The Dark Side: Can & Should Improv Go There?




At a recent international festival I happened to stumble into several discussions, with different groups of people, about taboos in improv, on whether e.g. minorities should (or should not) be portrayed on stage, and if so, how, or whether & how touchy or dark subjects should be addressed in improv.

It so happens that during the second half of 2017 I was involved in a series of shows that purposely addressed “taboo” subjects. I’ll describe the experience first, and then offer some thoughts on whether approaching taboo or “dark” subjects is a good idea in improv and whether it can or should be done at all.

The opinions are mine, but since these are sensitive subjects I expect some readers will have radically different views.  By all means share those views in the comments section at the bottom.  I will respect your opinions – even if I do not share them – and I will assume the same respect from your end.  Here we go!


My Own Experience: “Versus”

About a year ago I was asked as Musical Director for a series of performances by the Ligue d’Impro Professionelle (LIP), a french speaking group based in Brussels, Belgium. The concept was called “Versus”, and it consisted of 9 formats (which they called “challenges”), for 9 evenings of performance. The challenges were known, both to the actors and to the audience, but

  • Every performance featured a different mix of actors;
  • The format to be played was drawn from a hat every night.

Examples of these challenges were:

  • A format where a random actor is the only one allowed to talk in the first part of the performance, and another randomly drawn actors is the only one not allowed to talk after the intermission. (Interestingly, the same actor was drawn twice the night we performed it).
  • A format in which all characters were based on members of the audience (interviewed by the actors at the start of the show).

Also interesting – be it tangential: not all challenges involved audience suggestions! The 2 challenges relevant for this blog post actually did not.

Anyhow, there were 2 challenges the actors were particularly nervous about:

  • “The Female Universe” – montages of scenes about the world from a female perspective. The group knew that themes like exclusion or (sexual) harassment would be hard to avoid.
  • “Borderline” (in french “le long de la frontière” which translates in to “along the border”) – a montage about taboo subjects & the dark side of society.

The group shoots for a mix of serious, theatrical improv, and lighthearted funny stuff. Here are some examples of scenes performed:

  • In “The Female Universe” we had a scene about 2 female best friends characters discussing their orgasms. One of them ended up confessing she had probably never climaxed. When the subject came up in the scene one could feel a collective cringe from the audience. But the scene was real, honest and vulnerable.
  • There was a scene in “Borderline” that took place at a police station. Several macho cop characters were playing cards, when a female officer arrived. She needed to change into her work uniform, but it turned out that the locker room was being renovated. So she changed in front of the guys. Rather than shooting for a stereotypical situation, the opposite was shown: a strong/confident female police officer who did not seem to mind one bit changing in the same room with her male coworkers, and the macho guys – the characters, not the actors – who got really uncomfortable because of that. The scene was lighthearted, and seeing the male characters’ discomfort was funny at times.
  • The LIP actor crew loves strong musical offers, and in the second half of the “Borderline” performance they specifically asked for one. I gave them something silly, upbeat, with – in my mind – a bit of a tropical flavor. This inspired a scene at a holiday resort on a faraway island, and portrayed the worst kind of tourists possible. Although the characters all claimed to have utmost respect for the islanders, they were basically racist. The players turned it into a game, the scene was hilarious and absolutely politically incorrect. But it was at the same time “real” as in I am going to bet that every audience member probably had the reflection of “darn, I’ve done/said/thought/witnessed this before” – at least during the first part of the scene, before the actors made the game into a parody of reality.

There were plenty more scenes, covering topics like domestic violence, geriatric loneliness, sexual misconduct, homosexuality, you name it. But for the purpose of this article these examples will do.


Why Consciously Approach Taboo Subjects in Improv?

Here is the reason why LIP decided to do this, as stated on their website:

It translates roughly as follows:

As theatre permits itself to address numerous themes that are taboo, borderline, or that touch upon tendencies in society one would rather not see or hear, improv as an art form rarely does.

(Hence) for one night, we have chosen to dive into subjects that anger, displease, question, divide or unsettle.

Personally I find this valid motivation. Improv is theatre, perhaps not (usually) a very highbrow form of theatre, but theatre nonetheless. Hence in my eyes it is perfectly legitimate for improv to address touchy or dark subjects.

The group discussed this of course.  These are really good improvisers, all with formal drama training.  They have different kinds of players, some are more comedy oriented than others, but the whole Versus concept was geared towards more “theatrical” improv rather than fast laughs, and casting was done accordingly.  That’s not to say the shows were not funny; some were outright hilarious.

