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5 Ways to Take Musical Improv to the Next Level

5 Ways to Take Musical Improv to the Next Level
Photo Source: Luke Fontana

For the casual audience member, improv shows are a gamble. For every wide-eyed UCB student with a copy of “Bossypants” and a memory of the perfect TJ and Dave set, there’s a disillusioned co-worker named Phil with a horror story about seeing an all-plaid gaggle of dudes named “Deepak Oprah.” Improv, for the general public, is often a tough sell.

But we might have it a little tougher as a musical improv duo.

Unless you’re Wayne Brady’s mom, musical improv probably isn’t on your radar. So, let us pitch you! “Your Love, Our Musical!” is a two-person show in which we, Rebecca Vigil and Evan Kaufman, select a couple from the audience, interview them, and then improvise a musical about their love story on the spot.

Our show is a year old. We’ve had a string of successful shows at the Peoples Improv Theater, performed at bridal showers, and just recently sold out our 2015 Fringe Festival run. On several occasions we’ve received improv’s highest compliment: “That was scripted, right?”

But it wasn’t always sold-out Fringe Festival runs and Scrooge McDuck vaults of money. (It still isn’t that, actually.) We love musical improv and wanted to show audiences it could be more than a gimmick, so we made a choice to take our show to the next level by entering it into the New York International Fringe Festival. Here are things that helped it happen for us.

1. Production value. Improv is made up, and therefore inherently loose. That doesn’t mean your improv show has to be. In order to emphasize the “show” part, we class it up and focus on production. We dress in our Sunday best, hire a three-piece band, and pay a tech person whom we trust. The audience feels as if they’re about to see a real musical, and they are—one we’re about to discover with them.

2. Narrow your focus. Improv shows come in many forms: Harolds, montages, monoscenes, etc. Our show is a musical improv show, with one signifier: your love story. By narrowing down what our show was about, it focused our pitch. Your show should have an easily understandable logline. “A musical improv show about a love story from a couple in the audience” is an easier sell than “Uh…we make stuff up.”

3. Money. Art needs funding. Save it, crowdfund it, beg for it. We created an Indiegogo campaign in order to get into the Fringe Festival and pay our tech and musicians. We knew we had to make an investment. Money breeds professionalism and accountability.

4. Dream big and believe. When we first started the show, we didn’t believe in it. We both got into improv for many reasons, but one was ease. However, we soon discovered that attendance matched effort. When we started to treat the show like it was more, it became more. Fringe was a risk, but risk excites people and energizes your base of support. We’ve learned not to limit ourselves. In order for improv to continue to progress, we need to imagine where it can go. You can’t perform at the White House if you never think of it.

5. Let improv guide you. “Yes, and,” “Commit, don’t comment,” “Follow the fear”—these are some classic sound bites from every improv classroom in the country. What works onstage works in real life. It’s amazing how many people understand the tenets of improvisation but don’t use them when creating their art. In the past month we’ve “Yes, and”-ed our way to Fringe, committed to our show like never before, and followed our fear of both failure and success. Improv isn’t just a philosophy for good stage work. It’s a philosophy for a well-lived artistic life.

Our show, like any show, hinges on an intangible: Is it any good? We can only do our best and hope audiences connect. But by following the above steps, we ensured ourselves a shot at convincing a brand-new audience of musical improv’s legitimacy. Now, all we can do is dress in our Sunday best, wait for the curtain to rise, and show your co-worker Phil how great a musical improv show can be.

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