“K” is for “Kindness”

“Theater games do not inspire ‘proper’ moral behavior (good/bad), but rather seek to free each person to feel his or her own true nature, out of which a felt, experienced, actual love of neighbor will appear.”

Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p. xv


I will freely admit that the initial impetus for this entry was a desire to find a suitable “K” for my improvisational stroll through the alphabet! But the more I’ve mused on the topic of Kindness, the more I’ve realized that we probably don’t talk about (and practice) it enough. Whether a desire to serve or forge community is inherent within your performance practice (as is the case with Theatre of the Oppressed and Sociodrama modes) or your work assumes a more commercial or competitive edge, we should consciously consider how we are interacting and collaborating. So, let us consider how to…

Practice Kindness Towards…

1.) Yourself. Improvisers, alongside artists of all stripes, tend to be harder on themselves than anyone else could possibly be. On the improv stage, struggles and slips are not only inevitable, but most would agree are actually key to the live creative process. When we are unable to forgive ourselves for our missteps the very act of holding onto this negative energy undoubtedly increases the likelihood of ongoing heady struggles and fumbles. Allow yourself room for growth, acknowledge that there will be good choices (scenes, shows…) and not-so-good choices (scenes, shows…) and strive to set your focus on the emergent present rather than the stumbles of the fading past. When we’re unable to show ourselves this form of kindness we will often become a source of creeping negativity that can infect the whole company or performance. Such a flagellating stance also closes us off to receiving notes and learning from our mistakes in a way that can arm us for future victories.

2.) Your characters. In our pursuit for conflict and dramatic tension we can err on the side of assuming a mantle of meanness or contrariness: “My scene partner’s character loves this item, choice or activity, so I’ll hate it or find it mundane to add some energy…” While these dynamics certainly have a place in our work, we shouldn’t overlook the power of embodying characters and relationships that show joy, love and empathy. Some of my favorite scenes as an audience member involve watching characters who are clearly finding pleasure in each others’ company or who unite in the face of conflict rather than become at odds (typically inexplicably artificial odds, no less) with one another. An attitude of kindness and empathy also invites more complex and dynamic representations that are less likely to fall into stereotypes or clichéd one-dimensionality. What’s more, when we’re endowed as a seemingly villainous persona, exploring a greater variety of shades that reveal an inner struggle or beauty is likely to add helpful depth and relevance to the scene.

3.) Other improvisers. Just as we should give ourselves a break when our work doesn’t meet our own expectations, so too should we display generosity with our collaborators. In my experience when we are on the receiving end of a clumsy or problematic offer, the initiator is often more than aware of their misstep (the audience will often let them know this immediately.) When debriefing the work, assume good faith in your castmates’ intentions and leave room for their own artistic journey and development just as you hope they are displaying the same kindness to you and your craft. If a teammate is clearly aware that they broke a trust or carelessly crossed a boundary, little is to be gained by a public flogging. And even in circumstances where a fellow player isn’t aware that their actions were hurtful or unwelcome, a gentle discussion is much more likely to induce change than an angry confrontation. In a proactive sense, also be aware of your fellow players’ needs and hopes going into a performance: if you can set them up for joy and success, why wouldn’t we do that?

4.) Your audience. Lastly, let us not forget our audiences – please! I use improv in a wide variety of settings ranging from high octane laugh fests to edgy and sincere narrative long-forms. Regardless of where you are performing on this inspiring spectrum of improv it’s important that we are aware of our audience’s needs and expectations. From simple factors, such as are there any young children present in the auditorium, to more complex factors, such as has there been anything disturbing in the news that could be triggering, we should strive to take informed and deliberate risks. While some of my long-form work tackles rather intense themes at times (bigotry, poverty, mental health…) our audiences are forewarned and we strive, albeit imperfectly, to explore these issues with care and complexity. It is certainly possible to tackle weighty topics in a short-form modality, but care should be shown in raising sensitive subjects especially if the form does not allow more than the briefest nod or players are grabbing at potentially offensive material for mere shock value. Knowingly satirizing societal blindnesses or conventions is also markedly different than carelessly reinjuring parts of our audience for an easy response or cheap laugh. One approach resembles the adage of being a little cruel to be kind by appropriately ruffling the feathers of complacency, while the other can just feel plain cruel…

Final Thought

All four of these focal points are highly important but I suspect that practicing kindness first and foremost to ourselves and our craft will quickly enable this energy to emanate towards our other collaborators. As they say, a little kindness…

Related Entries: Archetype, Audience, Ensemble, Postmortem Antonyms: Anger, Pettiness Synonyms: Empathy, Forgiveness, Love

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Nicer Than You

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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