Musical Improv is the Best Evidence of the Existence of Sorcery

I hate Hugh Jackman. I can’t stress enough how annoyed I get by his varied talents. Lots of people are good at one thing. He’s good at lots of things. Singing. Dancing. Acting. Being really, really, ridiculously good-looking. It’s awful. What a prat. He also seems to be a decent human being.

The only comfort I draw is from knowing that his absurd levels of talent are derived from hours of tedious practice. Sure, he can act a scene out really well, or he can sing a song beautifully, but he had to rehearse that scene and that song over and over again, hundreds of times. I’ll bet anyone could be good at singing a song if they were paid to do it hundreds of times.

That’s right, Hugh Jackman. More like Hugh Hackman. Anyone could do what you do. You’re not special. Even I could do what you do, I bet. Y’know, if I was Australian rather than Scouse. And if I didn’t have a voice that was somehow simultaneously hoarse and shrill (and is essentially weaponised when put to music). Also if I didn’t have the physique of a large, hairy potato perched atop a much larger, slightly less hairy body of a big fat man.

Sadly, that small comfort, that knowledge that talent can fabricated with hard work and repetition, gets rudely ripped away when I see people displaying talent in ways that absolutely could not have been rehearsed.

A little background: Improv, short for “Improvisation”, is the creative art of making shit up as you go along. More specifically, it’s about performing in line with a certain structure, but without any prepared content. It’s a bit like painting by numbers, but without any numbers, or any lines: just a title for the painting and a knowledge that within the next half hour you need to have produced a picture of something in which other human beings can find meaning.

There’s broadly two main types of Improv: short-form, and long-form. Short-form is about standalone games, exercises and scenes that will last a few minutes. Long-form is about creating entire narratives that will last as long as an hour, usually made up of shorter, connected scenes with persistent characters and stories.

Nobody knows who those characters will be or how the stories will progress ahead of time.

A case in point: the latest Improv show I went to see, “Baron Sternlook’s Improvised Musical Comedy”, in Birmingham, UK, consisted of two parts: the first half of the show was a series of short-form sketches loosely tied together by the theme of a fictional Gilbert & Sullivan-style pair of broadway producers. The second half was a forty-five minute tale of a talking Jersey cow becoming the leader of a famine-struck village in the shadow of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The long-form second half of the show was based on just two small pieces of paper. The first became the title of the musical, which was “A Moo Point: It’s Only a Cow’s Opinion, It Doesn’t Matter Anyway”. The second piece of paper became the title of the musical’s first song: “Japan”.

From this starting point, we:

  • Met a small farming family who had never seen cows before and who had a fatal aversity to change.
  • A love triangle between an oblivious girl, a hapless boy and his newly-discovered field of rice.
  • A devious plot by an evil cow breeder to use his talking cow, called Mabel, to shock and subsequently devour the villagers, turning them all into cows.
  • Mabel’s redemption / coming-of-age, in which she finally finds a community that will listen to what she has to say, and eventually stands up to her evil former owner.

That may all sound a bit mad, but trust me, it made a hell of a lot more sense than the plot of ‘Prometheus’.

Oh, and this narrative was spun mostly through improvised songs.

With lyrics that rhymed.

And were funny.

And the singing was good.

Basically, it’s all fucking sorcery. Because if you only saw the musical itself, and not the bit where the audience wrote their prompts down when they first arrived and put them in a hat, or the bit where the audience were asked to vote on their favourite of three randomly-chosen prompts, you would just assume that this was a musical play that had been carefully written and rehearsed for weeks.

From a narrative perspective, it covered all the major bases: the setup and the world-building at the beginning; the change in the status quo that turns the world upside down; the quest that sets the heroes on their journey; the tragic low-point, where all seems hopeless; and the final resolution, in which it all pulls together into one climactic confrontation.

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ couldn’t do that with fifteen episodes and a whole team of “writers”. ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ also didn’t have any catchy songs or talking cows.

Now, I’ve done twelve Improv workshop sessions, all in the last six months, which by the standards of modern politics basically qualifies me to be a Minister of the Arts. And even I, with my vast vault of experience (having barely passed the beginners’ course) find this whole “singing beautifully with coherent lyrics you’re making up on the spot about a romance between a boy and his rice” to be nothing less than abject fucking wizardry. I didn’t see any pentacles drawn in chalk on the stage, or any signs of ritual sacrifice, but I’m confident there must have been at least a couple of dark arts practitioners among the cast.

Because it’s not just that the performers have no control over the prompts given to them by the audience. It’s also that they have no control over each other. My own limited experience has taught me that even in a short scene, you can assume matters are progressing in one direction, only for your partner to take the scene in a complete different direction, and you then have to react to that and accept that new premise. Which is fucking difficult enough when you’re just talking. I cannot conceive of the difficulty when you’re also trying to come up with a song about telling an evil cow breeder to fuck off.

Essentially, if you go and see a musical like, I dunno, whatever musicals are popular in this day and age, ‘Carousel’ maybe, or that one with Meryl Streep, and you think “Oh wow, it’s impressive to see people singing and acting at the same time”, you need to remember that those charlatans practised for significant portions of their lives on those few songs. If you really want to feel impressed, go and see a group that does it on the fly – none of this ‘Hamilton’ bollocks.

There are a surprising number of Musical Improv groups around, even just in the Birmingham area. And if you’re not based in the barren wastes of the West Midlands, there’s plenty of other acts to see. I was lucky enough to see a troupe called The Maydays perform their Tim Burton-inspired show ‘Happily Never After’ last year at the Birmingham Improv Festival, and they put on a show that was indescribably beautiful and captivating – it nearly brought me to tears, and I barely cry three times a day so that’s really saying something.

I can also recommend just trying Improv yourself, if you have the opportunity. If you can find a workshop near you, you’d be surprised by just how much fun it is to play the games and take part in scenes. It’s also unexpectedly insightful, with a lot of psychology thrown into the mix. A lot of understanding Improv is understanding people, and why and how they react to things, so it’s interesting just from an intellectual perspective.

And don’t worry, you probably won’t have to sing.

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