It’s February. Eleven p.m. The air is cold, glittery, almost amniotically thick. There are all sorts of archetypal New York touches to the street scene outside: couples jaywalking, slabs of jury-rigged scaffolding over the sidewalks, fat tanklike dumpsters full of trashbags. The last show of SuperFree! Wednesday has just ended, and performers from the Peoples Improv Theater are emerging out into the mist and making their way across 7th Avenue to Mustang Sally’s Saloon.
Chris Manley steps off to the side to light a cigarette. Manley is a member of Zoltar: The Future Telling Machine, the eight-person PIT house team that performed in the night’s penultimate, ten to ten-thirty slot. Tonight’s suggestion was “Civil War” and Zoltar ran ten scenes, during which Manley played a tragic mailman, a dog breeder scheming to sell pet food to the poor, and the manager of a monkey in a Ted Nugent suit. He and his teammates made it all up on the spot. It was a good show.
There’s nothing incredibly extra-special about Manley. There’s not going to come a point later in this article where you find out that he gets his own TV pilot or that he used to be a Navy SEAL. He’s a good improviser, maybe even a natural, but he’s only been doing it for three years and he’s not professionally accomplished enough yet to warrant the questionable honor of a profile. He’s not even the best improviser in this little group. At times, he gets bogged down in surreal tangents that don’t move the show along, or he showboats, or he doesn’t listen to his scene partner. But he does have something, and, whatever it is, it adds up to more than his current mix of strengths and weaknesses. When he’s on stage, he seems like he’s being himself while also channeling something greater than himself. Every improviser is able to do this to some degree—you could say it’s the magic quality at the heart of improv—but in Manley’s case it’s especially apparent. The best word for it is probably “talent,” though that introduces the problem of what talent, in this context, could possibly even mean.
Anyway, there’s the grotesque yet archetypal New York night and there’s Chris Manley with his cigarette and his enigmatic air of private union with larger forces. We met last January when we were cast in the same PIT house team. Our team was named Halfbear, after the first scene of our first show, in which Chris one-upped an improviser playing a knowledgeable woodsman by playing a creature that was half man, half bear. Manley’s twenty-six. His hair is chestnut brown and wavy and looks like it ought to be weighed down by a chainmail hood. He has a rigid neck, a pale Irish laborer’s face, and the perfectly parallel lips of a musing chimp. He’s vaguely attractive in the pocked, rough-and-tumble way that people used to find Mickey Rourke attractive. He’s lost eight teeth: four to rugby high tackles and four to root canals. When I first met him, he had a dead molar hanging by a nerve or blood vessel that he used to flick around with his tongue during rehearsals, but that fell out last year. He also wore a huge handlebar moustache which he eventually cut off because his managers told him it was limiting his ability to get acting work.
Manley used to have a regular office job as a student financial services aide at Iona College, but he quit last June to give himself more time to study improv and go out on auditions. This meant moving back home with his parents in Dumont, New Jersey and ceasing to make his cell phone payments so that now if you want to meet up, you have to email him and wait till he sits down at a computer. He performs or studies improv five nights a week. I know this has left him nearly broke. When I ask him what he’s doing for money, he starts telling me about his new job as a driver for Van Leeuwen’s Artisanal Ice Cream trucks, which doesn’t start till the weather warms up, but which he’s already excited about because it meant he got to spend yesterday at the Department of Consumer Affairs learning about all the forms one has to fill out to get certified to handle food in New York. “I like the bureaucracy of it because I don’t have that in my life at all,” he says, sounding like an excited child. “You have to do this up here and then you have to wait six days and then you have to go downtown and check with somebody at an office and then you have to wait for something in the mail and then bring that and do other things that other people have sent you and then you have to get them in triplicate and make sure you have a proper proof of ID, and proof of address, which can be a number of different things …”
Behind us, people are filing into the bar. Matt Hobby, who did an impressive job playing the monkey in the Ted Nugent suit, and who also happens to be Manley’s old roommate, peels off to ask Chris about a scene from the show.
