“A” is for “Approval”

“The need for teacher approval is a problem.  It does not facilitate ‘creative independence’, but its existence is not surprising given that most of our education is based on getting it right and keeping in the teacher’s good books.”

Lyn Pierse, Theatresports Down Under. 2nd ed.  Sydney, Australia: Improcorp, 1995. p. 53


It’s likely that if you’re an improviser and you’re reading this that you have or are currently struggling with the desire to obtain Approval. Whether it’s from your teacher, classmates, director, fellow company members, that special someone in the audience, or the panel of judges and critics that reside in our heads like our own personal Waldorf and Statler, our unabated need for approval can linger like a storm cloud over our artistic endeavors. At “best” it might serve as an occasional nuisance or motivating force, at worst it can become debilitating, becoming a barrier through which all of our spontaneity must pass before it can make it bruised and limping onto the stage.

In the workshop environment, the instructor often (willing or no) becomes a stand in for many if not all of these internalized voices of doubt and judgement. It’s not uncommon for players to actually break the fourth wall and check in with the teacher mid-scene as the action unfolds, seeking some small form of encouragement or acknowledgement. Lyn Pierse, quoted above, writes of a “Get lost Keith” exercise in which Johnstone, the founder of Theatresports, actually encourages his students to actively yell at him if they find themselves seeking his approval as they are performing to discourage this “need”.

While seeking feedback and earnestly processing notes are critical elements of our craft as artists if we want to grow and learn from those who have walked this path and stumbled before us, the act of consciously or unconsciously seeking approval during the act of spontaneous creation is sure to undermine our creative efforts. There is already plenty for an improviser to tend to during a scene: their partner(s), staging, characterization, story arc, games, and so on and so on. It is in our self interest, then, to do our best to silence this internal beast that craves approval from others.

So let us consider some ways to harness this instinct, and focus our lens instead on a more productive pursuit of self-appraisal and approval. My earlier entry on abandon provides some general strategies for quelling the judges, so here we’ll explore instead how personal goals can assist in this regard.

Goals in Pursuit of Gaining Your Own Approval

1.) What do I want from this scene or game? You’ll quickly note a trend in these posts that it’s important to set your goals prior to the performance and then assess these challenges after leaving the stage. It’s generally unhelpful to have a myriad of goals or notes floating through our brain as we improvise, but I think giving yourself a reminder or point of concentration (in Spolin terms) can help set you up for success. For example, the short-form game Moving Bodies often becomes a yelling fest so I’ll remind myself prior to this game that I want to focus on more grounded and nuanced dialogue. This doesn’t guarantee that the scene won’t still devolve into irrational yelling, but it at least allows me to start the scene with a fighting chance. If you’ve been receiving notes from your coach or director, or have noticed yourself falling into a trend you’d like to break (or achieving a trend you’re keen to continue), then this is a good way to activate these observations and suggestions.

2.) What do I want from this performance? Whether you’re playing in a short-form competition or a long-form piece, there may be a more global challenge that you want to issue yourself before the performance begins. If I’m directing, I’ll often take a few minutes before a run or performance for improvisers to share these goals (admittedly some companies like this ritual more than others). I find sharing personal challenges publicly a helpful tool on several levels: it gives each player a little accountability and asks them to commit to a focus; it allows the company as a whole to notice trends that may assist the performance as a whole; and it empowers fellow players to assist each other in meeting personal goals. If I know that you are committed to more dynamic staging and I find myself engaging in a talking heads scene with you, I am now more likely to look for helpful ways to break this staging pattern as well. When issuing a broader goal, be sure that it is still specific and, for lack of a better term, “measurable”. It’s a bit of a cop out to say, “My goal is to have a good show” as we might all have a different idea as to what that might mean for you. Do you want to keep out of your head, or put away a stressful day, or keep your focus on your scene partners?

3.) What do I see as my mid-term goal? If we consider the above goals as short-term or immediate, what are you hoping to achieve as an improviser in the next several months or year? Again, I’d caution steering away from imprecise or unachievable objective statements. If I want “to be famous,” that goal, while not unusual, is largely unattainable if we consider it as one step or move. Sure, there are accounts of someone being discovered, but then there is the other 99% of the industry that has worked tirelessly so that they would be trained and ready when opportunity knocked. Perhaps your goal is to perform in at least three different performance venues, or try your hand at four different forms or styles, or forge connections with at least another dozen players with whom you have not yet worked. If your goals are discrete and clear, you can then assess how you’re doing and then change or adjust them as you deem necessary. It’s not a bad idea to write these down somewhere too that you can refer to and update as needed.

4.) What do I see as my long-term goal? One of the beauties of the improvisational community is that it is a big tent housing people with so many different experiences and aspirations. Know what you want to ultimately get out of the craft so that you can also consider what you are willing to put into your pursuit of the craft. Are you seeking a sense of community, an outlet for artistic expression, a way to develop your communication and social skills, a pathway to a life in the arts, or all of these and more? Being honest with yourself about what you hope to achieve will also allow you to ally yourself with others in your community who are working toward a similar end.

Final Thought

We can’t grow without the nourishment of feedback and assessment, but we will never thrive onstage if we allow our desire for this approval to infect our work and make us second guess our actions. We must, instead, give ourselves approval to fall and trip and make glorious mistakes so that we may learn from these moments so that we may then, in turn, repeat the process while making newly informed falls, trips and glorious mistakes. When our focus is on gaining approval from outside forces we are likely putting ourselves squarely in our head and thereby diminishing the very likelihood of achieving this amorphic goal in a craft that demands our attention is unflinchingly given to the here and now of our work together onstage.

Related Entries: Abandon Synonyms: Checking In, Judging

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Eye Contact

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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