Here at Countdown Theater, we can’t stress enough how much we value owning your own work. What do we mean by that, exactly? We believe that ownership begins by asserting creative control over your own body of work or project, and exerting the effort necessary to bring it to fruition. Ownership means making conscious choices about the sort of work you want to do, and aligning that work with a governing set of beliefs and values. Ownership is about having a vision, committing to that vision, and executing it.
Participation in a large theater system, with its leveled class systems and house team structure, disincentivizes improvisers over time from owning their own work. Available performance slots dwarf the number of improvisers who want them; the scarcity of those regular slots often means that independent projects go months between performance dates, halting their artistic progress. It is a challenge to build momentum in the first place, let alone to do so with a series of sporadic dates. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the sporadic dates often mean the work is subpar, so many people simply stop putting in the work to make it better.
We know this to be true, because, from 2010 to 2014, Justin and I didn’t put in that work, either. Though we first started performing together as an independent duo in 2010, our creative energies remained fixed on our house teams. Our practices together, as a result, became more and more irregular. When they did happen, they were unfocused, and, thanks to our house team mentalities, our main objective during them (despite our friendship) seemed to be to prove our dominance over the other person, rather than listen to or play with them. The same was true for the sporadic shows we did. As you can imagine, the improv was (Italian voice) not-a so good-a. It was only when our house teams disappeared in 2014, and we began to work together exclusively and in earnest, that we saw what might have been during those first four years, had we just buckled down, done the work, and claimed ownership.
The quest for validation in the house team system can become all-consuming. It did for us. In 2014, Justin and I were on the phone discussing the coming house team auditions at the Magnet, considering not going through with them, imagining for a moment or two what sort of progress we could achieve as a duo with the time that would be freed with neither of us on house teams. As part of this conversation, I remember distinctly saying to Justin, “Listen, if I could perform just with you weekly, I’d totally do it, but we can’t.”
It is, frankly, easier to stay in a house team system — if you’re lucky enough to be one of the ones who does stick around — than it is to create your own work. (You convince yourself of this by saying things like “I can’t do the other work I really want to do.”) It is easier to keep auditioning than to refuse the audition and start something on your own. It is easier to outsource validation, as finding it within yourself is often much harder. Inertia builds over time. If you have a weekly performance slot with a team you’re reasonably happy performing with and an audience who is laughing, what is the incentive to push beyond it?
The incentive is this: We’re here to tell you from extensive personal experience that the work over which you claim ownership is always more valuable than the work over which you don’t. The team you create yourself is always going to be better than the team that was created for you, because you are in control of when and how it begins and ends, and how it manifests itself. At the end of the day, artistic ownership is about harnessing the power of your own agency. Placing your faith in institutions and theaters is one thing; relinquishing your agency to them is quite another.
Creating and owning your own work will inevitably be harder. Vision takes time to cultivate. Do not confuse improvisation with instant gratification, as we did for a long time. Just because something does not work immediately does not mean that it doesn’t work, period; focus your larger artistic question not on if it works, but how it works. Most of all, do not let inertia and complacency creep in.
Today, more than ever, artists cannot afford to be complacent. Now is the time to create challenging, interesting, creative work. Now is the time to take a step back and ask yourself why you pursue this art form, and what you believe it has the potential to be, and to get to work on articulating and expressing your vision. Many of us are in a state of disbelief and total despair right now. One improv show (or a hundred of them) isn’t going to change that. But if you are looking for something to grab control of in an environment where it feels as though none of us have control over anything, we think ownership over your artistic work is a good place to start.