“…actor’s liberation is very important. For that you need a free space. A space where work can be freely done, in which a person is free to become. A space in which people share together and, in sharing, free themselves. But you have to have a way to enter into this space, to bring about the possibility of playing together in a reality that wasn’t there before creating it together through sharing.”Paul Sills quoted in Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.18
Sharing is so integral to the craft of improvisation and when the ability to generously and deliberately move focus within the ensemble is off or hampered, the very act of collaborative creation is threatened. I view Bulldozing in this context as it is fundamentally an inability to allow sufficient creative space for your teammates. The rationale or motivation for bulldozing can vary widely: it can be a manifestation of a lack of trust, a craving for acclaim or recognition, an inability to retain a greater awareness of other energies and possibilities on stage, a desire to move the scene in one specific direction that meets your individual whims, or a misplaced excitement to play that overshadows the critical need to allow others to “pong” to your “ping.” Regardless of the intention, the result remains the same: a silencing of other potential voices, connections and possibilities. As we become more confident and “stronger” as improvisers, this habit can easily emerge, and it is certainly a beast that I continue to wrestle. While most would agree leading from strength is important, it must always be tempered with generosity and active listening.
Players gather around a table. As the lights come up, Player A assumes the role of the head of the household.
Player A: “Look, I know none of us want to tighten out belts, but I’ve been going over the family finances, and we are wasting a LOT of money every month on things that I just don’t think we need.”
The other players murmur and Player B stands as the precursor to speaking…
Player A: (interrupting) “Now I know what you’re going to say. Your spending is essential, unlike everyone else’s, but I’ve combed through everyone’s credit card receipts. You spent over $800 last month on coffee alone…”
Player B begins to respond, but Player A has now moved their focus…
Player A: (talking to Player C) “And you! We all love snookums, but the amount you spend on dog grooming is astronomical. It’s nearly as much as we spend on our mortgage.”
They all grumble again. Player C lifts “snookums” onto their lap and begins to speak but…
Player A: (handing out various papers) “So, I have gone ahead and made up personal budgets for each of us. From this point on we will each have to live off an allowance. Now I know what you’re going to say…”
Some Additional Analysis
While bulldozing may not always appear in the form of a monologue or cascade of uninterrupted offers, this is a frequent tell-tale sign. Monologues certainly have a valid place in our work, but generally these will expand upon a point of view or help build energy in the rising action during a pivotal moment. In the above example, other players clearly have the instinct and desire to contribute so as to help build upon the initial premise, but Player A is oblivious (or over-anxious) and unable to loosen the reins. While most of us enjoy playing alongside other improvisers who approach their craft and scenes with certitude and strength, as is the case with nearly all techniques in improv (and art) it is a matter of balance and awareness.
Ways to Siphon the Fuel of Your Bulldozer
As I’ve framed this problematic dynamic in terms of focus and sharing, let us explore ways to stop yourself in your tracks if you find yourself unwittingly playing the role of a bulldozer:
1.) Assume a lower status position. When it comes to status in our improv work, it is innately easier to drive a scene if you assume a high or the highest status on stage. When you take on the role of the top dog, boss or big cheese, there is often a power disequilibrium built in that can encourage or “excuse” a domineering energy or approach. However, if you adopt a lower status character and truly embrace your position in the pecking order, this can help lessen the likelihood that your excitement as an improviser will get the better of you (and your teammates). In the above example, Player A could then bring forth the scenic starting point of over-spending, but do so from a different perspective: “I don’t know why Yvette wants to talk to us all about our spending. I’ve just be doing what I always do every week.”
2.) Endow others at the protagonist. If we perceive a scene as primarily our character’s journey, this similarly sets up a temptation for monolopizing if we are so inclined. Moving this focus deliberately to another of our teammates will likewise encourage us to direct our energy in a more helpful fashion. This may often connect to the observation above, although the protagonist need not be the highest status character on the stage. So Player A might offer, “Yvette, I know you’ve wanted us to watch our spending this month, and I really tired.” It is certainly still possible to become voluminous and controlling, especially if you did adopt a higher status, but if you are truly serving a protagonist you should, at least in theory, be allowing sufficient room for them to react and experience their journey.
3.) Restrict your verbal contributions (but not your breaths). This is perhaps the most obvious suggestion and, frankly, is a helpful solution for nearly any focus or verbosity-related issue on the improv stage. Seek to maximize your clarity while minimizing your language, and after each sentence take a true breath that invites and allows the next choice to come from another in the scene. “I’ve invited you all to this family meeting to discuss our financial choices.” There is still a lot of richness and potential in such an opening choice. If we trust our own ability to communicate, and our teammates’ abilities to co-create, the next choice should most likely be a breath while we actively listen. In my experience, scenes are more likely to crackle if each character has a window to lock in their point of view in the founding moments, and this strategy certainly aids in this endeavor as well.
4.) Find the love. Again, I’m fond of this note for almost any scene or character, but in both a literal and metaphoric sense, love can help calm your internal metronome and remind you to focus on the experience and journeys of others. On a literal level, building love into the scenic relationships can inform your subtext, raise the stakes, and create an inner turmoil or tension that will hopefully enable you to trust the silences more. If Player A begins with nervous pacing and painfully announces, “I really don’t know how to tell you this, but we can’t afford to pay our bills this month” and infuses the line with love, the belligerence that can often accompany bulldozing has been diffused right from the top of the scene. On a metaphoric or perhaps meta level, when we add in a love for our fellow performers, this serves as a powerful reminder that we want to also set them up for joy, agency and success. Bulldozing is more likely to appear when we’re playing with a competitive rather than collaborative mindset.
5.) Delay your entrance (and look for your exit). If you feel yourself revving up in the wings, anxious to get that whole idea to the stage, sometimes the best tactic is just to wait. In the short-form tradition, there are some games that I enjoy playing so much more than others: if a Shakespeare scene is offered, I’m much more likely to want to rush the stage than if Moving Bodies has been announced. In the former case, it can be helpful to resist the urge to start and defer to my teammates if they are primed and inspired. In the long-form tradition, if you know you are an important character or that there’s a big move brewing, allowing others space prior to your entrance can make sure you are remaining receptive and reactive. Finding an appropriate exit is the other side of the coin and this is a helpful tactic if you’ve found yourself dominating or eclipsing others on stage. If you are the highest status character, generous exits are particularly important as your “underlings” may not get to speak freely or engage in mischief while you are present.
Characters should dynamically fight for their objectives, striving to achieve their desired outcome in their life’s story. Improvisers, on the other hand, should not be fighting or working in opposition to or at the expense of their collaborators. As we encourage and seek our strength and voice on the improv stage, bulldozing can and probably will emerge at times even amongst the most self-aware of companies: sometimes our excitement gets the better of us or we are sitting on a powerful move that needs a little room to fully materialize in a way that will serve the story and the company. But left unchecked, this energy can sap the creative spirit of your ensemble. It’s important that we kindly acknowledge these moments when they occur so that we can continue to commit to each other and privilege the discoveries that can only occur when everyone has an opportunity to take a turn at the wheel.
Connected Game: Speak in Turn