“…the actor must be willing to let experiences occur without the full cognizance of where they are leading […] There must be respect for the fact that solutions will evolve from the doing: commitment is essential to the technique.”Libby Appel, Mask Characterization: An Acting Process. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. p.xiv
The concept of Commitment can serve as a stand-in for a multitude of important improvisational approaches and energies. A committed improviser might be viewed as passionate, present and prepared, ready and willing at any moment to leap to the aid of a scene and their fellow players. A lack of commitment, on the other hand, could be marked by lethargy, hesitance and inconsistent attention. An improviser that routinely embodies these latter traits is likely to serve as a source of frustration as they sap the excitement and attack from the collaborative creative endeavor. Those that give 100% of themselves to the process and journey, however, are likely to emerge as audience (and fellow company) favorites, bringing energy and joy to the stage. While we all have bad days and shows, commitment to our craft and companies is an essential ingredient in the spontaneous soupe du jour that is improvisation.
Commitments Worth Pursuing
Here are some facets of commitment that are worthy of attention:
1.) Focus. Both on and off the stage, focus is critical as a performer (see Commandment #2). If we only passively give the work and our fellow players our attention, it is highly likely that rich gifts will be missed or misunderstood. There is truly no “time off” in an improv performance as we never know when our contribution may be most needed. It is embarrassing, to say the least, when you are the only person in the performance space who does not understand what is unfolding or required because your mind has drifted elsewhere. Commitment or energy without focus and direction may prove equally as destructive. If your mind is too fraught or busy to offer such unfettered attention, perhaps consider taking the show off.
2.) Energy. I don’t believe I’m unique in believing that improv is both energy draining and energy creating all at the same time. Especially in long-form modalities, it can be exhausting to give your all for the entire duration of the performance, but withholding your energy and excitement is unlikely to leave you with additional reserves at the completion of the show. I’ve found the more I give to the stage in terms of energy, the more I acquire through the resulting performance: holding back provides less energy but also, oddly, seems to cost you no less in the long-run as you don’t get to fully draw from the generative vitality of the work either. And what’s more, minimizing your energy contribution is likely to dramatically reduce the oomph available to others on the stage. (In my opinion, blocking and commenting are often the result of players choosing to withhold their energy.) If you’re having one of those days when your reserves have truly been expended, perhaps consider taking the show off.
3.) Trust. Every time we step on an improv stage we need to actively re-commit to trust ourselves and the other members of the company. If we hold onto past injuries or ill will, play with a sense of leeriness or hesitation, or approach the event fearfully as we nervously await for others’ bad habits to reappear, we have largely lost the improv battle before it has begun. Trust is certainly more easily lost than regained, hence the import of dealing with any breaches in a timely manner during postmortems after the show. Similarly, it is equally important that we exude a healthy trust towards our own work and choices, and do not needlessly carry the burden of our judges on our shoulders. If this essential trust is frayed in your performance group, or you are struggling to emerge joyfully from the injuries of thwarted self-expectation, perhaps consider taking some time off.
4.) Discipline. Improvisation blends process and product in a dynamic and powerful manner, inviting our audience into the very moment of creation with all its splendor and clumsiness. There are few artistic pursuits that demand such an ongoing commitment to growth and discovery. To become complacent, overly comfortable or inclined to rehash old territory with little effort to ignite new embers or potentials is anathema to the improvisational spirit. It unquestionably requires discipline to maintain this vigilance in our craft as improvisers, especially if we are working in more commercial enterprises that (seemingly) demand a certain level of repetition or predictability in an effort to win and maintain audiences. Stagnation, however, is the enemy of creativity, and it’s important that we continually seek to challenge ourselves and our collaborators. To improvise is to grow. If you find yourself lethargically meandering through stale “bits” and recycled choices, perhaps consider taking some time off or enriching your work with additional training or experiences.
5.) Passion. Related to the above, those of us who have been in the industry for a while can experience waxing and waning in terms of our passion and commitment. Improvisers who are fortunate enough to perform frequently are more likely to struggle with this dynamic than those who are fighting just to make it to the stage once or twice a month. Improvisational theatre has the allure than every performance is an opening night, a quality that scripted theatre must fight to mimic. It is foreseeable and understandable that if you’re wandering into the same building every night for long periods of time, that your passion for the craft may suffer. Noting that passion need not be manic or over-the-top (neophyte performers can often struggle shaping and controlling newfound passion for the craft) it is important that we bring joy and excitement to our stages and audiences. If the play of improv has felt like work for a protracted period of time, perhaps consider exploring a new project or stepping away for a while to recharge.
I’ve often co-facilitated an “Improv for Business” seminar with my home troupe, Sak Comedy Lab, where we’ll posit the question, “What are you committed to as a worker or employee?” If, as a player, you are committed to creating community, this will likely show and infuse your work. If you are committed to growing as an improviser and developing your skill set, this will probably encourage you to push your boundaries as a player and encourage your teammates to do the same. If you are committed to challenging or representing the audience in sincere and dynamic ways, this will open up new ways to sharpen and utilize your craft. If you are committed to just getting through another show, then you may well become the albatross hanging around the neck of your company. No one commitment is necessarily or inherently better than any other, but knowing where our commitments lie (and what we are willing to give or sacrifice in order to realize them) is an important focus and compass for our work in the field.
Connected Game: Act Harder