Let’s return to the Theatresports “Ten Commandments” for my third installment considering how these guidelines I first encountered in the 1980s can still inform and illuminate current improv practices.
The third commandment states:
Thou shalt not shine above thy teammates
Improvisation is almost exclusively a team sport. A more recent development has been the exploration of solo improv scenes and shows which strikes me as a mode that doesn’t fully capitalize on the creativity that flows between different players resulting in unexpected connections and discoveries. Perhaps this role of co-creator can be taken on by the audience to some degree – especially in interactive pieces – but my personal jury is out as to whether or not this is the most dynamic use of an improvisers’ craft. But I digress. In most instances, improvisation is a team sport and the ethos of putting the team first is for many a critical underlying principle. The scene succeeds if and when the team succeeds. Individual success should not be placed above the success of the whole. To shine, in this context, does not honor your team.
There is a lot to like about this philosophy, and I’m not going to challenge it here as this is certainly an approach I esteem, endorse and seek to follow in my work. But I do think there are some grey areas that deserve mention that complicate this ideal in helpful ways.
The Nuances of Shining
1.) We should pitch and play to strength. Whether it’s a short-form game or a long-form structure, it is rare for every member of the team to have the same strengths and skill-sets. It makes sense for the benefit of the show, our audience and the craft for us to set each other up to shine and we shouldn’t slink away from these moments. For example, most troupes have some members who excel at singing while others have strengths elsewhere. Audiences would greatly prefer to see the aforementioned members of the team step up for musical opportunities, while other teammates lean into character, staging, movement, narrative… It’s important that we honestly know which of our tools are sharpest as improvisers, and that we use these to support the group and the show. I might relax this preference a little when we’re in a workshop situation as this is a place for players to try and hone new skills, and I would also caution that pitching to strength should still include danger and not merely require an improviser to do that trick again that they did last week. In short-form my favorite hosts find ways to pitch to the multitude of strengths contained in that evening’s ensemble, thereby doing much of the work of sharing around the light in advance.
2.) Sometimes the show or scene isn’t about you. I come from both a scripted and improvisational background, and a lot of structural analysis in the former world has influenced how I see scenic work and narrative in the latter. Most stories (not all, especially in non-linear traditions) have a clear protagonist and this conceit can be extraordinarily helpful when it comes to shaping our onstage action. If you are the protagonist in a long-form show, you are likely to have more – perhaps considerably more – stage time than those filling in supporting, cameo or ensemble roles. It’s always a good thing for performers to have an awareness of providing windows for under-featured teammates, but at times, the protagonist just needs to be onstage doing the next logical step. I don’t think many of us would necessarily categorize this as “shining,” but I think it’s healthy and important for companies to embrace that, depending on the form and genre, some characters are likely to appear more frequently than others.
3.) Don’t conflate stage time with import. In some ways this connects to the above observation. I have directed and performed in many a long-form where the “leads” are much less interesting or memorable than the supporting players. It is a true gift to have the ability to know what a scene needs as an improviser, and to be able to execute this in a dynamic and succinct fashion. Most of us don’t enter the field of improvisation to sit on the bench while others create, but it’s an important patience to foster. If you’re truly present in a performance, you will be ready to enter when the moment is right and know how to best serve the action.
4.) Don’t write yourself out of a show. If the energies of a performance (long- or short-form) are tending to favor another player or players, it can be tempting for us almost voluntarily write ourselves out of the show, leaning back in our chair, or hiding in the wings with a sense of defeatism. This is different to me than watching and relishing the successes and triumphs of our teammates with true joy and abandon. If we are lost in an energy of defeatism it is unlikely that our energy will be primed to make that quick Canadian Cross to establish environment, or provide that offstage voice or sound effect, or rush in to help form the needed set piece or facilitate a fast scene change. If we are patiently observing with a sense of joy we’re more likely to be in the flow and the rhythm of the show, able and ready to make that little finesse that might seem small on the surface but is actually deeply enriching the work all the while reminding our teammates that we have their backs for anything they may need big or small. It’s also, ironically, common for these small moments of selfless finesse to open up larger performance opportunities later in the piece.
5.) Seek balance over the long stretch. Depending on the style of play, there are often chances to seek balance when you consider the bigger picture. In short-form pieces, it’s not uncommon to sit out of a scene because you’re not needed, and a thoughtful ensemble will find ways to pull less featured players more robustly into the action in subsequent games. In long-form pieces or runs, a more quiet night might be offset with a shuffling of roles or opportunities for future performances. In both cases, I think a candid recounting of who had ample chances to shine on any given night alongside a joyful acknowledgement of those who may have facilitated these journeys can make sure the company feels equally invested and responsible for the process.
At its core, the third commandment is a great reminder for us to keep our focus on the group as a whole, to set each other up for joy and success, and for us to share wholeheartedly in the collective accomplishments of the ensemble. We shouldn’t look to diminish or extinguish the lights of those around us, nor use our own to needlessly eclipse those with whom we share the stage, but rather combine our energies towards the common goal.
Connected Game: Raise the Stakes