The cast was definitely nervous about the “Borderline” challenge; it was agreed they would make a serious attempt at addressing these subject in a theatrical, honest en respectful way.  They did admirably (in my eyes).  Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive and a comment I heard several times was congratulations for both daring to do this, and pulling it off respectfully.

But that should not be taken for granted:  I can think of several dangers, pitfalls & objections, as well as some opportunities.

Objection: Too Much Bigotry

Here’s a possible objection: “There is already too much bigotry in this world, why should I want to add to that on stage”. This is a valid objection but I think it is missing the point. I can see no reason to give bigotry a stage. But this was not the goal of a performance like Versus. The goal is to touch an audience, not to promote bigotry. And “touching” may mean several things: make the audience think, make them angry, sad, make them laugh, make them think. Isn’t that what theatre is supposed to do anyway, anyhow?

Counter-objection: Stories Need Bad Guys

To further counter the bigotry objection: it is not because you have an obnoxious character, or character with questionable opinions in you story, that your story becomes questionable.  Take the movie “Schindler’s list“, set in Nazi Germany, about an industrialist who manages to save over 1000 Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.  Although the movie features unpleasant Nazi characters, I’ doubt anyone would accuse Steven Spielberg of promoting Nazi bigotry.  I think it is OK to feature bigots, as long these characters are the antagonists to the story.  Having a bigot bad guy/girl does not equate promoting bigotry.  And by “defeating” the bigot in the story one might actually make an anti-bigotry stance.  Which leads to the next point.

Opportunity: Make a (Political) Statement

Most improv is comedy, some improv is theatrical, and some – not much in my experience – purposely makes a statement or is political.  For example Laura’s Doorneweerd’s “Ferocious Four” is format about strong women, and that is a choice.  Some improvisers even claim that everything they do is a political statement; here’s links to 2 articles  (in spanish but google translate will be your friend) arguing exactly that:

The point I am trying to make here is that if you choose to make political statements against bigotry, glass ceilings, exploitation, exclusion, you name it, you almost have to present the situations you are rallying against on stage.  I fail to see what would be wrong about that.

The Choice to be Politically Incorrect

Just like the choice to rally against darkish situations is a valid, honorable choice, then perhaps the inverse is equally valid?   What about a choice in favor of political incorrectness?  I could not find any material on political correctness in improv, but there are are plenty opinions about PC in comedy.  Here’s 2 articles:

Opinions on PC differ, and that’s exactly what they are: opinions.   Not hard universal truths or universal moral truths.  My personal opinion is that any subject, touchy or not, is fair game for mockery.  Your opinion may differ, and I will respect that, as long as you respect mine.   But the point is that choosing to mock dark or controversial subjects, in a world of free speech, is a choice one should be allowed to make.   Nobody is under any obligation to actually like politically incorrect comedy and by extension improv, but forbidding it would be a problematic restriction of western liberties.  In my opinion of course.

In my home country we have an improv group “The Improphets“; they perform politically incorrect improv.  They have been doing this for over 10 years and they sell out.  Their audience know they are in for some PI (Political Incorrectness) and they seem to love it.

Which leads us to the following.

Objection: Shock Value is Cheap

Another objection to addressing dark subjects may be “shock value is cheap”.  Frankly and personally I could not agree more.   I personally find shocking an audience for the purpose of shock lame and lazy.  Again, you might disagree and argue that if theatre is to touch an audience, then shock is as much if not more “touching” than laughter.   I r disagree with that point of view but I can respect those who adhere to it.

Still,  this calls for some nuances:

