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.