Selling improv.

This, I apologise in advance, is going to be one of those train of thought things.

We do improv. We do all sorts of improv. We do applied improv, we do improv for confidence building, for communication skills, all sorts of things. And one of those forms is performance. Both long and short form performance. It is good to do shows. If you’re going to do performance improv then at some point it’s going to be downright strange if you don’t do shows. It is good to get an audience for those shows.

There are places where improv has been running for decades – sixty years in some of those places – and an audience has had time to grow and develop. Then there’s us. We’re in Bradford. We are the first improv group in Bradford (that I’m aware of). Currently we are the only improv group in Bradford. There is no audience to inherit. There is no product knowledge. We are selling improv to people who don’t know what improv is. Now this is not unique to Bradford, pretty much everywhere has this issue. Which is why we see a lot of people trying to piggy back onto other performance forms, usually comedy.

(At this point I’m going to mention that yes, I am aware of the strain of thought in improv that improv is a branch of comedy and should always strive to be funny. In my own humble opinion (which happens to be correct) improv isn’t a branch of comedy. Improv is a branch of improv. Thinking of it as a branch of comedy is a dead end. Anyway, moving on)

The problem with advertising improv as “comedy improv” is that there’s already a comedy industry. Which doesn’t appreciate us trying to piggyback onto and take its audience. Who can blame it? They’ve worked for years to build that audience. They have an established relationship. What the flip are we doing trying to take that? There’s a term in social media for when you enter an existing audience – join a group – to try to recruit for your own group. They call it “dirty harvesting”. It doesn’t make you popular. Let’s not dirty harvest.

So what do we do then? If we’re not going after the comedy audience, and there isn’t an improv audience to tap into then what? I’ve seen people trying to leverage “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, but in the UK “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, much as we in the improv community hold it in awe and affection, was a bit of cheap filler that filled a gap before The Word started, and it was The Word that got all the attention. In 1988. It would run until 1999, but WLIIA is 31 years old and has not been seen on British broadcast television for twenty years. It was cancelled because of poor viewing figures. It is very unwise to assume that a potential audience is going to be familiar with it, and if they are familiar with it there’s no guarantee that their impression is positive.

People I see are trying themed improv. I’m seeing Harry Potter themed groups. I have to confess I wonder what this is. Is presenting improv as an act of collaborative fanfic…. well for a start you’ve specialised the act so you’ve specialised the audience. Are there really that many Harry Potter fans out there? I suppose there must be, people who know what they’re doing are doing it. A quick look at Google shows they’re all over the place, so clearly clever people think there’s a market.

So themed improv. But that really only suits longform doesn’t it? I saw Austentatious, a Jane Austen longform performed by some very clever people. It sold out a national tour. It’s back for another one. It is very, very clever.

Ok. So themed longform is an option. If you can find a cast passionate about a theme.

Shortform. Games. This is the one people are used to. The one they did on Whose Line is it Anyway. The one pretty much all improvisers start on. There’s a bit of snobbery attached – a lot of people look down on shortform. I’m not one of them, shortform is fantastically useful, especially for filling a short slot. It’s fast, it’s flexible, it can be very funny. It’s just a bit samey (which we should address in another post) and a bugger to sell. So we keep calling it comedy. But there already is comedy. So we shouldn’t call it comedy. Improv should have its own audience. And that cuts to the heart of why people are using their precious free time to go and see an improv show. What’s the payoff? Another another post. Keep to the subject.

If we can’t say improv then we have to say something. There has to be something that we can offer the audience that they’ve actually heard of. If you have a rich and diverse audience available to you that’s heard of improv and is actively seeking it out then you have my twisted and bitter envy, you really do, but you’re not out of the woods yet. There’s a churn to audiences. Audiences naturally shrink. People move, or get commitments or change tastes. Audiences constantly need to be replaced. By new people, people who aren’t already in the audience. People who don’t necessarily know what they’re buying. People who are new to the product.

How do we sell to them?

We’re going to experiment. We will start a show. We will seek to develop an audience for that show. One constraint of the experiment is that we won’t use the word “comedy”. We’re using shortform, so we can expect bits of it to be funny, but we don’t want to piggyback on another performance form. And we won’t confine the marketing to improv fans. A marketing that appeals to existing customers isn’t really a marketing. Up here in Bradford it’s no marketing at all; extend the catchment as far as Leeds and out of a combined population of around three million you’re talking about at most fifty people. That’s not a viable audience base, and reaching what is effectively an audience of your friends is not a success story.

So what do we call this show of ours? How do we present it? I’m going to interleave it with acts the audience is familiar with and does understand. In fact I am going to throw the door wide open. The whole point of improv is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It is spontaneous, it is unpredictable. So let’s improv the whole bloody night. This is immediately a lie – I have a timeline for the evening and it has slots and I am already talking to people about filling those slots, but I am putting no limits on what can turn up. It can be anything and I hope it is, and in there will be improv too. And that will be a variety night. If you don’t like the improv then fine, there’s a musician or a poet or even a juggler coming.

It’s a variety night. Of course it’s a variety night. That’s what improv is, it’s not comedy, it’s not drama, it’s not opera it’s not dance. It’s a variety act. Anything can happen. I hope it does. If the experiment works, if it brings new people in, increases the audience for improv then you can thank me later. If it doesn’t we’ll try something else.

Bradford Jam

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