“The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”Joan Baez
Endowing refers to the process of imbuing elements of our scenic world with dramatic detail. While this technique can inform and develop the imagined environment, props or costumes (“When did this park bench get so rusty…?”), often this subset of the critical improvisational offer centers around the characters and relationships we build together. To endow, in this context, is to provide your partner with ideas and nuances that help them build and sustain a character: it is a directed gift with an intended recipient. This process serves a critical function in endowment games – where one or more players aren’t “in the know” and their teammates must steer them towards the hidden facts of the scene – typically through the use of skillful complementary actions. However, in traditional scenes endowing serves an equally important role as it quickly allows character qualities, relationship energies and pertinent backstory and given circumstances to enter the flow of the scenic stream. Well executed endowing provides an on-ramp for players to move quickly onto the scenic improvisational highway.
An as-yet undefined Player A enters the scene. Player B rushes over to them…
Player B: “Here, let me get you chair, honey. You’ve been on your feet all day at the restaurant.”
Player B: “Grandma, thank goodness you’re okay. I didn’t realize you weren’t behind us.”
Player B: “And what time do you call this young man? We agreed you’d be home by 10pm sharp.”
Player B: “Kylen, you’ve got to stop following me around like this. I told you it’s over between us…”
Elements of Effective Endowing
1.) Digestible specificity. Some improv schools are a little leery of robust endowments as this tactic can become overwhelming when it is not deployed judiciously. As you would with any other scenic offer, be wary of an avalanche of endowing that provides your intended recipient with half a dozen facets to suddenly juggle and justify rather than a well-chosen one or two specifics that can help get the game going. If I endow my scene partner as my spouse, home from the restaurant, they still have ample room to make a lot of their own decisions based on their preferences, experiences and instincts. What is their particular job at the restaurant and is it a high end affair or a working class franchise? Do they love their work or is it a necessary daily grind? What is the state of our relationship and marriage and is my gesture welcome or irritating? Remember that an endowment is intended as a pleasant addition rather than a restraining list of instructions. Making sure you leave room for your partner’s own ideas and agency is critical in this regard.
2.) Pleasant surprises. I like to use the concept of a gift when discussing endowments as it front loads the idea that we are offering up something that we believe our partner will appreciate and enjoy. Yes, this choice might embody a sense of playful whimsy and mischief – akin to shivving if you know the term – but endowments that push players into uncomfortable or ill-conceived territory would serve as an example of pimping or selling out your teammate in order to gain a quick laugh. It is undoubtedly easier to walk this line in a company where everyone knows each other well and respects each others’ boundaries. When playing with a newer company, it’s important to use pre-show check ins and post-show postmortems to gain a deeper understanding of how choices are landing. In unfamiliar venues it becomes even more important to avoid overloading your partner in one gigantic endowment dump as this also prevents any chance of adjusting your choice based on their reaction on stage. For example, if I’ve endowed a fellow players as my grandmother and then have the cognizance that they have expressed they are always getting cast as older, I can then quickly follow up with making her vibrant and youthful as well.
3.) Emotional connections. There can be a tendency to think of endowments as a factual verbal exchange, merely defining the biographical details of your scene partner. Don’t overlook the emotional and physical connections as well. As I catch my teenage son coming home late am I deeply disappointed in him, or is this a more jovial and loving kind of sparring? Is he excited to tell me of his adventures that evening, or does he feel smothered and trapped by my parenting style? Endowments can as readily be communicated through our staging and physical choices as they can our words alone. If I hand my son a cup of hot chocolate (or a can of beer) when he enters this adds a nuance and tone that is starkly different than if I pull out my handcuffs as an off-duty police officer. Similarly, leaping out of the shadows offers something different than just sitting calmly on the couch awaiting his arrival. As always, pay as much attention to the subtext and how as you do to the words and what. Closely considering the way in which we endow our fellow improvisers has the added advantage of slowing us down a little and leaving that much-needed room for responses and adjustments.
4.) Conscious choices. Endowments also serve as a great opportunity to invert, question or draw attention to assumptions and stereotypes in a critical fashion. Especially as a scene takes its first formative steps, a well-crafted endowment can jolt a scene out of stale or inelegant terrain. Kylen, in the example above, could evolve into a familiar stalking scenario (that was my loose intent when I crafted it) or this offer could enable a tilt into something a little more satirically self aware. Kylen could become a cell phone provider trying to win back a customer, a parent who forgot their child’s birthday yet again, or a best friend whose political insensitivity has finally gone too far. Thoughtful endowments enable provocative and dynamic content, highlighting dramatic (or comedic) contrasts, and encouraging complex relationships and tensions.
Bite-sized, desirable, grounded and aware are qualities that can elevate a simple endowment to the next level. If you are a “type A” improviser, endeavor to accept as many as you pitch as excessive endowing can be a sign of control-seeking bulldozing or waffling. If you can tend to go with the flow a little too much, then it’s probably worthwhile to practice resolute endowments so that you can avoid the companion trap of becoming a scenic passenger.
Connected Game: Endowment Circle