“Hey, did you get what I was trying to do in that scene with you and Grimwood?”
“Which one?” asks Manley.
“The thing in the library,” says Hobby.
“Where you said—”
“I said”— Hobby puts on a mobster’s hoarse whisper, “Excuse me, librarian such-and-such.”
“Oh, and you, like a Mafia thing.”
“Yeah, yeah. Because that’s what you guys were doing, right?”
“Okay,” says Hobby.
There’s a longer than normal pause in the conversation.
“Why, did it seem like we weren’t?” Manley asks.
“No, it just seemed like I came out—”
“I didn’t have an Italian accent,” says Manley, “so I didn’t want to jump into it.”
“Yeah, yeah. I guess…I guess in my head I thought everyone would get on board,” Hobby says with a nervous laugh. “I thought we would play that world out.” It’s clear that Hobby isn’t feeling great about some of his on-stage moves. We stand in a triangle and talk about why certain scenes worked and others didn’t. We decide that the audience probably didn’t understand that the librarians were mafioso librarians. Hobby feels better and ducks into the bar.
Manley always projects an aura of satisfaction after his shows, but just to be sure I ask him how he’s feeling about tonight’s performance. “I felt good about the show so now I feel happy,” he says. He’s got a gravelly voice and the slushy echo of a lisp. “You only feel as good as your last show kind of a thing.” From the side of the building another performer, Steve Soroka, calls out to us from around a cigarette, “Hey, how are you two? How’d your shows go?” My show was good. Manley’s show was good. Soroka’s show was good. We walk inside and the manager of Mustang Sally’s, a lanky Irishman in a loose grey suit, comes up to greet Manley and ask him about his show. Everyone around us is engaged in post-show diagnostics. Manley and I sit down at the bar. He asks me what I thought of the show. While I’m telling him how good I thought it was, Randy Pearlstein, a minor celebrity at the PIT who co-wrote the horror flick Cabin Fever, offers us some Popeye candy cigarettes and asks about our shows. We riff awhile, the three of us, on the subject of childhood addiction. Marshall York, an improviser with a long aristocratic face and the most improbably thick hair I’ve ever seen, comes up and claps his hands on Chris’s shoulders.
“Great show, man,” he tells Chris. “Did you see the show?” he asks me. “Wadn’t it good? This guy.”
“Aw, shucks,” says Manley.
“Man, so funny. How do you do it, what’s the secret? Whisper it in my ear.”
If there is a secret, none of us knows what it is. Good shows are elusive. You’re never sure whether they happened because you let go or because you tried especially hard. In fact, one of the paradoxes of improv is that you have to try very hard in order to let go. This involves relaxing the mental muscles that control the automatic functioning of personality. When you’re in front of an audience and you can do this, or when it happens to you (it’s something in between), you experience a kind of freedom I’m tempted to call transpersonal.
It’s one of the most elemental states of satisfaction I’ve ever known. You are suddenly possessed by characters with their own flair, wit and angst. Lines of dialogue scroll intact up and through you, and your body moves with an alien intelligence. You are simultaneously in complete control of what you are saying and in a state of submissive surprise. Even though you’re playing a character, everything you say seems somehow much closer to truth.
When this fails to happen and a scene tanks, you feel like a lonely idiot. The light blinds you. Behind the light is the audience, squatting in predatory silence. Everything you do is obvious and cheap. Your behavior is cliché, your characters stock, your phrases hammy and trite. You are a Golem compelled to speak. You want it to end but there is the nightmarish awareness that you must keep standing out there. There is the sick, deep knowledge that you’re tapped. There is the shame of your own fear. And there is the pathetic hope that maybe if you keep talking you will stumble upon something meaningful. You want your body and mind to do something, and you know that you can do it if you can only locate the midpoint between control and release, but none of the internal apparatus is discernible and you’re left just fucking guessing what’s going on inside you.
