T.J. Jagodowski on Realistic Improv

[..]The show itself, it’s an exercise in seeing what happens when you really only go from moment to moment to moment with no plans, no bits, and really just behave this way. [..] Like an actual human being, which is like the easiest way to get a show to a sustainable way, like put real people in it. Real people tend to live for a while, you know what I mean? They do things that they live by, and make choices that their accountable for, and that kind of stuff and so, if it was just going to be us and the show would be about an hour then, let’s make these people as actual as we can, and they’ll do things that people actually would do. Because no-one’s coming, we’re not getting edited, so we gotta live in these people for a while. It’s going to be easier if we make them real.
T.J. Jagodowski talking about realistic improv as the goal in a TJ & Dave show. Expect more quotes on here from a really interesting ep of Improv Nerd.

Your Team’s Vision→

One night, we gathered around a table with pizza, wine, and a lot of blank paper, and set out to create a list of standards that we could expect from one another at all times. Everyone brainstormed, and we ended up with about 60 ideas scrawled across five or six pieces of construction paper.

Over the next course of the evening, we distilled them into ten principles that we all thought were essential to Book Club’s success. We all agreed on them, turned out the lights, and did an unspeakable-darkness-ritual-thing to seal the deal.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. While I have played on house teams where there have been established guidelines (you must hire a coach, if you miss two trainings in a row you can’t play, etc) and in indie teams where we have set goals in terms of what kind of show we want to put on, I’ve never played on a team where the team have set out principles.

I think it’s important – maybe the most important thing when you’re starting a new group or joining an existing one that plans on doing anything more than a one off show. Part of it is to make that initial decision making easier – am I joining a team simply to get stage time? Do we have long term goals as a team beyond learning a certain performance style or form? What is the respect level between performers of different experience levels?

Another part of it making people accountable for their actions (indeed, making myself accountable for my actions too!). I’ve played on teams where conflict between players has came up, or communication issues have lead to a lack of commitment, perceived or otherwise. What came out of it? Fear and resentment. Without clearly stated principles, people were upset because their own ideals didn’t match with their teammates, and had no resource to try and solve those issues.

How enforceable are principles in a team? I don’t want to play on a team where everyone is pointing to the sacred parchment with the team code, where breaking the rules equals instant death. But the folly of improv is that it’s so easy to get up and do without any real focus. Maybe too easy. There has to be a happy medium between the freedom and principles. I’m not sure what it is yet.

Resetting to Zero

Back before improv took over my life, my dedication was poker. I would play it as often as I now perform, watch all the TV shows, and read through as many strategy books as I could handle.  My main game was no limit hold’em tournaments. Tournaments allowed me to play the strategy of the game, while having a lower cash risk attached. One of the concepts drummed into me regarding tournament poker is chip value. When you’re playing in a cash game, your chip value is equal to its respective cash value. Go all-in with $200 of chips and lose? You lose $200 from your pocket. The chip value is 1 to 1.

The same isn’t true of tournament poker. In tournaments, players pay an entry fee. A portion of that fee is added to a prize pool, with percentages of the pool given based on where you finish. Finish in the top 10% of players and you’ll receive a cash prize from the pool, with more money depending on how high you finish. The chip value frequently changes through the tournament, depending on how many players are left competing and how many chips you have in your stack, which will constantly fluctuate.

You could have $200,000 worth of chips at the start of a tournament, but they’re actually worth $0 cash until you enter the prize stage of the tournament. Or you could have $200 worth and be one of the final two players, knowing that your $200 is worth $200,000 cash in the prize pool.  The concept is designed to get away from associating a bond with tournament chips like you would with cash chips (aka money). In turn, you’re taught that winning or losing individual hands in a poker tournament matter less than finishing in the prize winning stage of a tournament. You could lose ten hands in a row and go on to win the tournament. Or you could play tight aggressive poker for six days winning hand after hand, only to lose two hands and be eliminated without a payout. I’ve had both happen to me.

My big takeaway from this lesson is that tournament poker is all about the greater goal. You want to finish in the money, get that cash reward. To do so, you want to let go of the various emotional swings that are a result of individual poker hands. If you lose an important hand but still have chips left, you are still playing in the tournament. But the act of losing will probably affect you emotionally, and may influence how you play future hands, even though they have no relationship with the hands that come before it. The cards on the table don’t know you just had a bad beat – they are inanimate objects. The dealer doesn’t care that your strong cards lost – they are just doing their job. When the cards are shuffled and dealt, you have all the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but you’re starting a new hand – you’re resetting to zero.

When I started performing improv regularly, I was terrible. Part of this was due to letting my internal emotions drive how I played on stage. Even if I was coming on stage at a neutral level, if I left thinking I did a bad scene, you were not going to be able to shake that feeling from me. Show after show after show, I’d go in thinking that it started off bad and only got worse as time went on. Or I’d have a good show one week, then poo the bed the next. I’d have slumps for weeks and not know how to deal with it, doing crazy stuff in shows in hopes of ending my slump, and hating myself for it. A lack of consistency is frustrating for an improviser.

More recently I have noticed a change – I’m more bad then terrible (progress!) and part of that is not letting those emotional swings affect me. Easier said than done right? Part of it was the realisation that individual scenes don’t matter all that much. Individual shows don’t matter either. Or a festival, or a measured time amount of performances, or whatever. It’s all about the greater goal – am I improving my overall skills as an improviser? Am I achieving the personal goals that I set myself? The same lesson I learned at the poker tables years ago also applies when you’re on stage at an improv show.

Your past performance is no indication of your future performance. You have the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but starting new means resetting to zero.

You can’t force yourself to do a good scene from scratch just because the last scene you did was good. While studying in Chicago, I was in a downswing – four bad scenes in a row, all in the one morning. So I forced a scene with a partner who was in one of the best scenes I ever did. Didn’t work – make that five bad scenes in a row. During Melbourne Fringe, I performed in a show that would easily be in my worst ten shows of all time. The good news was, the very next night I got to do a brand new show. I had the opportunity to take the knowledge I had, but reset to zero. It was one of the best shows I’ve performed in.

By not giving focus to those emotional swings, you have an opportunity to do something brand new every time you go out, unaffected by what came before it. It means you can let go of annoying defence mechanisms that serve as distractions on stage – your scene partner didn’t listen to you, your teammates edited the scene too late, you didn’t trust myself to make a move; and just focus on serving what’s in front of you. Sure, when the show is over you can rewind and review. But on stage, you’ve always got a new opportunity to do something – even if it’s just an edit or some side support. While this isn’t an excuse to do lazy work, because it’s only one small moment in the greater scheme of things; letting go of those swings means that you have relieved yourself of the pressure or fear that comes with the mindset. If you’re working towards greater goals, all you need to do take in the knowledge you have, then reset to zero.

It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and played poker. Part of me wonders what improv lessons apply at the table. I’ll report back soon on any findings.