Rough Show

About a month ago my team Airblade had a “rough” show. Fresh off a weekend workshop, we decided to implement a bunch of techniques that we had learned, but hadn’t entirely worked out how to use. Some stuff worked, and some stuff didn’t; shows like that happen all the time.

What made it rough? The content that came up in the show. The new techniques somehow cause a shift in how we played. Our show, built off the suggestion of corn cob featured scenes about human trafficking, self-harm with knives, and suicide, not to mention a ships worth of swearing. The audience laughed at the show in certain stages, but also let their discomfort be known out loud. When we got off stage to decompress, the team felt pretty crummy about it.

Later on that night a teammate and a punter were having a chat about the show. My teammate was explaining how we tried something new, and that sometimes you need to fail before you succeed. The punter in turn responded that we should never try that again, because the self-harm stuff offended them and could have offended others in the audience.

Thanks for coming out.

It got me thinking. What is the role of the improviser? I’ve often heard that an improviser is simultaneously a writer, director, and actor during a show. But I’ve never heard anyone add producer or promoter to that sentence. I don’t mean in the sense of plugging your show that night on Facebook, but creating something that the audience wants to see more both during the show and after it’s finished, bringing out new people to see it. Not necessarily funny improv or even “good” improv, but something intriguing, something with curiosity, something that’s bold and takes risks and where something happens and my brain is forced to play catch-up to make sense of how the performers got to that point. Sustainable improv – otherwise we may as well just practice improv to no audience.

What I have had people tell me is to ignore the audience. Don’t play to them, play ahead of them. Focus on your scene partner and yourself, not the thing the audience responds to. Part of this is to prevent judgement – if I put something out there that the audience doesn’t like, my focus might change to a point where I’m ignoring my scene partner in order to give the audience something they do like (if you’re a standup fan, you’ll see this a lot in people who have been performing for a year or two. They keep going on after they get the light). Or worse, I’ll go into self-judgement mode – I’ll freeze on stage and not offer anything, essentially shutting down the scene or the show. Part of this is also to prevent gaggy play, where the performers get so hung up on generating a response from the audience that we lose any realism the performance has, coming off as desperate.

Unfortunately, what I think gets lost sometimes in play is mindfulness. We are mindful of our scene partner and our fellow players, because we are told to focus on what they are doing and support those choices, not judge them for making them. But we’re not told to be mindful of the audience, and we need to be. They are part of the show as much as we are – they don’t go away after we ask for a suggestion. I also have to be mindful of what I’m doing on stage. Just because we are making it up on the spot doesn’t mean that every offer is equal. All words and actions have meaning, so we have to be measured with what we offer.

Mindfulness in a show is a tricky balancing act. The improviser needs to give equal weight to mindfulness of self, the team, and the audience; but also needs to shift that weight on what the show needs almost immediately, all while not taking away from what’s come before us. Ultimately we have one job to do as improvisers when performing to an audience, and that’s to provide an engaging AND entertaining show, and it has to be both of those – it can’t only be one.

So if we’re being mindful of the audience, the solution to this problem is to stop any sensitive content that comes up in a show to avoid offense, right? Well, not quite. Consciously avoiding sensitive subjects results in polite, self-aware improvisation. As an improviser, if I’m so busy catching myself in shows, constantly looking for something that I don’t personally agree with, it’s unlikely that I’ll get to those moments of total surprise where I find something “right” instead of something wrong.

If I’ve learnt a lesson from the show, it’s being mindful of the variety of show and letting that dictate the kind of content that comes up (yes, one more bit of mindfulness to balance!). Being aware of what has come before you in the show in terms of speed, energy, emotion, and technique, and presenting something that the audience and your teammates haven’t seen yet. That will lead to different choices being made, and therefore different content coming up. It doesn’t mean you avoid those sensitive subjects – but it means you get some lightness with the dark.

Back to the punter and my teammate. The punter had every right to be upset with that show, and I don’t want brush it off by saying “this is just acting, it’s not real, it’s not how I feel, you shouldn’t be upset”. I’m sorry for offending you, it wasn’t what I set out to do. My teammate is right too – the show failed. We may have been engaging enough in our show to draw audible groans, but if a person is coming away offended we can’t say we’ve provided entertainment.

What’s nagging at me is the idea never trying that again. It would certainly be an easy solution, throw away the learning that leads to bad stuff. But my goal is to make sustainable improv – intriguing, curious, played boldly with risk and variety. So shying away from new techniques isn’t an option, even if occasionally it leads to a place that means that we don’t hit that goal. We’re going to keep trying until we crack it, and then rip it all apart and start over I’m sure. All I ask is that you come back again, because it will always be different.

Say Day

Today marks two special days. It’s my second anniversary of improv. It’s also Say Day.

I never expected to be improvising for this long. Performing regularly was never a goal, neither was continuing study to the craft. An improv blog certainly wasn’t on the cards! I went to a drop-in spin cycle class once and it wasn’t one of the most comfortable experiences when I left the classroom. I felt the same way after leaving my first improv class and in all honestly, only stuck with it as I didn’t want to spend $350 on one class. I’ve made a lot of improv moves in shows, but that was one of the better life moves I’ve made.