Almost everyone in the bar tonight is on a PIT house team and so we’ve all been through this many times. We come to Mustang Sally’s to celebrate after good shows. We come here after bad shows because it’s too awful to go home alone. Either way, it feels good to look around and know everyone in the room, to finally be on the inside of a real New York scene. You get a sort of Olympian glow from watching your fellow performers rush out to their pre-show warm-ups or tramp back in from their sets. On the other hand, the levels of fraternity can be stifling. Everyone is riffing. They’re doing it with a post-diasporic intensity even though most of them were on stage with each other a few hours ago. Partly by constitution and partly by training these are the kind of people who delight in sketching out imaginary scenarios, and so any chance idea or anecdote is snatched up and quickly embroidered with scenic details. They know how dockworkers talk when they’re about to strike, how boys with bindles meet old vagrants under bridges, how first dates gesture awkwardly with their forks while their mouths are still full, and especially, for some reason, how interrogation rooms look (coffee mug, ashtray, leg bent on chair, bright bulb in the face).
A large number of the people in the bar are aspiring actors, which in practice means that they are attractive, taller-than-average individuals who know how to tap-dance and sing and who also work as caterers, temps, child-care professionals, waiters, waitresses, sales clerks, non-profit administrators and property tax appraisers. I have no idea what they’re like in their day jobs, but here they are always “on,” always probing for a reaction. Everyone’s working a different mojo. There are tortoiselike performers with glazed, faraway looks who seem to have slipped into a hypoglycemic daze until they deposit a slow, droll one-liner in your ear. There are burly guys with beards who roughhouse you into their jokes. There are duos of shockingly foul-mouthed girls. There are pale, balding men with congenitally sad faces who book tons of national commercials. Some nights there are also teachers and performers here from the Upright Citizens Brigade or the Magnet, the other two blackbox theaters that, along with the PIT, make up the scruffy axis of New York improv. There are very few money- making opportunities in improvisation, so most top performers supplement their income by teaching newcomers, which can make improv resemble a benign pyramid scheme. Modern improv has been around since at least the Fifties, but training centers really started flourishing in the Nineties, and you can now find schools in most midsize American cities. The PIT has thirty classes a week, each with around fifteen students. (They recently opened an improv-only rehearsal space just down the street.) The Magnet hosts roughly the same number of students while the UCB has twice as many, with an average 900 New Yorkers taking improv classes each week.
But by now we’re overdue for a description of what improv actually is. To begin with, there are two main schools and, allowing for a schismatic and shamelessly subjective generalization, one is much better than the other. The inferior variety is called short-form. This is what you see on most college campuses and what they used to do on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? It’s also what you’re likely to encounter on a corporate retreat. In short-form, the “game” is played out under the auspices of an agreed-upon (insufferably gimmicky) premise: each guest at this improvised dinner party is a different kind of animal and the host must figure out which ones they are; everyone in this improvised hoedown has to sing a country song about “cheese,” etc. Dreary stuff.
Long-form is a theatrical fugue by comparison. It has recurring characters, interwoven plot points and a delicately explored theme. It also risks all the faults of short-form—gags, shtick, gratuitous pop culture references— but at least these are contained within an ambitious and challenging structure. Long-form comes in a variety of breeds. There’s free-form, the Deconstruction, the Mosaic, the Armando, the La Ronde and many more. There are two-person monoscenes that maintain a perfect trio of Aristotelian unities for a full hour. But the kind of improv I know and like best, and the kind I feel safe characterizing as “classic” long-form, is what’s done by most of the house teams of the three New York theaters: the Harold. The Harold has a three-act structure, with each act containing three scenes or “worlds” which start off independently of one another but which mingle and overlap as the show draws to a close. Most groups today don’t perform a pure Harold (which has certain formal devices like a brainstorming opening and a “group game” in the middle), but retain the loose outlines of the three-act structure, with an emphasis on cross-pollinating worlds throughout the show. By the end of tonight’s show, for example, the monkey in the Ted Nugent suit, who started off in a recording studio, reappeared with a bow and arrow in a final scene about Boy Scout merit badges.
