“B” is for “Blocking”

“Blocking is a perfidious, recurring problem which appears in the work of the best improvisors. They may block to stay in control, or to stay safe. Many beginning improvisors block because it gets a laugh and it feels good to make people laugh.”

Lynda Belt and Rebecca Stockley, Acting Through Improv: Improv Through Theatresports. New Revised Edition. Seattle, Washington: Thespis Productions, 1995. p.99

Definition

The scourge of Blocking (not to be confused with the scripted theatrical concept of staging) is an underlying theme in most modern improvisational practices. Blocking is the concept of denying, negating or dismissing the suggestions or offers of others on the improv stage (and one can certainly block one’s own creative process as well). It often occurs as a voiced “no” although I prefer to think of it as an energy or lack thereof rather than a word. When you block you hold your scene partner’s choice at arms’ length only to ultimately discard it. There are few habits in improv more likely to cause consternation or undermine the momentum and joy of a developing scene, so much so that it is the first among the Ten Commandments of Theatresports: “Thou shalt not block.” Consider reviewing this earlier post that looks at different ways this “no” energy can infect our work together and includes some exceptions to this oft-quoted rule.

Example

Player A has assumed the role of a parent working alongside their child (Player B) on repairing the family car.

Player A: (Lying on their back as if under the car) “Okay, just hand me that wrench on the work station…”

Player B: “No.”

OR

Player A: (Lying on their back as if under the car) “Okay, just hand me that wrench on the work station…”

Player B: (Ignoring Player A while on a phone) “So I’m here at the mall but I can’t see you anywhere…”

OR

Player A: (Lying on their back as if under the car) “Okay, just hand me that wrench on the work station…”

Player B: “What are you doing lying on the ground like that anyway? Is that supposed to be a car?”

OR

Player A: (Lying on their back as if under the car) “Okay, just hand me that wrench on the work station…”

Player B: (with no energy or commitment) “Ummm…” They wander aimlessly around the space (and likely “through” the car) only to eventually return to their starting place without actually doing anything.

Some Additional Analysis

As Belt and Stockley note, these parleys might garner a chuckle or two from the audience, but it is unlikely that any of these variants are off to a good start. At the very least Player A is likely to feel a little ignored or rebuked. So why does this blocking energy so frequently appear in our improv if we are not vigilant? In many instances it comes down to one simple and pernicious word: fear.

How Fear Can Lead to Blocking

1.) A fear of being wrong. Improv is a rare performance tradition in which the process is the product and so the audience gets the joy and delightful agony of watching our stumbles alongside our successes. Most Western education systems, however, typically marginalize or hide the process of creation. Revisions or mistakes occur in private and educational systems rarely reward or recognize the importance of glorious mistakes. Keith Johnstone writes about the harms of formal education at length, and unfortunately decades later his observations still hold true for many students and their journeys. When we hide and devalue the pedagogic value of errors, and obscure the creative process, it follows that the fear of being wrong can loom large as a shadow over our work. The immediacy of improv does not coexist easily with a desire to sift through countless choices and options before adding to the scene. It demands that we follow our instincts and training and make the choice that feels “best” in the moment. Saying “no” would seemingly give us more time to weigh our options, although in reality it merely allows the train to pass us as we wait passively on the station platform.

2.) A fear of ceding control. Just as many artistic and academic modes hide or undervalue the messy process, many of us also live in a culture that tends to praise the illusion of the individual genius. The innately collaborative nature of improvisation belies this mirage but it is easily hampered by the persistent cobwebs of personal ego and desire. It can be difficult not to start to think ahead and contemplate how we as individuals would like to see a scene develop. “If I embrace my partner’s choice, then the doorway to my ‘great idea’ will close and I don’t know where we’ll go instead.” So often the world can make us feel as if we have so little control over our own destinies, but in prioritizing our own personal destination we are missing the true creative value of the process. Saying “no” might appear to give us more control over how a scene unfolds, but in reality it will likely thwart our fellow travelers resulting in no-one reaching improv nirvana.

3.) A fear of the unknown. Threaded through the above fears is a reluctance to step willingly and joyfully into the creative void. If we don’t know and control the path ahead, how can we possibly be right or have the action serve our personal goals as an artist or character? Reveling in this potential so expansive that it is almost suffocating does not always come easily or quickly. In our day-to-day lives it is probably wise that we don’t embrace any opportunity without some reasoned consideration, but on the improv stage we are giving the audience and ourselves the gift of suspending our survival instincts so that we may release our inner adventurers. Saying “no” allows us to remain on the precipice of action and discovery, but we will ultimately never learn what is beyond the ledge nor allow growth by allowing earnest surprise into our work.

4.) A fear of revealing a lack of knowledge. Unlike a traditional script where we can spend our time researching a particular historical moment, cultural context or character backstory, in the improvisational realm we never know where our stories and scenes might take us. Often a blocking energy can stem from the resulting uncertainty: Do I know enough about cars to join in the action of this repair? Will I reveal to the audience and my scene partners that I lack knowledge on an important subject? If I attack this scene with abandon, will I potentially embarrass myself? (As a teacher, I would argue this fear can also terribly undermine any candid sense of discussion in a classroom.) And yet, our audience so often applauds performer vulnerability and risk-taking, and we are likely to facilitate not only our own personal growth but that of our patrons when we make good-faith assumptions and choices. Saying “no” would appear to keep us safely on the sidelines, but instead robs the audience of the joy of our bravery and struggles as we embrace unfamiliar territory.

5.) A fear of assuming stances that might be mistaken as our own. Improvisers do not have the protection of a playwright’s script forming a screen between them and their characters. When we earnestly take on personas in front of an audience, especially those that might embody negative, undesirable or caustic views, there can be a fear that anti-social views might be mistaken as belonging to the improviser underneath the mask. This tension proves more evident in more sincere styles of performance, but I have seen younger improvisers struggle with this dichotomy in short-form modes as well. There can be a power and release in embodying less laudable characters, and I personally enjoy seeking truth in points of view that are diametrically opposed to my own. (I would also confess that I was less able and willing to assume such roles when I was taking my first steps in the field.) Just as we encourage players to embrace the unknown in terms of where a scene might go, I think it is equally crucial that we embrace the unknown in terms of character views and systems of belief. Saying “no” to exploring the full range of our political world could appear to bolster our own convictions, but often it may prevent us from understanding societal tensions in a more nuanced and empathetic way.

Final Thought

When we follow the energy of “no” in our improv work, we are often letting our fears get the better of us. It is not a small or simple thing to cast these fears out, and amassing additional experience does not mean that these battles have been fought and won for all times. Succumbing to the “no,” however, provides us only with the most temporary of reprieves and the scene is likely to gallop ahead without us as we loiter in our desire to be right or in control. On the other hand, when we embrace the risk of “yes,” accepting that invitation into the delights of the unknown, fear will often dissipate into the dust of our momentum. When we no longer dwell on every choice before we execute it, and rather bring our full presence into our bodies and the action of the scene, we begin to starve our fears from the time and oxygen they need to survive.

For some strategies on how to make the most of your “Yes And” onstage, see my earlier post on accepting here.

Related Entries: Commandment #1 Antonyms: Accepting, Agreement, Yes And, Yielding Synonyms: Denial, Negating, No

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Rule Breaker

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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