What is “art”? … It’s an expression. You have something you have to say. You groan, you moan, and you say it. You paint it, you dance it, you sing it. You express it out of your own soul.
“Non-art” is where you please people. Non-art is where you have very little to say. Where you have a great aptitude for mimicry, stealing, adapting, repeating, and parodying. This is non-art, which covers most of our popular media…
Hecht, a great American writer, a journalist, screenwriter, and playwright, said these words on his short-lived and very controversial TV talk show in the late 1950s. His thoughts struck me when I recently read transcripts from that program, in no small degree because they seem as apt now as they did then.
But what does this have to do with improvisational theater and its applications?
Performance whose seemingly sole goal is pleasing the audience drives me crazy. The performers manipulate and cajole, striving to elicit a predetermined response. This seems so hollow, boring, and dishonest to me. I want to shout, “Why don’t you say what you want to say and let me respond the way I will?”
Now, I’m not saying performance must be arcane, obtuse, and inaccessible—I like art I can understand. Indeed, sometimes I suspect some artists are trying to be obscure just for the sake of being confusing or perhaps because they don’t really have anything to say but want to speak anyway.
Basically, I want to know what’s on the artist’s mind. I want the artist to respect and perhaps have sensitivity to me as an audience member but I do not want to be catered to any more than I want a friend to tell me something just because it seems I want to hear it. Being challenged can be exhilarating although I’ve appreciated great art that wasn’t necessarily challenging.
So this is why, when I’m teaching or directing, I ask students and performers to leave behind the need to be perceived as funny, clever, unique, and wonderful. If you’re pursuing your hoped-for response from people, you’re getting away from your true self. The act of expression becomes the act of trying to get attention and approval.
The artist must trust that by focusing on their message or discipline, good things will happen. The creative experience will be satisfying and honest for the creator and the audience will be genuinely affected by the work rather than simply being manipulated.
This is why we don’t bill Transactors Improv as “comedy.” We love it when people laugh and usually they do heartily and frequently. Often they laugh at things that we or our characters don’t think are funny at all. But our focus and our self-definition is improvisational theater and the audience is invited to respond in any way it wants as long as no one gets hurt.
Outside the world of art, there is a tremendous call for authentic communication. Most folks aren’t so fond of blowhards and slick salesmen. So when I teach communication and presentation skills, I tell my students that my goal is to get them to be as vividly themselves as possible.
When someone is speaking or improvising in front of me, I want to see them, who they are. Who are you? Show me. What do you have to say? Tell me. I don’t want to see people being someone else, whether it’s an actor trying to be Will Ferrell or a presenter trying to be that really successful motivational speaker they once saw.
Recently I had an improv student who would ‘mug’ whenever she did a scene or exercise. Her normally engaging demeanor would disappear behind a veil of exaggerated facial expressions and clownish voices and gestures. I encouraged her to respond in these activities as she would in real life. To her credit, she tried it and to the class’s delight, it worked! Her acting was much more interesting, real, and, yes, funny.
When I assign the term paper to my MBA students at UNC’s Business School, I advise them, “Don’t tell me what I know. I already know that. Tell me what you know or at least what you’ve experienced.” Of course there are plenty of teachers and bosses out there who want only “yes men” but it’s ultimately your choice whether or not you want to be one.
Aside from its negative effects on self-realization and self-actualization, people-pleasing is based upon the very faulty premise that you know what other people want. When it comes to the way you present yourself and your responses and ideas, there’s just no real way of knowing what people want.
I believe most of us are sensitive to authenticity, be it an improviser portraying a character, a person giving a presentation, or someone in an interview. Most of us would rather disagree with someone we believe rather than agree with someone we don’t.
As Hecht warned us, art—saying what you have to say—is difficult. But what truly worthwhile endeavor doesn’t involve challenge and risk?