Here’s how it all looks. First there’s an empty stage and a curtain and some house music. The house music goes down and the team gets their introduction from the fellow in the sound booth. The troupe rushes onto the stage, usually with a kind of frantic high-kicking energy that’s supposed to look like enthusiasm but which the audience politely registers as hot nerves. Someone from the troupe steps forward, explains that everything is going to be made up on the spot, and solicits a suggestion from the audience: a word, a phrase, a song, an object from a person’s purse, whatever. The troupe then makes up a half-hour play by way of mutual discovery. The players line up on both sides of the stage and begin new scenes by stepping out in pairs or trios or sometimes all at once, without knowing who they are or what they’re about to do together.
The main difference, though, between long- and short-form, or the one that mainly concerns us, is the attitude of the performer. Whereas the short-form improviser goes for quick laughs, the long-form improviser strives to be genuine. He tries to put something of himself into each performance. Manley’s gift is to do this even when it seems as if he shouldn’t be able to. For example, Manley mugs at the audience. He’ll break the scene and lean out over the front row and grin at them in the middle of his lines. Or he’ll step forward into a monologue, gazing melodramatically over our heads, and when he’s finished he’ll snap his jaw suddenly shut and stare at us for a second over one tilted eye before he goes back to working the scene. Or he’ll follow some impish idea all the way to what’s known as Crazytown. Officially, none of this is good improv— it doesn’t further the action of the scene and it can leave his partner alone on stage. But when Manley does it, you feel the audience tighten around you.
It’s not as if Manley is leaps and bounds better than the other improvisers. After all, the team creates the show together. But Manley’s performances do have a special resonance of truth or daring or naturalness. He’s incredibly vulnerable, but it’s not a self-pitying, love-me-and-my-wounds kind of vulnerability. It’s that he seems completely open to his impulses. (This is particularly inspiring to the SuperFree! Wednesday night audiences, who tend to be composed mostly of curious young improvisers taking their first classes.) I want you to have a clear sense of what I’m getting at, so even though it’s borderline sacrilegious to transcribe improv into print, I’m going to break with tradition and provide a partial recap of tonight’s show.
Zoltar’s suggestion, remember, was “Civil War.” Right away, two performers, Michelle Wolf and Desireé Nash, step to the center of the stage and begin fanning themselves with imaginary fans. They establish or discover over the next few lines that they are two elegant Southern women left alone on a plantation while their husbands fight in the war. They talk about how important it is to keep their new frilled silk pantaloons in good condition in case the men come back unexpectedly. They complain that there is no one around to till the soil.
Their scene ends like this:
MICHELLE: Clarice, we need to be realistic. There’s gonna’ be times when we’re gonna’ have to do stuff on our own. There’s gonna’ be times when we might not think our husbands are coming back.
DESIREE: Darlene, those times are happenin’ now!
Manley edits scene one by swaggering through the middle of it. Scene two unfolds with Manley and a performer named Nikhil Rao debating what to do with their empty greyhound kennel. (This is where Manley comes up with the idea of selling pet food to the poor.) Scene three opens with a producer trying to convene the hard rock supergroup Damn Yankees (cue the Ted Nugent monkey). Manley walks in at the end of this scene and announces that he’s made a costume that looks like “the fellow from Styx with the blonde hair” (he can’t remember Tommy Shaw’s name) and that he’s filled it with a dolphin on loan from SeaWorld. “It’s pretty much the same thing,” he offers. Scene four involves a therapist encouraging a child to open up by talking in a robot voice through an electric fan. Scene five: a Civil War soldier named Paul dictating a letter home to Ma’.
