Avoiding Avoidance

Conor Mullen reviews
Avoidance: Confronting Criticism Head On
Improv shows are hard. Really hard. Performers at the various improv-focused theatres in New York City sometimes make it look easy, but the moment you step out of those established formulas (Harolds Mono-Scenes, Armando, etc) things get a lot more complicated. That’s because finding new ways to improvise is actually really experimental. Improv has been around since the 1970’s (arguably), but it’s only recently started to expand beyond isolated scene-focused work. Improvisers doing anything different are sailing in uncharted territory. Such is the case with The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble (IRTE) and their new show: “Avoidance! The Game Show”. 
Given all that, I want IRTE to do well. I want them to keep trying new and different things. I want them to push the boundaries of what an improv show can be. That’s why it’s so hard for me when I don’t like one of their shows. So, I decided today I’m going to offer my criticism to IRTE directly, let them know what I liked and disliked about their show and hopefully help them keep innovating for the future.
Hi IRTE. Hope all is well. I just finished watching the closing night performance of “Avoidance! The Game Show” and wanted to talk with you about it. The premise of your show is that a group of extreme introverts participate in a game show to win a year in isolation on a desert island. The challenges in the show all revolve around normal situations that these characters find difficult (the gym, Times Square, a high school reunion, etc). They have to last a certain amount of time. If they can’t make it, they get eliminated. If anyone can make it for the allotted time, they win.
Right here we come to my first big critique. I take issue with how this premise was executed. The four contestants on the game show are all characters, not of introverts, but of people with clear social anxiety disorders. These are real disorders that real people have. However they’re treated like freaks by the hosts of the show. Combine this with the fact that every challenge in the show is basically about invading the introverts physical space until the introvert says they can’t take it anymore and we have a problem. Put all that together and what we’re watching on stage is a group of scared people with behavioral disorders being sexually assaulted until they beg for it to stop. I know that’s harsh, and I’m sure that wasn’t what you wanted the show to be when you created it, but that’s largely what I saw when I watched the show.
This leads nicely into my next criticism which is that, for the life of me, I have no idea which parts of your show were improvised. This is a huge problem. If I can’t tell that you’re making something up on the spot, and then you say something hilarious or insightful I don’t know to be impressed. On the flip side if something doesn’t quite make sense, I don’t know if that’s just improvisers trying to find their footing or bad writing. I think the actual challenges for the contestants were the primary improvised moments… but I’m not sure, and that’s not good.
Finally I want to offer one more piece of criticism for the show. This is my harshest but also probably the most important. There were a number of moments in the show that actually made me feel uncomfortable or offended an an audience member. And (I think) they were all improvised lines spoken without consideration or forethought. When a performer says to two women sitting together (who may or may not be a couple) “whichever one of you is the man in the relationship” that’s not funny, that’s demeaning and sexist. Again, I doubt that was the intent, but that was my experience of it. Normally I wouldn’t bring up this stuff (plenty of improv shows have mistakes like this) but when it’s happening multiple times in a show it’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
IRTE, I support your company and I want you to be successful. I want you to be able to elevate the craft of improvisational theatre while opening it up to a broader audience of theatergoers (like your bio says), but I’m also going to be critical when you make a misstep in that process.
However, it wouldn’t be fair or honest to be completely negative. I do want to, before we close this out, commend two things about “Avoidance! The Game Show” that I really liked. First, the musical guest of Tym Moss was an excellent inclusion. Moss proved to fit well with the premise of the show (being that his stage personal was a pretty extreme extrovert) and he served as a nice change of pace from the rest of the piece. It was during his performances that the show transformed into a kind of through-the-looking-glass kind of performance that was fascinating in it’s sheer absurdity.
I also must commend the ending of the show. Improv, as a rule, has a lot of trouble with endings, especially small endings. But the intimacy of the piece’s conclusion (leaving one man alone on stage on the verge of tears, having lost it all) was a stark contrast to the rest of the piece and, with a little more TLC surrounding it, could be a powerful conclusion.
 
Now, back to talking to everyone. 
I still encourage you to keep IRTE on your radar for the future. They definitely have done good work in the past, and as I said before: improv shows are hard. This one, as far as I can see, missed the mark. But I have high hopes for the future and I’m confident that while we will make mistakes along the way, improv can grow and change for the better with the help of The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble.
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