artist I have a point of view or an idea I am trying to express through my painting or my novel or my stand up routine. It's true that I can't control what the audience sees or gets out of it but that doesn't make my intention irrelevant. It seems that makes my intention even more important. The way I choose to express it is something else. Should I sacrifice the scene and my scene partners in order to get my message across? Probably not.

      I like that improv is creating art on the spot - process and product simultaneously. And it's in front of an audience that is helping to create right along with you. If you have moments of clarity and epiphany and catharsis that is awesome. If you're goal is it to work through issues in front of an audience and kill scenes that don't help you solve those issues then maybe that's not so good.

    3. I should clarify: in my opinion, the intention of the artist is irrelevant to the consumer of the art. I agree that having intention is (or at the very least can be) important for the creation of the art. My point with artistic intention is that if you create something with the intention of pointing out the inherent folly of racism, and I consume that art and am struck by the fact that I should respect my elders, then guess what: to me, that's what your art is about. Your intention is irrelevant. Was your art enhanced because you had an intention when you made it? Probably.

      Perhaps it would be more informative to say it is more important THAT you have intention than WHAT that intention was.

  3. Great stuff Ian - now follows my (long-winded) two cents!
    Over the past twenty years my perception of the audience suggestion has changed. I no longer see it as “proof” we are making it up – I see it as the audience’s opportunity to be a collaborator in the art. That is the great fun of improv – the audience as participant – as a partner in the creation.
    “There are two men inside the poet, the artist, and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.” Emile Zola
    For me this means one is inspired to create art and an artist must work to hone the skills needed to create. When Albert Hague visited my undergraduate school told me that when he came to America he did not speak any English, so he practiced piano eight hours a day. That is being a craftsman. Moreover, for the musician, actor or improviser- this work must remain invisible to the audience during the performance.
    The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others"
    The skill of the metal smith can be admired as he creates – it does not detract from the final product. The actor or improviser’s craft must never be apparent in the final product – the performance.
    The improvisers craftsmanship endeavors to master a way of creating an experience - call it technique, method or whatever - that is invisible on stage.
    Is Short Form is lesser form of improv (or art) because the rules of the form reveal the craftsmanship of the actor? We should take care not to confuse the actor’s technique or method with a style of improv that has a visible framework or parameter. If an audience sees a great ABC scene , does that reveal to the audience the work the actors did to get to this point? Yes, the performers may have practiced the scene as a musician practices scales to prepare for performance. However, I see the framework of Short Form as metered poetry – it is an empty vessel to be filled.
    For me the bigger issue is what is inside the framework of the ABC scene. Are the actors fully committed to their character, with an emotional core that is believable and a connection to their scene partner that is strong? The performers work to get to this level of believability is the craftsmanship – and that is what should be unseen. (Commenting on the scene, pointless exaggeration, puns , etc – this draws the audience out of the scene to admire “skill”)
    Short form is simply another shade of improv performance. From classic Greek drama (another restrictive form!) to Commedia – theater has its styles, shapes and shades –
    Short form improv, with its “rules” and scene parameters is often called restrictive by improvisers that feel that they have outgrown the form or feel the scenes are limiting their creativeness in some way. A similar argument could be applied to Shakespeare’s metered writing - all those rules and restrictions…
    Is metered poetry a restriction to creativity? If so everyone one would write free verse but those just starting to write poetry.
    The honing of your craft never ends. Improvisers, being human - crave unique experiences and just plain get bored with shit. We all should continue to create, explore, innovate and push the boundaries of improv - not at the expense of an established show or other improvisers that are still exploring the show or level they are in.

  4. Coming from the perspective of a pretty craft-heavy show (Twisted Flicks), for the most part I feel like giving the audience a peek behind the curtain breaks the illusion we're trying to create. We strive for a fully immersive experience, and cracks in that facade end up weakening the experience.
    As a performer, however, I admit to no end of joy in the occasional inside joke, or getting my fellow cast-members to break (and vice versa). Does this weaken the experience for the audience? I imagine so, but I think it also infuses the cast with a feeling of competitive cameraderie and good comedy mojo, which ultimately transfers to the audience.
    So in the ideal, we'd be able to push each other "behind the curtain" in a way that the audience never consciously picks up on. In reality, I think a bit of illusion-breaking is worth the energy it adds to the cast (and from there the audience). If you're not enjoying the show yourself, why should you expect the audience to enjoy it?

  5. The "Unknown" comment above was me - It wasn't linked to my account - My apologies!