Okay. Scene six. Manley initiates scene six by playing a modern-day mailman, which is an idea I’m pretty sure he picks up from the previous scene, with the letter. I’m presenting scene six here in full because I want you to know how improv sounds and looks and because there are parts of it that are dense and alive, like poetry. I think you can get a sense of the emotion overtaking Manley while he’s on stage, and of the larger and more compelling thing than that emotion that I keep gesturing at throughout this article. You are hereby reminded, however, that the very idea of an “improv script” is antithetical to the art, and that you’re missing out on all the magic of watching the thing being born in front of you. Enjoy.
(CHRIS MANLEY clears scene five by walking through the middle of it. The stage is empty of props.)
(MANLEY unshoulders a mailbag. GEOFF GRIMWOOD joins MANLEY from the sidelines. Somehow you know they’re both wearing shorts and that it’s a summer afternoon.)
(practically singing) Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Delivering the mail is something I love to do between the hours of nine to five.
(MANLEY stuffs letters with delight.) Especially because the mailboxes are right next to each other.
(also with a lilt) And it’s my favorite route of all the gas meter routes that I read because the gas meters in this neighborhood are right next to the mailboxes and I get to see my friend, Kevin.
(MANLEY chuckles with joy.)
Well, if I didn’t have my friend Chuck to keep me company in times like these, I’d go absolutely crazy.
I bet you would Kevin, I bet you would just go—
(MATT HOBBY enters, playing a straight-laced neighbor coming down his front lawn.)
(idiotically upbeat) Ha ha! Kevin and Chuck. How’s it going?
Yup. Mark. That’s me!
(MANLEY , GRIMWOOD and HOBBY take each other in, delightedly. The scene has a strong Prozac-like feel. Then HOBBY walks back to his house and closes the front door. MANLEY and GRIMWOOD continue walking down the stage, side-by-side, opening imaginary mailboxes and checking imaginary gas meters.)
And out of my entire gas meter reading route, this is my favorite block, my favorite chunk of the block, because usually, when we’re chatting here, Mark comes by and reminds me that sometimes poor people get rich but are still friendly.
(MANLEY laughs heartily.)
(admiringly) He worked hard his whole life.
(still cheerful) Not his whole life. He’s still living. Maybe he’ll start slacking off.
(carefree, at first) Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. What difference does it make to us, huh?
(MANLEY slows down. He looks at his feet. Very slowly …) Couple a’ Joes like us, just living our days, in and out.
(MANLEY frowns. His face darkens.)
(trying to steer MANLEY away from gloomy thoughts) Ready to move on to the next house, Kev? I’ve read the meter here.
Drop off all the mail?
(MANLEY ‘s voice breaks as he says …) Just about.
Let’s move on to the next house. Don’t do this again, Kevin.
Nope. Not doing anything crazy.
Kevin, we’ve got a nice little box we’ve carved out here. We’re happy inside it. Let’s not reach outside it, okay?
(singing slowly to himself, morosely) I’m delivering the mail. I’m the mail deliverer.
(changing the subject) What’s the meter say? Oh, hey look, everybody’s been cooking a lot!
(HOBBY pokes his head out his front door)
(alarmed) Why are you guys still here?
(a long sob, out of which words only slowly emerge …) Sometimes people, you know, regular people get rich and then they find themselves still unfulfilled, right? What does it take to fill a guy?
(MANLEY looks around desperately.) What do you need to fill him with? What’s his magic juice? I bet somebody’s drinking it.
(suddenly, quietly to himself) Those goddamned TV shows! We need some happy people.
(Beat.) I don’t think I like the TV.
(DESIREÉ NASH walks on as a neighborhood housewife, tying apron strings.)
(relieved) Hey, Jolene’s here! My favorite pie-contest-cooking champion on my favorite block!
Paul says “hey.”
