It is worth being skeptical though, as to whether or not we're using these words "correctly", or in absence of nailing the accuracy, at least the precision of this terminology. Do we use these terms the same? When we speak of these high-minded, social agreement ideals, do we want the same thing? Would we all be happy if the director (or theater owner) thought we achieved it? Lots of gilded (which means to conceal the valueless with luster) stories about improv-teams-past wax sanguine on the social commitment and interaction of the individual members and their relationships to each other, but don't spend much time on how they got there, or what the secret sauce is to achieving it again in the future. (Put another way: could we take any random assemblage of 4-10 people and make a new "Baron's Barracudas" or "(Victim's) Family"?)
I think it is worth noting that the idea of community is both an inclusive term as well as an exclusive one; that is it both includes the people as members of a particular group, uniting them under one common banner or name, while simultaneously excluding people who are not part of the community. There is some discussion in one Facebook community improv group as to whether people who are not geographically located in that city should be allowed to be members of the group (including one person who has never lived in the city advocating for the removal of a particular, select few from the group on that basis, which is charmingly ironic). I know a number of cities that have geographical groups, as well as individual groups for individual theaters or collective organizations, but due to the high level of cross-pollination between theaters, it often makes the memberships between such groups near identical, essentially removing the value of an inner enclave, excepting the desire of the administrators to get to decide who to let into the clubhouse (although it gives you more pages to post on, so I guess that's...something). Excluding geographical distinctions or "pissing match" discretions, calling one a member of a community is meant to bind one to the inner circle while at the same time saying that anyone else is an "other" or "alien" to that circle.
Maybe let's define some terms first, and I'll try and hit a bunch of commonly used ones. "Ensemble" is maybe the lowest form of community - this is, in functional terms, a group of 3-16 people who get together probably once a week to rehearse, and then perform variously. Ensemble is the term that has maybe the most flowery ideal - an integrated, functioning, cohesive unit of individuals. We imagine a group that speaks a second language, anticipates and cooperates, and thinks as a group. Realistically though, we should separate the adjective of "ensemble" (or perhaps the capital "E", Ensemble) from what an ensemble most universally is: a group of individuals who have come together to work together on a project. Team is probably synonymous with ensemble at this point - teamwork is only really work that is done by more than one, and the word teamwork essentially is disregarding of efficiency (how well cooperation is being done) or enjoyment (how much everyone likes each other).
We move up to "community" - probably the most over-used (or at least exhaustively used) term. We love communities because we have come to imagine a collection of small houses or structures, everyone living together, working together to a common purpose, everyone belongs, shares, and sacrifices for each other. I'm gonna burst another bubble here, because stripping away the poetic ideal, a community is only a group of people who share interests, culture, and/or locality, and see a distinction of that group from other groups. When we talk of improv communities, we imagine fraternities/sororities, social groups, or even "clubs", which can exist, but not essentially or necessarily, and I would argue practically never exist, and may have never existed.
For example, this picture (right) is fairly typical of how improv theaters sell "their" community. Supportive is part of community, sure - I wouldn't want to join a community that I didn't feel like took care of its members, but I question how authentically a community sees itself if being "funny" and physically attractive is a requirement to a thriving community. (Not to say these people are not those things - they clearly are physically attractive people, and I personally know that they are, in fact, funny people.) These, however, do not, a community make. We could equally take apart "supportive" (to provide encouragement) and really hold it up: I think that contemporary functionally supportive-ness is just liking each other's Facebook posts, but it is obvious that doesn't really make us satisfied, and is no more communal than just shouting "good job, neighbor!" over your fence.
I asked a friend of mine recently who is a company member of a Shakespeare group what it meant to her to "have someone's back", and she said it had a lot to do with caring about that person's well-being - happiness and safety, and also being the provider of said attributes. It also, she continued, pertains a lot about "trust". Another common refrain - what does it mean to trust people? Reliance? Dependability? Secret-telling? I know a lot of teams do the "got your back ritual" (right before a show, you teach each other on the shoulder blades and repeat "got your back"), but does this automatically invoke trust? And to go back to my earlier argument about communities within a community - if an interior community only supports itself and not the other parts of the geographical community, is it a good participant in "community"? If we had a small township, and one block of houses only watched out for themselves, are they still "supporting the community-at-large"?
