This commandment marks the halfway point as I muse on both new and old wisdom gleaned from the “Ten Commandments” of Theatresports. Currently, this is one of my favorites!
And the fifth commandment extols:
Thou shalt always be changed by what is said to you
So much of improvisational theatre requires combining and justifying the various ideas of those involved. This commandment is a great reminder that it is not enough to merely give lip service to your partner’s idea or offer, but that you must allow it to push you off your preordained course. For those of us inclined to planning or thinking ahead (I am certainly in this camp) we should probably indelibly tattoo this motto somewhere on our body so that we keep it front of mind in our work.
One of the earlier exercises I use when teaching novice improvisers is often Word at a Time Story. In this narrative game, each player, typically in a circle, provides the next sequential word to a spontaneous story. (You can read a full description of the exercise here.) Among the many helpful lessons one can glean from this simple little game is that the more you try to drag the story back to your particular vision, the more likely you are to destroy it or grind the process to a screeching halt. Conversely, while efforts may not construct the “best” stories known to humanity (especially if it’s your first try) the results are nearly always something wonderfully unique that no one member of the group would have written alone. This little moment of improv narrative magic can’t happen if we’re not all willing to drop our personal agendas and be changed by the offers of our teammates and collaborators.
There can be so many things weighing against us in this battle to be flexible and resilient. If you’ve subliminally planned out a few next steps, an unexpected wrench in the works can throw you off your game and preconceived notion for how the scene “should” turn out. If you like control or struggle with trust, truly letting a new direction emerge can elevate your fear levels as you now have to deeply invest your energy into your partner(s). If the proffered idea strikes you as inferior or bland or trite or over-original, it can be exceedingly difficult to abandon your seemingly more nuanced or colorful or unique or organic choice. But this is what improv and, one could argue, theatre in general is about: change. And improv specifically is about the risk of adding energies together in new and surprising ways and finding the unexpected connections therein. Otherwise, we’d just do these make-em-ups by ourselves!
Fully embracing new offers can be trickier than it sounds, especially if at first glance the choice is unusual or perhaps even seems unhelpful. Here are a few possible strategies:
Ways to Embrace Change
1.) Slow it down. When a new idea enters the stream of our scene it can be tempting – especially if you feel that you’re in a groove – to pass over the unexpected element. Fight that instinct. If you’re surprised as the improviser, then chances are you’d be surprised as the character as well. It’s okay not to know how to react, especially if the new information strikes you initially as a non-sequitur. It’s okay not to immediately make “sense” of this new choice. It’s okay to take a breath and to process the offer. In fact, if the scene was hurtling in a certain direction, this may be the gift of a less-than-predictable choice as it may break the routine.
2.) Take a gut check. In some ways these strategies are a little cumulative. After you’ve slowed down, taken a breath and made sure you’ve really understood the nuance and intent of your partner’s offer, take a gut check. This term was game changing when I was introduced to it as it addressed an issue that I was struggling to adjust as an instructor. A gut check is a (usually silent) moment when as a character you allow yourself to have a true emotional reaction to what just happened. It marks a scenic moment that might have otherwise seemed trivial as one of great import. If you tend towards the intellectual as a player, this also encourages a heightened sense of emotionalism which can truly be liberating and exciting to experience and to watch.
3.) Avoid shifting blame or focus. I might be splitting hairs here a little, and this advice is largely contingent upon the type of offer provided by your partner, but if it has a revelatory or accusatory tone, it can tempting as a partner to quickly throw back a similar charge: “You just stole that donut,” might be followed by, “Only because you ate all the cereal in the apartment…” thereby moving the focus back to the other player. I believe assuming an air of culpability more often than not opens up new possibilities and allows your partner’s choice room to really breathe and have significance. When we instinctively rally back with an accusation of our own, the scene usually devolves into an argument and little more.
4.) Combine don’t discard. If you’re surprised by your partner’s choice and had something really interesting going, you don’t need to completely disregard your prior choices and actions. In fact, if these were working well for you, the audience will probably be quite disappointed if you then just throw them away. However, you will generally be better served if your immediate priority is tending to the new element that has emerged. Gut check and lean into that choice and trust that the prior reality will infuse and inform the scene. For example, if I am a parent in a scene caring for a child, and someone comes in and needs my services as a tax accountant, I should fully embrace this new pathway, but it would be remiss for me as an improviser (and a parent) to forego my prior obligations to the established child. The tension between these two facets of my character are, in fact, likely to be a great source of energy in the scene that follows.
5.) Emotionally justify the new choice. Especially if you’re surprised by the offer, or you are inclined to intellectualize as a player in general, there can be a huge temptation to almost justify away the unexpected new information dispassionately and rationally. This tendency can also lead to those dreaded talking head scenes that we all seek to avoid as improvisers. Again, building on the prior suggestions, such a cerebral stance will likely disarm or explain away the gift from your partner, as is potentially the case with my donut example above. When the choice lands, seek an emotional sense of logic first, trusting that a broader justification will follow if it’s necessary.
6.) Add stakes and urgency. When your scene is faltering a little or struggling to find an organic path forward, we can diminish our chances of an enjoyable dramatic outcome when we sift or sort through the offers of our scene partners in search of something “good. ” Remember that really almost any choice can generate a strong and dynamic reaction if we invest sufficiently. (It’s Tuesday, described here, models this approach well.) Allowing ourselves to be changed with such gusto can truly serve as a great gift for the scene and is a dynamic way to honor and recognize the contribution of our scene partner.
The Bigger Picture
The audience wants to see us go through the door previously unopened, and embrace the choice that is at first glance seemingly implausible. Theatrical improv often adopts a competitive frame, particular in the short-form tradition such as in franchises like Theatresports and Comedysportz; however, we must be vigilant as players that this conceit does not infuse our scene work together on stage. Performing with “emotional armor” or a stance that is never willing to cede the high ground can become exhausting to perform opposite.
I would also muse that in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, watching characters change and improvisers accept a multitude of possibilities is a pretty radical and dynamic act all in itself. If you subscribe to the practice of show postmortems this commitment to deep listening, gut checking, honoring our partner’s insights, and adopting a willingness to take on new information with grace and kindness strikes me as an excellent model for enabling company change and inclusiveness as well. For if we are not ultimately willing to change based on what we hear from our artistic partners or the greater communities around us, we are doomed to have the same conversations and battles into perpetuity.
We’re halfway through the Commandments! If you’ve missed some, you can find them in the blog archives on my website here.
Connected Game: It’s Tuesday