The “fourth wall,” that invisible barrier set up between the edge of the stage and the audience and meant to separate the fictional world of the performance from the real world that the audience inhabits, came into existence (at least as a conscious psychological and artistic object) in the 19th century with the advent of theatrical realism. Unlike with, for example, Shakespeare, where characters frequently spoke “asides” that were both “to” the audience and ignorant of their existence, realism did not allow for such ambiguity. If you are in the world of the play, the audience does not exist; if you address or acknowledge the audience in any way, you have “broken the fourth wall” and are now in the realm of metatheatricality.
Of course, recently, many television comedies (The Office taking the lead among them) have popularized the use of the camera (and hence, by extension, the audience) as a complicit participant in the action. I’ll leave what this means to television critics and media scholars, but I do think, especially in light of improvisational comedy’s influence on contemporary comedy in general (at this point, most current comedy writers and performers have been trained in improvisation), that it’s worth asking whether this rediscovered permeability of the fourth wall might relate to live improv’s relationship with this invisible barrier.
The reason why fourth wall-breaking moves in improv are particularly interesting to consider is that they have a way of making the audience feel complicit in a way that no other art form can. If a scripted play were to utilize these tactics it could be fun and surprising, but the audience will always remain conscious that the move was decided upon beforehand—by the playwright, the director—and acted out according to plan rather than according to some compelling, immediate reaction to the moment. Only in improv is there the potentially for the feeling that this choice to break through the wall was one that genuinely and necessarily grew out of the performance itself in real time.
There are, as I see it, three distinct categories of fourth wall-breaking in improv (but, of course, as many endless permutations as there are new scenes to perform) that both come from and lead to different places, with varying degrees of success in different ways. To wit:
- The “Meta” Break: This move occurs when performers literally stop the “make-believe” action of the show to talk about the show itself. This happens not infrequently in group games of Harolds where someone will begin with something like, “This show has had a lot of dinosaurs in it so far, huh?” Sometimes this move can be less directive, as when one performer might break in to another performer’s monologue with a “Wait, did that really happen to you?”, acknowledging that this person is, in fact, a performer who can be spoken to within the show itself. This kind of fourth wall-breaking is so overt that, once done, it usually either throws everyone off (if the players become self-conscious of the performative nature of their actions) or flavors the whole show (especially because one of the ways to structure especially a long form performance is to repeat noticeable patterns once they emerge). Given a “meta” move’s strong power over the performance, such shows either go very well or very badly, depending on both the performers’ comfort and skill with this style, and the audiences’ “gameness” for this type of performance at any given performance.
- The “Extending the World of the Scene” Break: If you’ve ever been to an improv show where one or more of the players on stage is suddenly out in the audience—in an empty seat, usually, but sometimes just standing somewhere in the house—you’ve seen this move. Sometimes it literally just means to show physical distance (two people are on opposite shores of a river calling to each other), in which case although the stage has been left, the fourth wall remains roughly intact in that the audience is still “ignored” in the course of the scene, even if it takes place among them. What does effectively break the fourth wall, however, is when that player in the audience is actually an audience member to the action on the stage. To be clear, it is not that they become part of the audience of the improv show in progress—instead, they are the audience for the spelling bee, or the parents in the risers at the big football game. In making this move, they actually bring the audience into the performance, not as they are currently, but as they are transformed into a theatricalized audience in the world of the scene. As an audience member, you are now parents at the spelling bee, the big game. You are in the show, cast in the role of spectator.
- The “Winking to the Audience” Break: The final kind of fourth wall-breaking has both less far-reaching effects than the first and is less conscious (or at least less planned) than the second. If you’ve ever seen a performer make a truly bad (or truly great) pun or pop culture reference or callback on stage you’ve probably seen it to one degree or another. They’ll say the line, hear the groan or the cheer or the laugh of recognition, and then quite often shake their head in shame, or smile, or half look to the audience and say—in a whisper or even out loud—“I’m sorry” or, “You’re welcome,” before moving on with the scene in character. It makes some sense—unlike other performative arts, the improviser is 100% responsible for the content that she produces, and producing that content in real time for a live audience means getting immediate feedback that a performer can sometimes feel obligated to acknowledge. It’s also a much more prevalent occurrence when the performer is in the more self-conscious “joke producing mode” than when they are in a more responsive, relationship-building performing stance. In other words, if you’re so immersed in your character and the scene that you “forget” you’re performing, its unlikely that you’ll even make that pun in the first place, or, if you do, you’ll make it because your character is the type of character who’d be compelled to make it, in which case, no acknowledgment of audience reaction is required, since your character sees no audience. While it isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing to ignore or acknowledge the audience in these cases, it’s worth noting when one finds oneself in each mode in order to take note of the relative success of each in a given show.