(This joke gets no response from the audience or from the other performers. It’s a callback to the Civil War soldier from the fifth scene. NASH explains, deadpan, what she was going for.)
It’s from a scene earlier. He was in the war writing me a letter.
(The scene gets cleared.)
Everyone involved in scene six has been studying improv for at least three years. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn how to react both spontaneously and authentically. A person is born and wants to be liked and spends a lifetime developing techniques to appear interesting, but once you start performing improv you realize that those social devices almost all revolve around a cautious, crustacean-like approach to conversation—tail wedged safely in a crevice, snapping at passing scraps. To do improv well you need to push out into open ocean. You need to become completely vulnerable. Yet even if you can learn to do this, it’s an achievement of such questionable value (taken from almost every outside perspective) as to be almost worthless. One or two improvisers join the ranks of Saturday Night Live every season, but most spend their days doing non-spontaneous things like catering or temping or auditioning for roles in order to keep their SAG health insurance from lapsing.
So why do they do it? The improvisers at the PIT are mostly in their twenties and thirties. They came to the city after college to discover themselves, to become individuals. At some point in those first few months they needed work and they got their first gig as a caterer or their first glimpse of real-life corporate culture. Do you remember that moment? The surprise at seeing actual cubicles? The dronelike aspect of people just a few years older than you? The humiliation of eating at your own desk? It’s a culture of boredom. Everyone seems to be wearing a false face. Spontaneity is almost actively discouraged. You realize, perhaps for the first time, how easy it is to be meaningless— even to be successful and meaningless. It is a world most of us want to backpedal away from, but don’t know how. And then somehow the unicycle of improv comes wobbling by. Is it any wonder we leap on it?
You take classes. In your very first improv class, you learn the orienting rule of the whole endeavor, the rule of “yes-and.” The scene is built on this little engine. When your partner makes an offer, you’re taught to agree to the basic premise of it (“yes”) and to add something of your own (“and”). But like many simple maxims, “yes-and” proves to be an almost endlessly renewable resource. There are always more profound ways to understand the value of “yes,” the value of “and.” Other frequently cited rules include “Listen and react” (usually with a slow, hissed emphasis on “listen”), “Follow the fear,” “Commit, don’t comment” and “Make your partner look good.” Beginning improvisers often wander around in a phase of revelatory ecstasy in the weeks after they’re first exposed to these rules. Life suddenly looks like a stream of improvised scenes (which of course it is), and one senses the potential of being able to invest every interaction with a sense of discovery. Take risks, agree with people, commit completely to every interaction, don’t deny the gifts others are offering you. Improv, one starts to feel sure, is a philosophy for living, a way of finally being one’s complete self.
Walk through the canyons of midtown Manhattan on any given evening and in the towers overhead are hundreds of amateurs working dutifully to unlock something astonishing in themselves. Each rental studio contains a different type of dreamer. The majority are salsa dancers. There are also jazz singers, tai chi students, songwriters, off-off Broadway hopefuls and long-tail oddities like Jedi fight scene reenactors. At some point, each of them saw someone impressive, someone who looked like they’d acquired a fluid way of being human. Their practice is predicated on that vision and on being able to recreate it in themselves. But like the improvisers, they can’t yet know if they have it in them. So the whole time they’re belting out show tunes or doing salsa or whatever it is, they’ve got on one hand the vision, the promise of effortless spontaneity, and on the other, the quiet ghost of a question, “Am I good?” Not necessarily am I good now, but am I potentially good? If I were to give myself completely to this practice, would I be good? Do I have a talent?
