Lots of people are asking me at the moment “How do people make a living from impro?” Actually, that’s a complete lie. Nobody has said that to me, I just put that in to make the blog I already planned to write more relevant and to make myself look more important.
Well, imaginary person, sometimes this question comes across like the hot bath metaphor.
As in, “Wow, that was a lovely hot bath. I really enjoyed that. I want to get paid to take hot baths.”
At first I tend to think, why don’t you just relax and enjoy the lovely hot bubble bath for what it is? It’s just a bath, enjoy it momentarily, and then carry on. Also at first I can’t see how you could make money from having a hot bath.
But then again you could:
- Sell baths, set up a massive bath emporium and online bath shop.
- Build the ultimate massive communal bubble bath for people to come to.
- Charge people to watch you take a bubble bath, although that is bordering on the pornographic.
Either way you might move away from your initial love of a nice warm bath as it gets complicated by other things.
Anyway imaginary person, in the world of impro there are a few ways people make a living:
- Having an act. Getting a really good act and touring it around to where the audience is or sitting put and getting the audience to act. For instance Baby Wants Candy, Showstopper, Noise Next Door, Comedy Store Players.
- Running a venue/theatre. Having a set place with an audience that allows different acts to come through and perform. For instance Fringe Theatres and comedy clubs in general (not so much impro). From my experience thought this then makes you feel rather disconnected from the actual impro (hot bath) that got you interested in the first place.
- Running workshops. For instance Hoopla, Spontaneity Shop, Imprology, Second City etc etc. This is fun. I think you have to keep them fun, helpful, informative and sociable and also make sure you’re performing and learning yourself so what you say is grounded in experience.
- Corporate workshops, which if you’re doing you might as well jump whole hog into corporate training.
Where I think impro tends to get it wrong at the moment
Theatre (in UK at least) seems to work by putting together a show, rehearsing intensely for three weeks, releasing at festivals, and then either getting signed up to a national tour or if you're even bigger and better playing a set Theatre in London, and then a regional tour. When the audience demand for the show has been used up, the show stops, the cast disperses, and the production company start work on a new show (if they haven't already).
For some reason in impro though very few people think like this. They instead rehearse at a set time a week over weeks/months and then put the same show in the same venue at the same time each month/week. And then wonder where the audience has gone after a couple of months. The answer is they've already seen it thank you.
Also stand ups in UK have a very good sense of building up an act and then playing it do different venues, getting agents, getting producers on side, and touring more and more and constantly changing. Very few improvisers behave like this. Also impro troupes are bigger than a solo stand up, so they have less flexibility in taking gigs and then any income is split more ways. So they have to gig more and to more people to make the same living as a stand up, and when you add to this that there is less of an audience for impro, you can see the problem.
Also stand-ups and sketch writers work hard all year to make one great show, and then live of it for years. A top one I know off write all week and then rehearse full time all weekend. Whereas beginning impro groups seem to be stuck in a rut of fear of professionalism, and put a lot less work into their shows.
Also I think it’s important to always treat each show as special and put on the best show that you can right then; you don't know who is watching afterall.
Think of the difference between people going into work the next day and saying "it's amazing, you have to see it" to five people, or being not bothered and telling nobody. Impro sometimes spends ages thinking about marketing etc and misses the point that if you make an amazing show and perform it, people start to come along.
It’s quite easy to see if a comedy show is working or not – people laugh. If people laugh a lot, it’s working well. If they don’t, it’s not. Is it really that simple? Keith Johnstone says laughter is misleading blah blah blah. Fair enough, but if you think laughter isn’t connected to something being funny, please don’t advertise it as comedy.
Nobody goes to the Comedy Store to see exactly the same comedians each week, and yet that’s what most impro groups (me included) are asking an audience to do. An answer could be an impro circuit with a network of impro theatres. London first, then Brighton, then Manchester etc. If you had just six then you could reliably tour multiple groups with big enough gaps. Each show would have a big launch effect on the audience and Edinburgh would serve to escalate this rather than acting as a kind of financial sink hole end point.