(A side note about the "got your back" ritual - I was once on a team where the director made us look each other in the eye and instead say "watch your back", because she wanted us to feel like any one of us could take another out at any point, which I think most people ignored the same way they ignored "watch your back", but always made me anxious. If being on your own feels like being hunted and unsafe, then the very idea of being apart of an organization should be the opposite, safe and hunting. Basically, when your spears are pointed in, they cannot point out, and you cannot thrive if all you're doing is surviving.)
I break down communities into different classifications based on relative size, development, evolution, and/or maturity: Latent, Nascent, Established, and Meta. These classifications make no qualms or judgements about the types of work being performed or the quality therein, merely to assess how much is going on, and usually how many people are involved.
Latent (from Latin, to lie hidden) is any community that has no brick-and-mortar improv theaters. There can be any number of active improv groups of any size, any number of improvisers, but they are defined by the fact that "finding" gatherings, shows, workshops, or events is largely based on who-you-know-itude, or just pure luck. At this level, you usually expect only one or two "big cheese" type of people, and maybe some rough inter-group cooperation.
Nascent (Latin, again, to be born) is a stage where there is one (and only one) improv brick-and-mortar theater in an area, which will usually have only one "big cheese", and any number of "house teams" (regularly performing ensembles) and developmental teams. There is (probably almost) always observed and real hierarchy, power, ranking, and pecking order. There is usually a sense of "being on the inside", and that having certain things that must be acquiesced to but with some accompanying prestige, and "being on the outside" which often feels like being independent, underground, and having "less than".
Established are communities that have obtained a second theater - this often creates a check-and-balance, evens out the lopsidedness in power (if any - there are a number of mono-theater communities (Dallas, Omaha) that appear to be well managed), and continues to lift the boat on how visual and recognized the community is to the non-community. From a business perspective (and an artistic one), improv is only really useful if people come see it and engage with it. You could do 1,000 great shows in your living room, but the best fireworks are ones that people get to, and do, watch.
Metacommunities are ones that have at least two theaters (but probably more) and are so large (numbers wise, in a single geographical location) that they contain smaller, functional communities within them. Chicago, LA, NYC, and Austin are great examples of this - places that have so many people involved and so much opportunity that you could conceivably work within them for long periods of time and never cross paths with equivalent opposite numbers in other theaters. These are ones where theaters really try to transcend just "welcome to Chicago, improviser!" and instead promote what makes their individual sub-meta experience better. They are also large enough that an individual theater does not have to "contain multitudes" and can specialize: e.g. the narrative place, the short form theater, the experimental one.
(Perhaps its worth noting here the reason why the importance and emphasis on "brick-and-mortar" establishments, as they 1) become consistent, tangible, visible, (mostly) permanent headquarters for the participants, 2) imply or indicate a certain level of commitment, staking, and cooperation, and 3) necessitate a critical threshold of numbers. They are probably the biggest evolutionary jump in any community.)
These imply and require absolutely no sense of belonging or inclusiveness, though we try to make community mean that too, even though most communities generally contain a lot of sameness, in dress, ideas, and language. In the last probably two years especially, there's been increased emphasis on overcoming that, and encouraging the addition of people who don't look or act like the "typical improviser". (Inclusive, by the way, to enclose, shut-in, embrace, contain and Exclusive, not admitting, omitted, limited, shutting out, (and also fashionable and expensive).) I think communities have gotten mixed up though, when there is increased emphasis on "theater sponsored community" - I think nearly every community by now has either a Facebook group or an actual website where members can ask questions and there are posts about shows, auditions, or workshops.
What is the purpose of these central meeting places? Are they town halls, or merely student union pin boards? Some lean heavily to the latter - one community I'm a member of recently had a whole slew of pretty bad posts and comments - I know for a fact that the moderators wrestled very heavily about how much and what was "acceptable" and "permissible". Some people, it seemed, appreciated a place where these things can be spoken about outloud and publicly, and others, including one of the community leaders, it seemed only wanted a place for them to post about their shows and workshops. (This particular person left in a real huff about what types of comments were allowed, but only after their theater started to get called out, which really calls to question the authenticity of such a stand.)
