Improv’s Signal-to-Noise Ratio
Signal-to-Noise ratio, when used in the fields of science and engineering, is a measure, according to Wikipedia, “that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background.” So, when you’re driving and listening to the radio, lots of static (a low signal-to-noise ratio) ruins your favorite song. When you drop a call on your phone or lose Wi-Fi on your computer, it’s often because the data needed for your device to make that connection is degraded by a low signal-to-noise ratio.
Signal-to-noise can also refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in a conversation or exchange. Watching good improvisers working together, the audience is thrilled to be brought into the search for a clear signal in the midst of noise. At the highest level of the work, a suggestion from the audience leads initially to “noise” from the players in the form of spontaneous responses and associations. But within the context of the game, and with the crucial shared tools of trust, listening, and teamwork, the signal begins to strengthen. When a theme, or series of themes, or the narrative (though not necessarily linear) emerges, the players say “Yes, and…”, discovering together a piece of theater, out of a high signal-to-noise ratio inspired by the initial suggestion. The best work we do as improvisers is a model for clarity, and an antidote for a noisy world.
The real lesson of improv is that communication can work. Through mutual self-respect and generosity, the noise is reduced. Laughter fills the room. The signal is strong.