Is Improv a Cult?

You see them all over Chicago; small bands of young people chanting in a circle. You see them on street corners asking you to come to one of their rallies or "shows." Some of your favorite celebrities are connected to organizations that claim them as one of their own. That temp in your office is secretly a member and will talk your ear off once you engage them in the topic.

Improv definitely fits most of the requirements for a cult. It has a strict set of rule and customs that its practitioners follow (or risk expulsion). Adherents advance in levels and pay to do so. It virtually has it own language and its students can recognize each other. It generates an intense sense of devotion and venerates its progenitors. 

Like most weird religions, there are several branches that shun each other (you know, like how some Star Trek fans love the original series, but hate the Next Generation?) and some even have outlets in other cities and coordinate their activities.
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People involved in improvisation tend to try to recruit those who are not; either to come see a show or to join a class.

In a very odd connection, improv pioneer Del Close spent some time with L. Ron Hubbard. The book, "The Funniest One in the Room" by Kim Johnson states, 

"In his later years, Del would explain that Hubbard cured his asthma in 1951 at the Wichita Dianetics Foundation... He claimed that Hubbard was always complaining about the AMA and the IRS, reiterating his desire to start a religion.
Did Del, with his love of psychohistory, follow in his friends footsteps and create a myth, credo and cult of improvisation?

I guess in the long-run it doesn't matter. As long as it does more good than harm, as long as people feel better and bettered by their participation.

As for me, Del Close and the philosophy of improvisation have greatly altered my life and mind.

  • Play at the top of your intelligence.
  • Support your friends.
  • Say Yes.
  • Accept and Add.
  • Love the moment you're in.

There are worse commandments.


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  • Del Close's role and intent can only be left to interpretation. The more pertinent question is how are the respective heads of the established guard treating those people that walk through their doors? Is it a symbiotic relationship, or is it more one-sided?

    That's open to a lot of interpretation, but there are some key elements missing.

    Cult members are often discouraged from affiliating outside the social limits of the cult. See Moonies. Never once have I seen this happen in an improv circle.

    Cult membership can also be driven by the promise of reward for recruiting other members. See Amway or DirecTV. Not a practice openly employed by anyone in the Chicago scene (to my knowledge)

    Cult members are often subject to severe indoctrination upon entrance. Improv's rules are established to prevent other people from getting hurt, but they don't limit behavior.

    Cult members drink Kool-Aid, get married in mass weddings, and have theo-sophist arguments about the meaning of symbolic objects. Well, come to think of it, improv folk do all those things too.

    The desire for fame/recognition/accomplishment is a common motivator in both cults and the arts. Cults play upon those desires to lure people in. Improv theaters survive off the fact that they sell the opportunity to perhaps be seen. While that can at times seem to be a duplicitous existence, the scene has a long way to go before it reaches cult status.

    Chin and Danny Mora aren't snatching people off the street in an unmarked Econoline van. Yet...

  • I liked your post so much that I reposted it at

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