There is nothing wrong with agreement. It can be quite nice when someone agrees with your ideas. But there’s also nothing wrong with disagreement, either. Both are surface-level phenomenon.
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.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 32: What’s Missing? Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
11:11 – “Just because you’re not in the scene, doesn’t mean you’re not in the show.”
11:28 – “What isn’t on stage right now and how do I add that? Or how do I take this idea and bring it back later? Or what does the audience need right now.”
12:01 – “You’re working; you’re working every single minute.”
12:40 – #1: Stage Picture
- Upstage, downstage, left, right, something on the ground, something on a chair, something dangerous.
- “Think about initiating a scene with your back to the audience. That’s super fun and it’s going to make everyone stop and watch – it’s that popcorn moment.”
- If you do something that looks non-conventional, you have made the show better because you’re forcing your teammates to think about that – and it turn remember that. When you make a snapshot of the scene, you’ll remember that non-conventional physicality, and bring it back later in the show
- If your team isn’t as adventurous as you and returns to that two-person centre-stage scene, they’ll enjoy it because you have taken it away from them.
16:36 – #2: Content
- The kind of things we talk about in a scene.
- Teams of the same age, same gender tend to improvise about the same stuff.
- “We may not notice that. We’re on stage and we have a relationship scene of two mid-twenty year old’s breaking up. Then we have another one, two mid-twenty year old’s in a fight. Then a mid-twenty year old getting in a fight with their mum because of their boyfriend. We tend to spew out the same content.”
- If one type of scene plays out well, we think this kind of audience likes these scenes, let’s do it again. “That’s diminishing returns for you. The second one in a row is half as good; the third one in a row gets no response.”
- “We should be mindful of our own priming” – the idea that you see before is seeded in your brain, so you tend to do that again.
- “If the last set/scene I saw was about dicks, the next set/scene should be about unicorns.”
19:00 – #3: Speed
- “Improv is a nervous energy artform… A lot of our scenes tend to be infused with that energy.”
- “Give them that fast pace, then slow it down, then the audience misses that fast pace. Give them that fast pace, then slow it down again. Keep that variety going back and forth.”
- “Do you have the ability, the ego, and the energy to declare in a set that’s moving too quickly – this is a slow relationship scene?”
22:18 – #4: Task
- The same players always playing in scenes – diminishing returns. Everyone has their part to play – so even if you are running hot, you don’t have to be in every scene.
- “You have to be mindful of yourself”
- “If you’re too hot, too quick, and you show them all of your tricks, what are you going to do for the rest of the show? Make some room, give some space, use that power you have – the audiences good will, endow that to someone else.”
- “It’s dangerous to get addicted to that laughter.”
- If you are one of the leaders of that team, and other players are looking towards for guidance; you need to back off sometimes and let everyone else get their stage time to gain confidence.
26:45 – #5: Energy
- “What does it feel like for the audience to watch that scene? Is it a happy scene? Is it a scary scene? Is it playful? Is it high stakes? Is it gamey? Is it more organic?”
- Mixing up those energies is really important for you to do.
- If you are focused on playing game, and you play game hard three times in a row, the audience may not find it that funny. Mix up how you find that game.
- “We want to be surprised” We don’t want to know what’s next.
- It’s mostly about variety – knowing what we’ve seen, and not giving the exact same thing back.
- Newer improvisers treat conflict as a very strong successful way to start a scene, because it’s interesting from the beginning. “So you might see three fighting scenes in a row. What a horrible energy to see again and again and again.”
- “You need to bring an energy to the stage. You don’t walk on stage, do object work and then someone else tells you what the scene is about. That’s a bad scene. Because in that scene you have no control over energy. However, if the last scene was happy, there’s no reason you can’t walk on stage and be horribly upset. That’s a huge gift because you can control part of the energy, and even if your scene partner is super happy, at least you have brought that sadness, that’s a different flavour we haven’t seen yet.”
- If you an entire set of an open longform montage where every scene is set in 2015, you’ve fucked up. There should be a scene set in the future, or the past, or something fantastical. Because by doing something different, you reset all of the audience’s expectations of what this could possibly be.
- Keeping the variety going will not only be more fun for the audience, it will be more fun to play in.
- “They just want to walk on stage and do what they’re good at. […] But its bad improv, and you’re a bad improviser if that’s all you do. You should be able to walk on stage and if you can’t, then that’s a problem.”
31:32 – #6: Technique
- How you get to whatever you’re doing.
- If you initiate scenes with a vague line (“ooh it’s cold”), you’re using the same technique. If the next scene you roll onto stage and loudly yell “Mum I did it, I love you!” that’s a different technique.
- “If you do three mirroring scenes in a row, no-one’s going to think mirroring’s funny anymore. They see the technique, they see the mechanism.”
- “All that A to E training you have, you have to do that sometimes in a long-form set. You need to start a scene chopping carrots – sometimes.”
33:45 – #7: Your Role
- “You need to have variety in your role, the kind of player that you are.”
- Three kinds of players – first in (person who makes hard offers), second in (person who loves supporting and yes-anding), and glue (walk-ons, navigate stuff)
- “In a set you need to isolate between all roles. You don’t want to see the improv dad come in; set up context, my work is done. Go and play in the world I set up.”
- “You might be a weirdo player who makes the best pervs and freaks and psychopaths. […] But you need to show me a scene where you set up the who, what, where and fold laundry.”
- “Being aware of that is a very big part of being cast in things. […] If you can show this director, this producer, whoever you’re trying to show off your abilities to, that you can be any of those players then it’s much more easy to fit you on a team.”
- “The key of: Just because you’re not in the scene, you’re not in the show.
- “It’s a team spot, and you’ve got to be available at the beacon call of the entire team the entire show.”
37:07 – “The mentatity that you can fix something from the backline. I think that these elements are necessary, but never think that if they are missing from the stage, that you walking on or you sweeping early or you twisting the show because you see what’s missing and nobody else gets it, that’s a bigger problem than variety for me. For us we always want to be thinking as a team about these things. This isn’t your job, this is everyone’s jobs.”
38:12 – “If I ever die in an improv related accident, I hope there’s something called The Curse of Rob Norman. That any improviser that sees two people on stage who haven’t got around to saying the who/what/where and walks out and says ‘Your table is ready, here are the menus,’ in that curse they instantly catch on fire. It’s my least favourite move of all time, it shows such a lack of trust, it shows ‘I know what’s missing, I can solve your problems for you!’ as opposed to ‘Adam Colley, you’re an amazing improviser, when you want the context, you’ll drop the context’.”