Again, each of these kinds of fourth-wall breaking, in their own way, have the effect of making the audience feel complicit, like “part of the show.” The negative side of this coin, however, is that, in the absence of a sense of predetermined purpose (as with scripted theatre), the audience can potentially see fourth-wall breaking as some sort of shortcut—something that doesn’t honor the work that’s happening on the stage or the suspension of disbelief agreed upon by both performers and audience when they show began.
I’ve written before about the dangers in destroying that suspension of disbelief. With no costumes or props and minimal sound and lighting, the only thing keeping the performers and the audience walking the tightrope of this suspension is the will of the audience and the skill of the performers to make that audience believe that these characters, created instantaneously before their eyes, are real enough to care about for as long as they exist on stage. In this case, performing any type of fourth wall-breaking can jeopardize that delicate balance, and, as such, is something not to be taken lightly or go unconsidered.
Regarding the first kind of fourth wall-breaking, as I mentioned, I find that it either works or doesn’t, but that it ends up taking over the entire flavor of a performance, for good or ill. That means if you engage in it, you have to be ready for it not to be a “one-off” gag but rather a show-defining choice. While this might be said for any move one makes in a show, a choice to “go meta” is one of the stronger and more influential choices one can make. Ask yourself if its worth it. Maybe it is. But know the risk you’re choosing.
The second type, if done as a last resort or an effort to add interest to a show, can feel cheap and forced. But if done skillfully, the performer has the power to bring the audience along into this moment of make-believe. There is, yes, a slight nod of the performer by even implicitly asking for the audience to pretend that, for the moment, they are playing too, and have become the audience to the thing being made up on stage. But if done with conviction rather than self-awareness, the performer can get the buy-in he needs to make the move work, and the fourth wall will remain intact after the move is over and the show shrinks back to the confines of the stage.
The third type, the one that says, “Yes, I know I said something funny/dumb/awesome/etc., and I know you heard,” provides a momentary heightening of the connection between you and the audience. But it should be noted that the connection that is heightened is the one between you the performer, and the audience, not you the character. Jim from the office can give the camera a knowing glance and he gets that feeling of intimacy with his character intact. We don’t think that Amy Poehler is talking to us when Leslie Knope gives an impassioned monologue to the camera about waffles. But alas, performers of live comedy do not have the extra layer of disconnect that comes with a recorded performance, watched by people on a device, in their homes. When we are on stage the audience always sees both the performer and the character. The fact that we walk out to the stage as ourselves, that we get a suggestion in our own voices and with our own personas, means that our fourth wall is rice paper thin.
So, maybe it’s just so thin that it effectively doesn’t exist? Maybe those conscious nods of the performer to the audience can and do occur because there’s no pretense that there is space between us? Honestly, that might just be the answer in some cases. But it probably depends on the type of show you’re doing. Doing short form where there are tons of breaks where the personas of the actual performers reveal themselves through game introductions, suggestion-getting, etc.? Maybe there’s not even a fourth wall to maintain, in which case it can be part of the fun to acknowledge when you’ve hit with the audience, and even more fun to acknowledge when you’ve missed. Performing for other improvisers and “improv nerds”? You could assume that the fourth wall is a formality easily dispensed with among friends and let them know you see them seeing you seeing them; but then again, these “trained audience members” might want to see you at your most focused, and may not want or need that periodic acknowledgment of their existence that an audience of short form assumed they’ll get. Performing artistic or experimental long form for a more traditional theater audience? You probably want to tone down the winks and try to give them a coherent performance that highlights and celebrates the power of improv to create sustainable and believable characters and worlds. Performing a Harold for a mixed crowd on a stage at an improv theater? You’re on your own, buddy.
In the end, one of the primary beauties of improv is its power to create meaningful experience based on the interaction between audience and performer in real time. But that doesn’t mean that interaction takes on the same character from show to show. Feel out your fourth wall. How thick is it tonight? How transparent? How tall? Is there a door in it? A window? Build it special for this show and this show only. Then tear it down if it feels right. After all, sometimes destruction itself is its own creative act.