I have just returned from two weeks at the Edinburgh festival, playing keyboards for Music Box. We do full improvised muscals based on audience suggestions. Now I know that improvised musicals have been around for years with the likes of Baby Wants Candy and Showstopper leading the charge, but I was not expecting there to be two other improvised musical at the same venue as us alone.
In one day I saw three improvised musicals and performed with Music Box as well. This was an invigorating experience to say the least, and provided the perfect opportunity to directly compare some different approaches. Here are some thoughts...
There seem to be two distinct approaches that troupes seem to take. The edited show, verses the non-edited show. Showstopper provide the ideal template for an edited show, with the premise of a writer of musicals forced to come up with a new musical in 1 hour. This provides plenty of opportunity for stopping the show and pimping the performers to perform in different styles and scenarios.
Baby Wants Candy run a full improvised musical with no break. They have free reign to take the plot into their own hands, but have noone to prevent a car crash from happening.
Both formats have their advantages and disadvantages, and both companies were really enjoyable to watch. So where to draw that line yourself?
To me, this comes down to your audience. It is hard to find an audience that is familiar and knowledgeable about improvisation, so it can alienate some of the general public performing true, unedited long-form. The Baby Wants Candy show that I saw got round this by not only being very slick, but also by presenting solid songs with plenty of contrast, and using characatures rather than well-rounded believable characters. This gave the audience plenty to look at and listen to, but not too much to think about.
An edited show with a solid theme and a good on stage editor can be far more audience friendly, behaving more like a short form show but with an overarching plot or theme.
I believe that true unedited long form improvisation is a high art form, and as with other disciplines such as jazz or poetry or sculpture, the more refined and intellectual you become, the more audience you alienate. Or in other words, the further you stick your head up your arse, the less people will see you.
However, this should not restrict the artist from pushing boundaries, from staying true to their aesthetic principles. Has improvisation really gone through its experimental stage completely and come out the other side?
Back to earth a little, the one note that I carried away from that four-musical-day was that nothing beats a simple, repeatable chorus, sung by the whole cast. Baby Wants Candy nailed this time after time, but the other shows I saw were lacking. I intend to hammer this home to The Maydays when I next get my musical hands on them. Let's find that line between art and audience, and sit on it for a while.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.