And we’ve reached the end of our journey exploring the gifts of Theatresports “Ten Commandments” (unless you’ve stumbled into this entry first, in which case “welcome” and feel free to explore the other nine in the archives here)!
The tenth and final commandment opines:
When thy faith is low, thy spirit weak, thy good fortune strained and thy team losing, be comforted and smile, because it just doesn’t matter!
It can be difficult to retain a sense of perspective in our art, and those of us that have spent years working in this field may struggle in particular to balance a commitment to the art with a joyfulness in the execution of that art. I don’t know where I first heard the adage that improvisers play rather than work, but this strikes me as an important reminder. I would like to think that our efforts could and dare I hope should matter, especially as theatre in general and improv more specifically are often maligned or undervalued in society, but I do agree with the overall tone of whimsy in this sentiment: we are players and we foster a collaborative world of play.
Some Etiquette Suggestions
So how do we retain a sense of joy and perspective in our work as improvisers?
1.) Take the competition seriously. These commandments are very much focused on the specific improv event of a Theatresports competition, and this framing element is integral to the flow and climax of that particular franchise. There are teams, a host or umpire, judges and an audience rooting on their favorites. You may not be playing this specific format, but a lot of short-form relies on similar tropes to create a dynamic and entertaining event. At the end of such shows, it’s not unusual for audience members to commiserate a loss with team members or truly celebrate a well-secured victory. Some shows have a built in “wink” that acknowledges that the competition is a conceit, but if this isn’t the case, enjoy the opportunities such a frame provides. If your team has become the underdogs of the evening, relish that position. If you have generated heat and a rebel-like persona, that can add great value to the show if you allow it to grow and develop.
2.) Don’t take the competition too seriously. While many improv shows deploy this frame, I find fewer things more off-putting as an audience member or team member than the improvisers actually becoming competitive. By all means use the challenge of the evening as motivation to play at your highest level, but the audience experience, and frankly that of the cast as a whole, should always eclipse any lurking individual desires for success. Focus on the caliber of your collaboration, the arcs of your stories, and the journey of the evening as a whole. Scores, winners and trophies should remain as gimmicks. Holding onto disappointments from the evening will only put you in your head for the next round or scene.
3.) Take the work seriously. If we are committed to growing as performers, creating dynamic performances, and at least gently pushing the boundaries and possibilities of live performance, I do think we should take our pursuit of this craft seriously. By this I mean we should conduct ourselves professionally, respect the process of creativity and that our collaborators might have different processes and needs than our own, and bring a sense of focus and commitment to our time together and our work onstage. I am particularly interested in improv frames that could rightly be described as challenging, ornate, and perhaps even a little impossible by design, and such work needs a reasonably high level of preparation and rehearsal. Dedication in these situations is key.
4.) Don’t take the work too seriously. There are certainly moments when a rehearsal or performance may become tense. Performers may be developing a new critical skill or technique, material may move into more emotional or complex terrain, as a team you may lose the narrative thread or experience times when trust or listening has become eroded. It’s important to take a breath in these moments and embrace the “failure,” the difficulty, and the learning. Most of us love improv because the results are so unpredictable. Stumbling is part of the journey. I’ve often said in classes that the mark of a professional improviser isn’t that they stumble less often, but rather that they are able to bounce back from these stumbles with greater agility and joy. Strive to be the improviser who can laugh in the face of failure!
5.) Take feedback seriously. I don’t think there are many performance art practices that routinely hold postmortems or note sessions after every single performance: in the scripted world, this typically stops (excluding major catastrophes) after the final previews. We are much more likely to grow and develop in our craft if we honor this tradition and use this time well to reflect on our struggles and successes. Be present for these conversations. If you’re in the development process (or perhaps just in general) take written notes. Remember that the note you need to hear most might come from anyone in the greenroom. Don’t fall into the trap of not believing that the newest troupe member or an ancillary participant might have the observation that you need to hear right now in order to grow. Practice your generous and active listening backstage as well as on it.
6.) Don’t take feedback too seriously. Wild and uproarious applause and laughter from the audience is great, but don’t let this feedback mute observations from your team if their experience was quite different in that moment. If you are confused by a note, or offended, or disappointed, take the risk of sitting with the feedback rather than becoming defensive, angry or committed to a narrative of justification. We’re improvisers, so most of us can provide a rationale for making any number of potentially awkward or injurious choices on the stage. You might still end up disagreeing with a note once you’ve gone away and mused on it for a while, but it’s better that you model respect for your fellow company members and it’s rarely worth getting into a battle over scenic minutiae. Ultimately, no specific note matters more than your relationship to the person who felt the need to express their experience or observation. And over the long haul, bad energy backstage is likely to become more detrimental than the occasional bad choice onstage.
I know that I can personally struggle maintaining this balance between the serious craft and joyful abandon of improv. I often reflect on how fortunate I am as an adult to have a space in my life where I can truly and unapologetically play. This is something we should not take for granted nor undervalue. I agree wholeheartedly that any small moment or slip truly “doesn’t matter” in the grander scheme of things, although I would add that developing communities of play, inclusion and connection serves as an admirable and deeply worthwhile mission, and that this goal matters greatly.
See my related entry “A is for Abandon” here.
Connected Game: Three Sentence Scenes