How Improv Carved a Niche

Keeping improv viable and solvent and saving the chaos for the stage.

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How Improv Carved a Niche

Post by DanC »

Live theater was once a form of popular entertainment. Producers hired actors and crew and sold tickets to the event. Ticket revenue was enough to cover costs.

Then movies came in and they became popular entertainment. Then came radio, television, home video, streaming. Live theater was pushed into a niche - an elite entertainment. Elite in terms of ticket price (admission was more expensive than a movie) and in terms of content. The plays that got produced were so often classics from centuries ago or stuff about neurotic college professors with alcoholic wives. High-brow stuff. Going to the theater was like eating your vegetables.

Audiences were hard to come by. Even cutting costs to the bone producers could barely make it work. Even with unpaid actors and crew, shows had a hard time making their costs back at the box office. Live theater was often subsidized by government agencies or philanthropic organizations - funding for the arts. It was recognized as a social good the market would not produce on its own.

There were lot of people who want to do theater. Kids took drama classes in high school and sometimes majored in it in college. Jobs however, were mostly in TV (including commercials) and movies. Live theater could be a feeder for those industries - like a minor league for actors and writers. But on its own live theater limped along, plagued by unfavorable economic structure. And supply vastly exceeded demand. So many people wanted to act (or direct, etc) but hardly anyone wanted to buy a theater ticket.

Then improv theaters came along and solved this problem - at least for a segment of theater. The way they solved it was by getting the money from the performers instead of from the audience. It worked because supply was so much greater than demand. The theaters fashioned themselves as training centers and charged people to take classes. As a side business - and a perk to paying students - they operated a theater for the public to come watch shows.

This was a market solution - free enterprise worked - and resulted in production of a lot of shows that otherwise would never have happened. Ticket prices were no longer elite; they were actually cheaper than a movie ticket. A lot of people were putting on and viewing live theater.

This explains why only a small percentage of performers will ever make money at improv (or any comedy). Supply vastly exceeds demand. It’s not (just) a matter of individual talent. Stand-up comedians may naively mock the improv industry with its classes and expectations that students pay, but this industry partially creates a community and culture for comedy that stand-ups benefit from, and it enables the functioning of venues that many stand-ups perform at.
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