If Del Close, one of the founding fathers of improv, had a mission (other than terrorizing some of his students in his classes), it was to make improv an art form. And if that’s true, that makes you an artist.
Back in the ’80s, improv had very little respect. If you told people you were an improviser they would say “Oh, so you do stand up?” People outside of the tiny improv community did not get it. It was not legitimate form of anything.
So Del had a daunting task: Take a small group of wayward improvisers and try to convince them they were artists. His gift was to make us believe that what we were doing was noble and worthwhile, way before it became popular and respected.
I have mixed feelings about Del, like I do about my own father, but I am grateful to him that today I can call myself an artist. I know some people have a hard time with that word. They think it’s pretentious. For me, calling myself an artist is about having self-respect.
Del used to say, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.”
Seeing myself as an artist doesn’t only apply to my improvising. It applies to my teaching, acting, interviewing people on Improv Nerd and writing this blog. It means that what I’m doing isn’t just a hobby, but a way of life. How much money you make off your art has nothing to do with calling yourself an artist. I don’t care if you have day job and work 40 hours a week or you have six jobs, if you’re an improviser, you’re an artist.
You are an artist when you say you are an artist. The believing comes in the doing. Artists create. That is what we do. And the more we create, the easier it is to believe when we call ourselves artists.
When an artist fails, she does not care what the audience thinks. Del used to say “A groan from the audience was as good as a laugh.” He was right. Our job as an artist is to make the audience think, and more importantly, to feel.
The audience is coming to us for our help. They want us to take them to places they are afraid to go and to make them feel emotions they cannot access in their own life, which is why they reward us with their time and money. The audience gets a huge return on such a tiny investment. They get to feel and think and see themselves up there, and that is a gift.
We deserve to call ourselves artists because we are making an impact on people’s lives. Don’t ever forget this. We have things to say and ideas to contribute to the world.
We need to declare this out of respect for ourselves and for the other people who work in this field. And the more that we do that, and the more people join us, we will continue to elevate this art form, or any other art form or creative project we get involved in, and in the process everyone will be better for it.
I cannot think of better contribution to the world.