As a student or audience member of improvisation you may have noticed that the spelling changes. Sometimes impro, sometimes improv. That magical mystery appearing and disappearing V.
Frequently I am asked ‘Why do you call it impro when others call it improv?’ Impro or Improv, which is correct? They are both correct. Then why are there different spellings? Where did that start?
I’m not a scholar on the historical origins of the word, so I did a little research and I think the difference in spelling actually comes from a difference in pronunciation. Impro from the British and improv from the American.
The British and American ‘O’ sound is different and the pause is in a different place.
The British pausing after the o and the American pausing after the v.
UK: /ˌɪm.prə.vaɪˈzeɪ.ʃən/ = impro-visation
USA: /ɪmˌprɑː.vəˈzeɪ.ʃən/ = imprav-isation
I’m noticing this more and more as I travel. For example years ago in the UK I only ever heard it referred to as impro. This began to change with the success of people like Tina Fey and more American teachers travelling and teaching. American English started to flow into the British language and students picked up the word from their teachers or celebrities in interviews. Also many improvisation books began to appear and the authors would often use the word, which related most to them or connected to the biggest market, the USA. This all makes sense in our global community and now many British students find the word impro strange because it is not their normal.
So, if the difference is simply pronunciation, and they are commonly understood to be the same, it doesn’t really matter which we use. After all Impro and Improv are exactly the same. Right?
Are all impro and improv shows exactly the same?
No, they are not.
I’m not referring to the obvious differences in the experience of players or quality of the work, but the artistic aims of the show itself.
Improvisation starts from the same place, creating in the spontaneous moment but has vast differences in application, techniques and creative objectives. All improvisation shows are simply not the same. Differences exist. This is good, it is important and it is healthy for an art form to have differences. This promotes thought, debate and exploration, which is vital for growth.
Lets not fear or hide our differences but nurture, explore and support them.
It is exciting to see the wide array of possibilities and creative exploration.
Difference does not mean division.
Division arrives when we look at difference with fear or ego.
Of course it is okay to have opinions, to have preferences, to have different creative goals and focus. We can learn from each other and grow if we can share these differences and have open respectful conversations. We are all on the same family tree, just different branches.
I love being around my musician friends at a folk festival. They are genuinely curious and supportive about their shared passion, music. Most festivals schedule workshop stages or group sessions blending different styles. One of the most magnificent shows I saw was with four groups of women put together. They were so different in musical style and didn’t even share a common language. Yet they did, music, and when they listened, shared and created together it was magical. The hair on the back of my neck still rises at the thought. Then the next day they are back doing their own style and adding that beautiful diversity to the world of music. We can do this. Be individual and collective.
By the way, in that musical moment I was describing, they were improvising.
Uniting together to understand, embrace and promote our different styles could be very useful.
For example Improvisation can be difficult to explain to an audience or the media. Mostly we end up describing how we do it instead of what we will do simply because we do not know the content yet. However, when we describe our shows based only on how we create it, all of our shows begin to sound quite similar. ‘We make it up.’
What if we started to describe our shows based on our creative goals? Groups like Improbable, Show Stoppers, and Impro Theatre are all having great success with this because they are quite clear on what they are producing. They know their artistic goal and creative objectives.
Instead we often rely on defining improvisation as only comedic. This is not true of all improvisation. It is not all comedic. It is not all based on audience suggestions and performed in a pub, cabaret or small black box theatre. There are one person music shows, shows with a cast of 16 people in full costume and set, shows with masks or puppets, musicals and shows that aim to reveal the complexity of humanity.
The labelling of ‘impro / improv is all the same’ simply does not embrace the reality of what is happening. Many improvisation groups are fighting against this one perception/definition of improvisation, which imposes limitations on their creative objectives. Those who are doing more story based theatrical work have the burden of trying to educate audiences that there are differences and improvisation has a wide scope with comedy as a style but not the definition of all improvisation.
Okay Patti. You’ve gone off on one of your tangents.
What does this have to do with using or not using the V in impro or improv?
Well, I am glad you asked.
While I was doing some research on the words impro or improv I found that there were slight variations in the definitions. Let’s compare the Oxford Dictionary, which is British, and the Merriam-Webster, which is American.
Impro – Improvisation and the Theatre is Keith Johnstone’s book and he is British.
Truth in Comedy is about Del Close and he is American.
Both of these teachers explored similar interests in regards to releasing spontaneity, creativity and impulse in students. Yet they also had differences in what they wanted to create and the type of work they were exploring. They started in the same place, yet had different interests and artistic views.
So can we make room for all forms of improvisation to be represented and expressed? Can we find a way of helping us understand the variety and be clearer to students, audiences and the media?
Could this little V be useful in improvisation style clarification?
Could there be value in using Impro to represent more theatrical, stylized narrative-based improvisation and Improv to represent more comedic styles?
To V or not to V, could be a unifier. We could embrace and promote our differences as we celebrate our similarities in this beautiful craft of spontaneous creation. We could do this by choosing to add or remove a V to identify your creative focus based or connect with your own traditions and culture.
Lets understand that variety and diversity in our work is important. We should respect our artistic differences, building a strong community of sharing ideas and open discussion and learn how to communicate to the public and media the massive scope and range of the work being explored.
Lets approach each other with respect, curiosity, support and open minds remembering that differences strengthen our community. It helps us reflect on our own work so we can question, discuss and challenge ourselves. This promotes new ideas, opens communication and growth. If we don’t embrace exploration, challenge and new ideas our community is doomed to keep repeating itself.
Let’s celebrate and promote our differences share our diversity and be proud of this.
Let’s learn to be clear to audiences what we are creating.
Let’s look at our choices and think about who we are and what we are creating.
Lets not just all blend into one.
There is no one right word, they are both right and you have the right to choose how you’ll define your work.
If you are of a theatrical technique or a comedy routine
At the end of the day perhaps a letter doesn’t matter so much. But if people are just following a flow to conform, then it kind of does. Because then we just all meld into one and loose our uniqueness. Whatever speaks to you is right and the community accepts both.
So when people ask me why I use Impro I answer;
I use it because it links me to my work and my history. I was trained by Keith Johnstone and his book Impro and his work inspires me. I use it because I focus on a style and approach to improvisation that is about storytelling and theatre through Keith’s techniques. Using Impro connects me to that work. It may not be the most popular version or the the word spoken by celebrities, but that doesn’t interest me. I use it because it connects me to my creative goals, the work I love, and what is right for me.