This is a question the improviser asks himself regularly. It’s a question I imagine almost everyone asks themselves, at least in regards to the things they’re passionate about doing well. It is probably the defining question of a serious interest: Have I got it in me? And it leads us straight into a mess of corollary questions about the latency of talent. For example, if I really had it in me, would I even have to ask? Wouldn’t I just know? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the not-knowing is just an initiatory hurdle-like component of my talent, on the other side of which lie my natural gifts and abilities. Or maybe everything just comes down to practice. After all, aside from military-grade savants it’s impossible to think of someone having a talent for something without having practiced it obsessively. But the fact that practice correlates with talent doesn’t do anything to help solve the agonizing question of whether there is first the innate talent which helps make the practice more fulfilling, or whether the years of practice gradually prove the innate talent. Maybe talent is simply a talent for a particular type of practice. But then what if this is the wrong practice? Maybe I’ve misunderstood my own faint impulses and my true talent is lying dormant, waiting for me to take up the harmonica or long-distance cycling. Maybe I have exceptionally efficient cardiac muscles, or perfect pitch. How would I know? How could I not know?
Everyone, I’ve said, asks themselves these questions. But in improv the stakes are higher. In improv, you’re not doing your work in some other medium; you’re working entirely in and through yourself. A painter may be evaluated on his eye for color, his sense of texture, or the depth of his soul, but all these, even the last, are communicated through the intermediary of his paint. Actors rehearse their blocking, workshop their characters, tweak their performances and only then deliver their lines. The same is true of the poet, the novelist, the dancer, even the jazz musician. Each either is or is not the master of a technical skill. They have the consolation of a medium. At least one order of creative magnitude separates them from their work.
The improviser, on the other hand, is wholly implicated in his performance. At the start of every show, and in fact at the start of every scene or gesture, he has nothing to stand upon. He must act without knowing why, and in so doing he discovers the grounds for his action. This task is both heroic and mundane— it is what one might hope for from existentialist saints, and it is also what each of us tries to do all day long. “Man,” Sartre writes, “is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” It occurs to me now that one simple way to describe a bad show would have been “anguish.” The improviser has no script, no knowledge of what will come next from his partner and no idea where the show is heading. It is true that he collaborates with others to create the show, but it is also true that he is always alone with himself on stage. If he has a talent, it is just this: to be comfortable in his own skin.
If after years of practice and competition, a near-great tennis player hits some snag in his ability, if he discovers that he does not have the talent to become a world-class professional, then he can accept his fate and console himself by becoming an instructor or by going into commercial real estate. Of course he will be disappointed, and he may feel that a large part of himself has been lost, but he can always know that the skill he failed to master (or the talent he lacked) was ultimately distinct from his essence. It was tennis, just a game. If an improviser fails, if he can think of nothing interesting to say, if he cannot relax into the moment and enjoy himself on stage, the cut is deeper. He confirms his worst fear: that he has no talent for being himself.
It is in this context that the improviser can come to seem like a hero. Placing himself in front of the audience, he risks his whole self in the wager that he can do something true, something spontaneous and compelling, right there, on stage. It takes a long time to get to this point in improv, just as it does in life. Many people never reach it. It’s clearly not just a matter of having the most ability, or mastering all the rules. Manley, for instance, still makes plenty of bad moves. What he has transcends his errors just as it exceeds his skills. To call it talent is just another way of saying that it is an alluring mystery. And the audience, composed of regular flawed people with their own anxieties, fears, hopes, desires to be liked, and all the rest, can sense it.
When Manley comes on stage, he comes on grinning and prancing and doing exaggerated runner’s lunges, which I think he does because he enjoys being in a body. Leaning, listing, twirling, mugging. Everything about him is sloppy. And then it’s suddenly rigid. We sit on our folding metal chairs in the dark, watching him as he struts and mugs and fumes and goes stock-still like a soldier. He’s having fun. When, in a scene, he walks toward a chair, he walks with his chest puffed out, just a little bit chickenlike. This gets a laugh. He sits down and crosses his legs and folds his hands in his lap and gives his head a little shimmy that ends with it cocked to the side, and this too gets a laugh. He twiddles his thumbs. Laugh. He takes a breath and clears his throat to start to speak and asks his scene partner, “Everything alright?” This gets the biggest laugh of all.