Camaraderie, fellowship, and cooperation deserve some mention here, but perhaps only briefly, as we've kind of hit around these ideas fairly well already. Camaraderie (the sharing in one's activities), fellowship (friendly relations, sharing of tastes or feelings), and cooperation (working together for common benefit) I think also can get used a little too readily by people wanting to seem like they care, but don't necessitate any belonging. In Eric Weiner's "Geography of Bliss", people are the happiest in those places where it feels like they are actual members of a common group - in effect, you don't have to always watch out for yourself to the exclusion of others, but you and everyone around you is "in it together" - an idea that sadly seems to be without a word right now, which may be an unfortunate reflection of the society in which our language developed.
More worthwhile would be a mention of the word "intimacy", one that I don't think any improv community has ever used to describe its goals or members because it can feel "icky" and a little sexual, but we could describe it in these purposes as "closeness, familiarity, or affection". Intimacy finds its roots in Latin as intimus, or "close friend", and shares true definition with "dear", "exacting", and "thorough", but also has a verbal kin with "intima" - "optimal", "inmost", and "ultimate". One theater I was at routinely combated having players sit in the lobby "talking shit" but made absolutely no attempt to get people to go into the theater to actually watch a show. On more than one occasion, I could hear the laughter of 20 people in the bar on the other side of the wall, while I did a show for 4 people in the seats. Nothing in a community is, nor should be, routine - everything done is built on something that came before and is building to something that will come later.
Here are some terms that I never hear used by theater heads or community leaders to define their communities or their places in those communities: responsibility (taking ownership for failures as well as successes, seeing that hard work is rewarded and unacceptable behavior admonished, seeing to it that the "on paper" principles we hold dear are held), accountability (that theater heads take direct ownership for their work and the people in their charge, that their failures or "less thans" are appropriately dealt with, and that when failures occur, those are not written off as just "a one time thing" or a "we'll consider this in the future" or "a bunch of people dropped the ball here"), diligence (follow through, commitment to ideals, holding the same work ethic when we're sitting in strategic planning meetings as when we are applying the principles in a rehearsal three months later), or professionalism (taking pride in your work, working hard and respecting the work, not settling for mediocrity). Some people are far more interested in being the "authority" - the guru, the Del, "The Guy/Gal", the Big Man/Woman on Campus (BM/WoC) - than in being responsible, accountable, diligent, or reliable, which communities need a lot more than a bunch of Rock Stars.
This is still how improv shows are sold and marketed - a random team from a random theater is just as likely to put the last names of every team member on their group logo as a team containing "actual" stars, the truth is, the idea of a celebrated few, or a minority of the elders has largely eroded and the distance between the "best" improviser and the "average" improviser is much narrower than we'd like to admit. Almost anyone can open an improv theater at this point, and often "founder and artistic director of
Is it a community if all that happens is patting each other on the back and advertising shows? Communities, I believe, in the high-minded definition, in the way that we all seem to think about and talk about, are ones that are not only about passive membership ("oh yeah, I'm a Tulsa improviser") but ones that enjoy active participation. Community is a two way street, from each individual member to the abstract community concept, and back again. We make regular investments and withdrawals all the time. If we want community in the way we ideally strive, it must be this way, members watch out for each other, take care of each other, and treat each other like family, which sometimes means some bad stuff, but also corresponding good stuff. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and that is rewarded in the places we call "home". Theaters must be an extension of that - these are places that we devote our time and energies, and they must give trust and acceptance back in return. A theater that only wants to advertise and not participate is one I don't want to be part of, and this is what I think we talk about when we wax rhapsodic on "community".
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." - Robert Frost.
I think back to all those teams (including those I didn't mention) in the beginning, the ones we hold up as an ideal group, ones that didn't just have "members" or a "cast", ones who didn't just presume that being on the roster was enough, and what they had was this community: they shared, which means sometimes you give, and sometimes you take. You watch out for each other and are there for each other. You don't just promote your own shows, you also champion other people's shows. You aren't just a "card carrying member", you participate, engage, and do.
In a sense, community is about losing the word "their" or "mine" or "yours" from the vocabulary in favor of the word "ours".
Happy improvising, everyone.