“The only star in improv is the ensemble itself; if everyone is doing his job well, then no one should stand out. The best way for an improviser to look good is by making his fellow players look good.”Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.37
The majority of improvisational creation occurs in the ever important Ensemble, a collective mishmash of participants that can lift each other to new heights and joys, or perhaps (in less ideal circumstances) hold each other’s faces down in the messiness of spontaneity. I’ve worked in ensembles that I have assembled and led, as well as companies where I have jobbed in or been hired, and I’m always struck that managing or maintaining a healthy group can prove so easy when things are going right, and so exhausting and all-consuming when there are underlying problems and issues. Even the “best” onstage improv work will leave a bad taste in your mouth when it’s marred by offstage turmoil, problematic personalities and interpersonal tensions.
Marks of a Healthy and Aspirational Ensemble
There are probably thousands of appropriate words I could use to describe a well-functioning ensemble, but here are some of the energies that I’ve found recur with frequency in groups where the collaboration has flowed well.
1.) Accepting. I’m using this term in its broadest sense. Healthy ensembles tend to accept and value a diversity of opinions, experiences and approaches as well as just good old fashioned diversity in general. Players accept their own failings and stumbles as well those of their peers, ideas are floated freely and with gusto with a sense that they will be heard and assessed on their merits (rather than as a move in some hidden power game), and all the voices in the space are seen as intrinsically valuable.
Player A: (during the postmortem) “Yeah, I totally understand that my choice landed really weirdly and I’m sorry that your were uncomfortable. I’m really going to think about what I did there and I’ll make a different choice next time. Thanks for being so honest with me about your experience.”
2.) Joyful. Regardless of the focus of the content or improvisational form, strong ensembles tend to find joy in their work together, even (or perhaps especially) when darker hues or stories emerge. Forgiveness is rarely sought as there is a deep-rooted assumption of good faith and that players are working generously for and with each other. Effective ensembles also tend to model the quality of resilience: players do not dwell needlessly in the fumbles but rather embrace and enjoy the process knowing that it will have both peaks and valleys in rehearsals and performance.
Player A: (during intermission) “We had some rough moments in our act one, but we really managed to push through them and lean on each other. Let’s talk about how we can support each other even more going into the next act.”
3.) Directed. Improv ensembles deploy many different models of leadership so I’m not necessarily referring to a singular “director” or deviser but rather the notion that there are central principles and a direction that bind the group consciously together. Improv has such a wide reach, encompassing the healing arts, highly commercial enterprises, international franchises, and community-based groups. When members lack a foundational understanding of their mutual purpose and goals, it inherently causes ruptures and fissures. Knowing not just what you want your intended product to represent but also why you are working together can only help create creative cohesion and confidence.
Player A: (during the pre-show warm-up) “I’ve noticed some of our work has been ending on a rather dark or cynical note of late and our audience doesn’t seem to gel with that unless we really earn it. Let’s keep any eye towards finding the light and love in our relationships tonight.”
4.) Dedicated. Connected to the above concept, productive ensembles display dedication to their stated goals, whether it is creating and elevating community, providing an artistic outlet, pushing the boundaries of live performance, or a myriad of other possible objectives. I hesitate to use the term professionalism, as there are many improv modalities that actively celebrate an amateur or volunteer status, but successful companies typically embrace the trappings of the professional in that they display focus and respect for each other and the craft, and embody a dedication to building and sharpening the requisite skill sets.
Player A: (in an all-company email or correspondence) “Just a gentle reminder that we’ve all committed to arriving in the space at least 45 minutes before curtain. Please do your best to honor that commitment and text the house manager if something truly out-of-the-ordinary has happened so that the ensemble knows when you’ll be arriving.”
5.) Creative. Finally, I’d elevate the concept of creativity as it is difficult for a complacent or “stale” ensemble to truly thrive. Whether it is exploring old ideas in new ways, or throwing out the old ideas altogether and attempting the completely untested, when improv becomes too risk adverse, in my humble opinion, it may be marching in the wrong direction in terms of the genre’s innate energy. My favorite projects are without exception those that I do not know from the outset are possible or guaranteed to succeed. My favorite performances are those in which new life is breathed into a game or scenario that I thought I knew like the back of my hand. My favorite players are those that continue to surprise me with their ability to reveal something about themselves, me or the human condition in general. Improv without a commitment to creative growth merely grasps the dull embers of spontaneity when it could rather dance dangerously in the crackling flames.
Player A: (in a note posted on the greenroom wall) “This is a list of some short-form games that have been heavily in rotation lately. As we encounter them on stage, let’s make a concerted effort to launch into the scenes with new prompts or attitudes so that we don’t overly rely on old material and bits.”
When ensemble goes wrong it can take an enormous amount of work to right the ship, so it’s worth taking the time to tend to the small slips and tensions before they have a chance to fester and escalate. This starts with us at the individual level owning up to moments where we have caused hurt or not lived up to the goals and standards of the group. If you’re in a position of leadership, it’s particular important that you not only model this level of improvisational humility, but also, as needed, communicate with others if they are routinely and problematically creating breaches in trust and joy.
Connected Game: Go