In the preface to his book Improv for Everyone, Theatre 99 co-founder Greg Tavares makes it clear just what sort of a how-to book this is.
“First things first: Reading this book will not make you funny,” Tavares writes. “A book can’t do that, and what’s worse is that, right now, as you browse this book for free, you are already as funny as you will ever be.”
Sorry, Michael Scott, but Improv for Everyone won’t make people love you. It’s a book about taking improvisational theater seriously, written by a 25-year veteran of the craft. Tavares, who opened Theatre 99 in 2000 with Brandy Sullivan and Timmy Finch, has also been performing regularly with the improv group The Have Nots! since its inception in 1995.
The book contains advice that Tavares wishes someone had given him when he was first getting started, from nuts-and-bolts scene structure to words of encouragement about failing. “Don’t beat yourself up for sucking,” Tavares says. “Sucking is part of the deal.”
Back in the mid-’80s, when Tavares had just finished high school in Rock Hill, he embraced his theatre-with-an-R-E geekery and signed up for a workshop in Indiana with the International Thespian Society — as the only non-high school student in the program. He’d tried improv before, but in Indiana, a teacher helped him to discover that he had the knack. “I was one of those people who was never good at anything, no kidding,” Tavares says. “So being good at something is a pretty powerful aphrodisiac.”
As an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, he met like-minded actors in the We’re Not Your Mothers’ Players, a group that met every Friday night in the then-decrepit Benson Theater on campus and often rehearsed until 1 or 2 a.m. After graduating from USC’s theater program and earning an MFA in directing from the University of Nebraska, he returned to South Carolina and formed the troupe and the venue that would come to define the Charleston improv scene.
The book, he says, is “for people who love improv and want improv to love them back.” It’s for improvisational actors who, for one reason or another, have hit their first slump or plateau. Tavares has been teaching classes at Theatre 99 for some time now, so he also draws on experience watching students make rookie mistakes. No. 1 mistake? Trying to be funny.
“They think it has to be funny immediately, so they play ridiculously stupid characters and completely unbelievable situations because they’re so freaked out that the audience isn’t laughing yet,” Tavares says.
Tavares makes a point in his book of not issuing a lot of prohibitions. Instead, he focuses on what he calls the Noodles and the Sauce: what the actors are make-believing and what their characters feel about it. Still, he issues one big no-no: Don’t judge the performance while you’re acting. “Nothing good can come from judging it,” Tavares says. “Afterward at the bar, pick it to pieces, but during the show, don’t judge.”
And if nothing else, take a little comfort from nervous laughter in the crowd.
“Most of the time, people laugh during improv shows because they’re embarrassed for the performers,” Tavares says. “That’s the truth, if I had to be bitterly honest. People don’t laugh because what we’re doing is funny most of the time. They laugh because they’re nervous for us and we’re making it up and we’re failing half of the time … That’s the high-wire act we’re doing. It’s a bit of a circus trick in that way.”