A cool little essay on pulling the positives from an improv jam.
We have so many shows and only so much audience. Some nights, you’re looking out at a sea of empty chairs. I’m more empathetic when newer performers show frustration at light houses. It’s a reflection of their enthusiasm. But when I see a vet lumber onto the stage, half-giving a shit, I’m disappointed. It’s one thing to be ironically detached (which also sucks), and another to be metering out your work-rate out of entitlement or laziness.
One of the downsides to taking classes three days a week (with a show every week too) is that some things get dropped – this blog is one of them. The upside: loads of new stuff coming soon!
I’ve taken art classes. One of the first things an Art 101 instructor has to do is get all these pretentious art students to put aside their preexisting “styles”— which have usually grown out of avoiding whichever art skills they struggle with— and learn how to draw like everyone else. Style will come later. For now, learn the rules… then you can break them, consciously & intentionally, instead of breaking them because you’re incapable of following them.
Greedy improvisers are the worst. They are frustrating to play with and suck the joy out of performing. I’ve certainly been on both ends of the spectrum, so I’m not going to pretend that I’m a white knight. But the opposite of being polite in improv sets is not by being greedy – you wanna reach that middle ground.
The signs of a greedy improviser
- A lack of attention: Playing with your own ideas. Not following or remembering the previous beats or scenes. Being in your head thinking of ideas. Not knowing who has or hasn’t been on stage yet. Not listening.
- A lack of trust: Putting your own ideas ahead of your scene partners. Talking over other players. Dominating scenes, giving your scene partner everything instead of building together. Being on stage multiple scenes in a row. Not yes-anding.
Fortunately these issues are fixable: both of them by being aware.
- Listen like a thief: not only with your ears on what’s being spoken, but with your eyes for stage picture and who is performing, with your skin for the heat and weight of the scene. Play in the moment – once that scene has started don’t go backwards to something that you thought off stage but react off what your scene partner has given you.
- Share the toys. As the famous Del Close quote goes, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” My ideas are no better or worse then your ideas (in fact, all ideas are worthless. The money is in execution and reaction). Everyone has their part to play in a show, so even if I’m having the show of my life, I need to hold back and let my teammates have a go – because they are awesome too!
If you’re aware of everything that’s going on, things will get easier, simply because you know what’s going on and can make your choices off the information you have gained. This is a team sport – and you’ll have greater success being one part of a team then being an individual in a group of people lumped together.
When I moved out to Boston from Chicago everyone kept talking about “the game of the scene” and I had no idea what they were talking about. Instead of playing “the game,” I was playing in the style I was taught—and experienced success at—back at iO in Chicago. I looked for relationship and emotional connection over a single focal point. And of course there’s overlap between the two (a scene with a strong game should also have strong relationships, and an emotional resonant scene should probably have some discernible pattern as well), but without fully understanding my new environment, I was making moves that, while theoretically “good,” weren’t connecting with the other members of my team who had been trained a different way. I was being an invasive species, incapable of adapting.
“I admire your calm spirit when you walk into the room,” he told me, “but you need to set that aside when you play the violin.” The thought of my quiet personality compromising my expression in music terrified me. And with that, my journey of growth began. Roger did not call me shy. He did not allow my personality to define my ability as a player. Roger showed me in this memorable observation that I am capable of playing out. He continues to teach me with his inspired mentorship that the tendencies of my personality are not linked to my abilities as a musician.