After some very intense introspection I can only conclude that improv and improvisational comedy is a cult. It might surprise you that despite all of this I still consider myself an improviser. It has helped me with my acting and my writing. I should also point out that some of the most meaningful friendships I have ever had come from the world of improv. So you would be right to ask “what would drive an improviser to write an article exposing it is a cult?” It is because in the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to documentaries and fiction about cults. I wasn’t sure why but I started to relate to the people who are called “deniers” and set apart from the group, because to some extent this is what happened to me. It slowly dawned on me that the cults being described were alarmingly similar to the improv companies I used to work for. Like Leah Remini and her struggle with Scientology, I still care about the community I come from. And I still want to believe that improv itself is a potentially great art form. But clearly we are not there yet.
So I find it is my duty, as someone who went through the whole system and came out the other end somewhat damaged, to point out the dangers. These dangers are particularly centered around “group thought”, “hive brain”, and “yes anding”. This is a fascistic tendency that is alarmingly apparent within the current “schools of no-thought” and “powers that be” that control the improv community. There is also a tendency for improv to suffer from the ills of the surrounding society, namely racism and sexism. It is a white male dominated art form. This is why I have mentioned Donald Trump several times. Although improvisers like to believe that they are left leaning liberals (and I would love them if they were) they are not. The are racist bullies. Nothing more and nothing less.
That being said, the art form itself is still evolving. If you are interested in studying improv or comedy I would certainly suggest that it is worth taking some courses. But I would encourage you not to get caught up in the politics and pettiness of an improv organization. Just beware of the narcissistic games.
Other than the main company that supports improv there are other improv theaters. But even these can be accused of the same problems. A fascinating article by The New Yorker pointed out how the Upright Citizens Brigade (disturbing name) delves into cult like behaviour. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/upright-citizens-brigades-comedy-empire The organization has deflected these charges by making a comedy video comparing themselves to Scientology but believe me it is no joke. There is another theater called The National Theater of the World but from what I can tell from their web page they are just a white couple. Which nations of the world do they represent? I know these names are meant to be jokes, but that is what improvisers do. They use jokes and laughter to deflect the ugliness of what they are actually doing behind the scenes. I couldn’t help but notice that the names themselves suggest a cult like tendency.
If you read the book Truth in Comedy you will learn about the Harold format where many improvisers believe that because of the continued use of the number 3 that some sort of group spirit evolves. Incidentally, the Freemasons also believe in the spiritual qualities of the number three. Creepy! The book was partly written by Del Close who was one of the greatest heroes and innovators of improv. He was also, not surprisingly, a friend of L. Ron Hubbard and may have been a Scientologist. Does the idea of improv being a cult still sound far fetched to you?
Personally, I have suggested to friends to join more local groups of improv in the suburbs or smaller towns only to learn that the exact same mind games and cult like behaviors go on there as well. This hive mentality seems to naturally go along with improv. So my advice is get in, get what you need, get out and then make your own art from it. And that is my best advice to you after the highs and lows of my bizarre twenty years of improv.
Break a leg!
(I realize this blog has all the different sections newest to oldest so I will reprint the whole article next week as one good long read for all my visitors. Also I will update from time to time when I see more examples of their cult like behavior. There was just another example of it this week.)