"New to this country!"

One of the things I get annoyed by is improvisation groups thinking they’re the first. The first whatever; first group doing student improv in their town, first group doing an improvised musical, first group improvising a play entirely in gibberish. It’s never the first.

In particular, one thing that happens is that a group of actors and comedians start doing some improv games (in a Whose Line Is It Anyway? style), then go to Chicago, or LA, and come back full of ideas about doing long-form improvisation, saying things like “this kind of improvisation is fairly new to this country”. (Yes, there’s a specific group that’s sparked this rant, but since I haven’t seen them perform I can’t pass judgement so I won’t bother linking to them.)

Usually, by “fairly new”, they mean in the last five years, which isn’t true. (The latest wave of improvisation started 5-10 years ago in this country, and there were various people doing full-length improvised shows, one way or another, around in the first half of that, and indeed before it, bucking the trend.)

Sometimes, by “fairly new”, they mean in the last twenty years, which isn’t true. Keith Johnstone was playing with this stuff in the 60s, for instance. (Although he’s often better known for things like Micetro these days, which is a shame.)

Rarely, by “fairly new”, they mean “after Palestrina”, which is possibly true but still seems unlikely (think: bards). Certainly people were improvising narratives back in the Middle Ages quite happily in the UK. If you look farther afield, semi-structured narrative improvisation (where aspects of the story are familiar to the audiences, either using tropes and archetypes, or by using base stories) have been around since before the Romans. Long, long before the Romans.

So stop trying to claim you’re new; just be interesting, and exult in that.

(While we’re here, can lazy reviewers stop comparing every impro group with Paul Merton? KTHXBAI.)

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