  • Shocking an audience because of coverage of a dark subject is not the same as specifically shooting for shocking.  I’m sure the Versus performances at some points did shock one or more audience members.  But the goal was not to shock; shock was a side effect.  And frankly I’m also pretty sure that the amount of shock that was caused was relatively minimal.
  • Shocking an audience to make a point, and in particular to take a stand against what is shocking I do find personally acceptable.
  • But even if shock is used to make a point, there is no guarantee your audience will get it, and shock may even overpower the point.  I have used the movie “Irréversible” in several previous posts (check the link to wikipedia to learn more about it).  This is a very disturbing picture, covering drugs, incest, BSDM, homosexuality, transsexuality, prostitution, rape & murder, and reactions have been very mixed.  Let me list some (from the wikipedia page):
    • Newsweek stated that “If outraged viewers (mostly women) at the Cannes Film Festival are any indication, this will be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003.”
    • Rotten Tomato’s consensus states: “Though well-filmed, Irreversible feels gratuitous in its extreme violence.”
    • The American film critic Roger Ebert argued that the film’s structure makes it inherently moral; that by presenting vengeance before the acts that inspire it, we are forced to process the vengeance first, and therefore think more deeply about its implications.
    • Irréversible won the top award, the Bronze Horse for best film, at the 2002 Stockholm International Film Festival. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Award by the Film Critics Circle of Australia. It was voted Best Foreign Language Film by the San Diego Film Critics Society.
    • FWIW my own opinion – me being a very tolerant person even if I say so myself: I have no desire to ever see this again.  If there was a point to this movie, I missed it. Unless the point was that there are some pretty sick elements in our society – in which case the movie overshot the premise.  (As a side note I do find the movie very interesting from a technical storytelling point of view – the story is told backwards – and that makes the whole even more disturbing).

Problem: Gauging the audience reaction

Here’s another experience of mine, in a very different context.  In the fall of 2016 we performed a musical long form with RIOT, in English, for a crowd that consisted mainly of expats in Brussels.   Our RIOT shows are never political, we do not make statements or try to prove a point, we merely try to entertain and in general keep things family-friendly.  The audiences we typically play for are Flemish, or perhaps audiences at international improv shows: Brussels expats are not our usual audience.

We had a scene in which a bunch of people were picking cotton; clearly set in the Southern US. One member of the audience left the theatre and wrote a complaint to the organizers.  We were honestly flabbergasted: we were – in our mind – not making fun of cotton pickers, we were certainly not commenting on slavery or color. In our shows we typically – and purposely – set scenes in all parts of the world, in lots of different cultures and time frames and in over 10 years of performing in Flanders we never ever got a comment.  But that night, for an international, non-native English speaking crowd we were accused of “inappropriate behavior”.

Even though we meant no harm, honest to god, someone took offense.  The point is: even if you are not trying to shock or offend an audience, you might.

(BTW – 2 other groups in the same audience loved the show so much they booked us for private performances: one was an international school and the other was a lobby organisation for the European energy industry.  Did I mention these things are subjective?)

So Can it be Done? And Should You?

So, given the potential objections, counter-objections, opportunities & choices listed above, what should be the conclusion?  I hinted several times to the fact that it boils down to opinions, and those may vary wildly between individuals.  So below is my personal conclusion – yours may be very different.

Can it be done?

The answer to the first question: can it be done? My answer is a definite yes based on my “Versus” experience. However, there are a number of factors to take into account:

  • Cultural background: this was a show in french speaking Belgium, catering to a fairly progressive audience and the show concept was being marketed as artsy.  I am going to guess LIP would not want to perform this in your run-of-the mill comedy bar filled with inebriated redneck students.
  • Marketing: the audience was aware – many of them before the performance – that these subjects might be approached. They were made aware again, explicitly, at the start of the performance.
  • Skill set: the LIP cast consists of many players trained in theatrical improv, with loads of stage time under their belt.

Should you?

Let’s break this down into:

  • Should you do this?
  • Should improv as an art form do this?

I understand why LIP did it, and I believe they did it with both the appropriate mindset and skill set.  Yes they made the audience cringe.  If it’s a cringe as in “oh my god this is just bad/cheap” … then it’s just plain bad.  LIP made the audience cringe just like Schindler’s List will make you cringe about WW2 atrocities.  Nothing wrong with that IMHO.

Should you do it?   I personally find that anyone should have the right to make the choice to shock an audience, to purposely offer political incorrectness, or to address dark subjects, with or without a political motive or message – but by all means feel free to disagree.

But even to those who do agree: should you do this?  Given your abilities and those of your players?  Given the amount of thought and rehearsal you have put in? Given your audience?  Given the venue? Given how informed that audience in that venue will be about your intentions? Given the cultural background of your country/city/zeitgeist?  I suggest you think long and hard about that.

Should Improv as an artform address the dark side?

I believe the answer is yes.  Improv is a form of theatre, and theatre is to touch an audience.  By making them laugh, cry, but also by making them think about uncomfortable subjects.  LIP as proven it can be done in a worthwhile way.  Just don’t foolishly think anyone can too.

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