Walls are made to fall. Throughout the ages, they were built to control or separate ideologies and cultures. But ideas remained fluid and with the passing of time, eroded all manufactured barriers. Walls have been used to keep all kinds of barbarians out. They would have been a fine invention had not every barbarian hit upon the idea of a siege. Siege engines were used to fling all nature of nastiness over and eventually breach walls, accelerating the surrender of those trapped within. A wall that stands the test of time just becomes a tourist attraction.
Roughly a decade or so before the fall of one of the greatest walled cities of all time, Constantinople in 1453, a new invention created a wall for words. Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of mechanical movable type printing to Europe started a knowledge revolution, ushering in the modern period of human history. Before this, book creation was prohibitively expensive. Books were treasures only for the elite. The printing press allowed societies to become literate whereas before, all nature of history and cultural memory were passed via oral tradition.
The printing press also laid siege to oral tradition. The great oral works were captured on the printed page. Reading created a one-way and linear experience for readers. They could be affected by the story but not affect it. Fast forward to modern times and we have films amplifying the experience but not altering that one-way nature.
John D. Niles is his book, “Homo Narrans” explains how oral traditions based on songs, story and poetry were so much more than entertainment. They solved the problem of how culture could be transmitted. The poet was the keeper of the collective memory. The values of a society were embedded in the stories they retold. As cultures changed the fluidity of oral tradition allowed their stories to change with the times. But “in a directed way, as part of shifts involving the culture as a whole [Niles p 83]." Stories allowed societies to make sense of their world by creating recognizable parallel worlds. People could compare and contrast these worlds thereby establishing a more concrete sense of their own identity in their real world.
We at ComedySportz® use an ideal wall that is guaranteed to disappear as it is created. We call it the “The Fourth Wall.” It is an imaginary front wall that along with the back wall and sides of the playing field, completes the illusion of a room. A space where we brew imaginary coffee, cook pizza, carry on office cube life and paint paintings while facing the audience. The story emerging from our scene passes through this wall but more importantly, the reaction of the Loyal Fans passes back and affects the players. Even if those stage lights make it hard for players to see Loyal Fans we can hear the laughter and feel the connection.
Our walls enhance what Niles recognizes as another important purpose of an oral tradition, the nurturing of social cohesiveness. He captures the experience in communities he studied in the Scottish Highlands and Appalachia:
“When people gather together to hear stories or songs performed, they share a single space. Crowded together, perhaps, they may push against their neighbors, drink the same beer, smell the same scent of smoke, sweat, and wool… In such a setting, the content of a poem is not necessarily its most important property. Instead, people may value the human interchange the occasions of poetry provide, with their prospect of intimacy and a shared experience to be remembered for months or years to come [p 79].”
Each ComedySportz® match is a unique combination of games in turn inspired by unique suggestions from you, the Loyal Fan. But dear Loyal Fan, you are also unique. How you feel in response to the stories being told is itself, a uniquely personal experience. This gives you the opportunity to influence the story through your reaction. Let those laughs, chortles, and guffaws out so they can osmotically pass back through the wall, uplifting the players who will, in turn, take their stories to new heights of hilarity. The closer you get, the greater the impact. Dare to sit in the front rows and not even the stage lights can hide your smiles.
To us, the “The Fourth Wall” is not a barrier but a place where a comic community is nurtured around our oral tradition of freeing words.
Guy “Bricks and Mortar and” Waterbotham has been stucco-n cementing his understanding of improv since 2017.