SXSW Tales: Improv — Art or Self-Help Tool?

I’m in Austin for my first ever visit to the South by Southwest Festival. The weather is ghastly and it’s a clusterfuck. But I’m having a great time so far nevertheless.

Caught an interesting panel at 2pm given by husband and wife improv team Lisa and Jordan Hirsch. Their presentation, “Change Happens: Improv for an Unpredictable World” made me think about the many, mostly awful improvised theatre shows that I’ve seen in my time and how improv may have more value as an education and self-help tool than an artistic statement.

The Hirschs’ talk began with the truthism that life is all about improvisation. We improv in everyday life; there is no script for what we do and say each day. As such, learning the sorts of skills that improv actors bring to their work on stage can help people improvise better in real life, off stage.

I buy this idea. I also buy the notion that because life constantly defies expectations and is is in many ways akin to an improv show where the actors don’t know what will happen next, we need to proceed with our lives in a similar fashion. Improv tools can help us tackle the unexpected in a more optimal way.

While I had been hoping for the presentation to be more interactive than it was (pairs of volunteers from the audience were called upon only a few times to demo a few short exercises and this is the SXSW INTERACTIVE festival after all!) and the Hirschs had that annoying married couple habit of saying the same thing at the same time, I found the discussion to be thought-provicative.

I came away feeling like the presenters had made a very strong case for improv as an educational / self-help tool. This wasn’t the intention though. When I asked them in the Q&A session to discuss the notion of improv as an art form versus a coping skills mechanism, the response I got was merely a defense of improv as art. They didn’t address the other side of the equation at all.

“Great improv is a real art form,” Lisa said, encouraging me to check out a documentary that supposedly proves the point entitled “Trust us this is all made up.”

I remain to be convinced about improv as art. But I think it can help people maneuver better in their everyday lives.

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