“The art of improvisation is to make the other person look good.”Keith Johnstone as quoted by Lyn Pierse, Theatresports Down Under. 2nd ed. Sydney, Australia: Improcorp, 1995. p. 37.
I will confess that this topic title is a little opaque, but I couldn’t find a more elegant abbreviation for “making our scene partners look good on stage.” Although in terms of the more obvious definition of looking good it is important that improvisers practice good hygiene, dress appropriately to their venues and means, and select clothing that isn’t needlessly distracting or likely to infringe upon their movement in unhelpful ways. It’s challenging to be fearless if you don’t want to get close to some scene partners (or they don’t want to get close to you) or you spend most of your scenes fidgeting with apparel in a way that isn’t enriching your characters.
Looking Good in my intended context here, however, is a shorthand for one of the golden rules of improv: if everyone on stage is focused on the joy and success of their partners then ideally everyone leaves the experience happy and satisfied. Such a performance stance also has the benefit of moving the focus away from ourselves – which tends to create solipsistic and heady improv – and places it on our fellow players – which tends to forge more dynamic relationships and stories.
Player A: (as a parent as they leave the scene) “OK, now don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Player B: (throwing the focus to their primed scene partner) “Well, you know what your mother always says in moments like these…”
Player C: (entering the room with a finger against their ear) “I’ve finished the sweep, Madam President. The Oval Office is secure.”
Player D: (joining an abandoned teammate who has been left awkwardly alone on stage) “I’m so sorry I’m late. Please tell me you haven’t been standing outside the restaurant this whole time…”
Player E: (backstage in the greenroom during intermission) “I’ve had a lot of stage time already. Is anyone else craving more?”
Implementing the Golden Rule
1.) Do less, give more. This first suggestion is primarily for type A improvisers who enjoy starting scenes and leading the narrative charge (I very much fall into this category myself.) If no-one else is hankering to launch the next scene, sure, step into the fray, but make sure you are giving that extra second to allow players with different performance tempos a chance to do so as well. If you’re about to enter as your third character in a three-minute scene, consider deferring to teammates who have generously waited in the wings instead. If you’ve had your moment of finesse in a called game, look to enable others to rotate into the spotlight rather than seizing such opportunities again and again. Improvisation is exciting and it’s easy for players to let this excitement get the better of them when it comes to sharing the wealth. I know I still fall into this trap, but often you have a whole evening of scenes to course correct. Just as stories suffocate under the burden of too many offers, so too can scenes ultimately suffer from too much of you.
2.) Gift the payoff. Competitive shows and companies can put players at odds with each other a little: who can come up with the quickest punchline, or offer the most novel variation in the scene? While some games need this sporting energy to thrive (most line games for instance) I believe taking this mindset into our scene work wholesale rarely serves our ensembles or final product. Some of my most cherished moments onstage have been the result of gifting the payoff. Target rhyming is a lovely example of this where you set up a fellow teammate further down the line with a fantastic word by offering up a lesser or more challenging relative – if we’re singing a song about nurses the first player might end their line with “machination” to allow their partner the superior rhyme of “vaccination.” This wonderfully generous strategy can apply to many other situations as well, such as setting up a punchline for another to land, seeing a connection but allowing a teammate (or even the audience) to make it explicit, or embracing an opportunity to pitch a moment of finesse to a fellow player as you know it’s in their wheelhouse.
3.) Play second fiddle. And sometimes it’s important for the scene, quite simply, just not to be about you. If we keep elevating the same people into the role of protagonist again and again we’re likely to get the same narratives again and again. Even if you start the scene there is no reason that you can’t use this time to literally set the stage for the arrival of another, more important, character. If you tend to play high status characters your voice will often become more central to the story’s arc, so exploring lower status sidekicks, confidants and underlings will add a whole new array of supporting tactics to your improv arsenal. As our community continues to strive towards the ideals of inclusiveness inherently ensconced in the DNA of improv, it’s not enough to just include diverse voices in the background; instead, we must seek meaningful ways to enable new stories and experiences to stand front and center. Rotating who wears the mask of the protagonist regularly is one simple step in this direction (as is exploring forms where the very notion of a singular protagonist is challenged or dismantled.)
4.) Take the bullet. It is so tempting to race into the scene that is playfully thriving and probably doesn’t need your presence while hiding in the wings while another scene struggles and desperately needs an injection of assistance. When we are committed to making others look good we need to rewire these common instincts. If a scene is succeeding uproariously, support your teammates by not entering so that they can play through their own premise unhampered – or perhaps exiting if the scene is becoming clumsily crowded. There will certainly be times when a cascade of entrances mirroring the current dynamic becomes the game of the scene, but this needn’t be a default. Similarly, a lot of trust can be lost when a struggling scene doesn’t receive the help it needs (even if no-one really knows what this help should look like.) Merely feeling that your teammates are continuing to stand beside you in a mucky scene can send a loud message and forge comraderie within the company and with your audience.
5.) Check in often and openly. Finally, commit to checking in regularly and frankly with your fellow improvisers. Unlike scripted pieces, an improv show can change paths during the actual performance and address imbalances or missteps. In some of my own long-form pieces it has become standard practice to simply ask a few open questions at intermission: “Is anyone feeling under-featured or shut out” or “Is anyone feeling overused or unsupported?” More weighty conversations regarding improviser choices or habits are generally best left until the postmortem as “scolding” an excited improviser for monopolizing the action just moments before they return to the stage isn’t likely to do anyone a favor. (Not that scolding should serve as a tactic in healthy postmortems in general.) But taking a moment to quickly assess trends and rhythms proves helpful: I think this is particularly important when there is no outside coach or director eye to offer such observations. For example, in Lights Up, a musical format that uses four singing improvisers, we’ll routinely want to make sure that someone hasn’t ended up singing four ballads in act one while another player has done little more than some background weaving. It can be daunting for improvisers to speak up so it’s important to work as a company to build this trust and to honor what has been shared.
Many of my own favorite and cherished improv moments have occurred when I have been on the receiving (or, as noted above) the giving end of this philosophy. Moving our focus onto the success of our partners so often results in a confidence and clarity of choice that simultaneously elevates our own work. Ego in improv is a complex dynamic, and many of us pursue performance because it fills some innate need or desire in our own psyche; but, when we’re able to harness this passion for the benefit of others, everyone wins.
Connected Game: One-Downing