In the last two years I’ve performed in both the Melbourne Fringe Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I’ve travelled overseas to perform and learn this stuff, meeting heaps of new people along the way. I’ve sat through so many hours of workshops, fearing that it’s my turn next and everyone would be looking at me; only to realise that they want to see me succeed.  I’ve produced, won, tied, and lost at Cage Match. I’ve made a lot of friends, drank a lot of beers, and did a lot of bits.

Not to mention the personal growth I’ve felt. It took improv to truly know what it’s like to listen and be listened to. That teamwork isn’t a group of people who all want to win, but to work together. Improv has calmed me down. It’s made me more comfortable to express who I am and what I’m feeling. It’s opened me up to trying new things rather than fearing potential consequences. It’s even created some flaws that never existed before, but I’m glad that I’m aware of them.

But ultimately, I’m a result of the people who put faith in me. I’m not a one man army and I’m glad for it. So shout outs to the following:

Andrew Strano: Andrew, you were there during Level 1 introducing me to Alien Soul-Mate (the worst) and now you’re giving me notes every week following Harolds. For some reason I remember you cranking up the heat to 26 degrees at that first (and subsequent) training, causing a warm room to turn into a sweat box after two hours. I’m glad you don’t have access to the thermostat at our trainings.

Andrew, you see good in everything and everyone. You sweat trust, love, and support. When I said I was done, you said go on this path and believe that it would be for the greater good. It is Andrew. Thank you.

Daniel Pavatich: So it’s a Saturday in November 2013. I’m sitting on the floor of a hallway at Fitzroy Library, typing up a desperate pitch to a shop in the city to let me hold a MICF show because my original venue pulled out after registration closed. I’m on the floor at Fitzroy Library because Dan is running a workshop that I’m attending. Everyone around for the class has went inside except me. Dan comes out and says that we’re starting and to come inside, to which I reply that I’ll be just a moment. Dan smirks and says “When you’re ready,” and heads inside.

I’m not entirely sure why that sticks in my head, but for some reason it says everything to me about how I feel about you Dan. Your willingness to share what you know. Your incredible passion, and that you want to see the people around you improve. That you’re a bit of a smartarse but are willing to put faith in others to look after themselves. You’ve called out on my bullshit and celebrated with me when it’s worked perfectly. Thank you Dan, see you at Grain Store.

Adam Kangas: Adam, you say some dumb stuff sometimes and I get offended and fall into my bad old habits. And then I think about your actions and realise that I’m being a boob. Because your actions aren’t dumb. You have an incredible willingness to say yes, even when I haven’t believed in myself that yes is the right answer. I’m on a Harold team because you said yes. I produce Cage Match because you said yes. I assisted teaching a class because you said yes. I put up crazy ideas like a live podcast or two-prov show based on dancing chairs or a game show based on a party game and you say yes.

Adam, you’re ultimately responsible for this ever growing community. I’ve made friends, taken risks, and been given permission to fail and grow all because you didn’t say no. Thanks for saying yes Adam.

Lauren McKenna and James Brennan: Two people I went through my initial training with, and boy aren’t they wonderful. Lauren, if I was the cowardly lion coming out of level three, you were Dorothy; giving me self-belief and support when I needed it. James, I remember the night you joined Skeleton Kisses and we went to have a drink after training. It felt “right” – like putting on a comfy pair of shoes that had been in the cupboard for a while.

I feel lucky to have performed with you in some of my favourite and best shows in the last two years, and look forward to when we play again soon – be in in Melbourne, New York, or anywhere else in the world. Thanks James. Thanks Lauren.

Airblade: Goddamn. My current Harold team – Pat, Shea, Meg, Kay, Bridget, Josh, Brit, and Amruta, you’re all stars. You give me fun in my life every Tuesday and Wednesday – every in-joke, every stretch and share, every post-show beverage. It’s incredibly intimidating playing on a team with performers who are better than you, but somehow it’s so motivational while not being competitive.  Here’s to more board game nights, more beach house getaways, more post-training pancakes or burritos, and more time as one on stage. Thanks Airblade.

Trillcumber: These three people, man. So many post-show complements! I still struggle to take them, but know that I’m ever appreciative. Mario: Thanks for telling me to go to Chicago and produce Cage Match. Thanks for the after-show lifts while I read your mail on the back seat. Thanks for all the bits about sportz. Hayley: Thanks for being the first person outside the team to tell me I did good when I was scared and worried that I wasn’t doing good. Thanks for being obsessed with the same John Mullaney bit to a point that we sought out a diner in Chicago. Simon: Thanks for opening up about yourself and making me realise that I’m not alone in feeling this way about improv. Thanks for the ShottsSmiles© during shows that give me oh so much delight. Thanks for all the beers that we’ve had so far. Thanks for letting me be an extra in your sketch! Thanks Trillcumber.

It’s been a great two years thanks to these and many other friends I have made as a result of improv. I’m super grateful for it. I’d encourage you to get out and tell the people you care about how you feel today too.