“…the women [in the all-woman improv team Jane] soon learned that constant deference or passivity in improv was just as damaging to the ensemble as bulldozing and that sometimes the best way to support the scene or the troupe is to lead.”Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001.p.71
While Bulldozing is often a misplaced manifestation of excitement or a desire for taking control, assuming the role of a passive scenic Passenger embodies the opposite energy of relentless giving that can prove equally unhelpful. The mark of a bulldozer is an inclination to over-participate at the expense of their teammates; passengers have a tendency to shirk their responsibility to contribute meaningfully to the action thereby shifting all the weight of scene building to others. This is not to suggest that scenes require everyone to equally participate at all moments in the same ways in order to achieve improv magic. There are certainly times when accepting a support or background function (or not entering at all) stands firmly as an act of generosity as it allows other collaborators sufficient space and focus to craft compelling journeys. Most plays, after all, have designated leading roles, supporting roles, and ensemble members as these distinctions allow the skillful construction of engaging story arcs. But, donning the hat consistently of a scenic passenger is another matter entirely as it places the burden of creativity solely on the shoulders of others, denying our fellow players and audience the chance to experience and enjoy energy and ideas from all members of the ensemble. So while it’s desirable for us all to hang out in the back seat of the improv car on occasion quietly enjoying the view, it’s problematic if this becomes our standard mode of operation, especially if we’re working alongside others with similar scenic inclinations.
Player A and B are crafting a scene based on the suggestion of “burglars.” As the lights rise, Player A is carefully cracking open a window to an estate while Player B waits behind them.
Player A: (whispering) “I think I’ve managed to bypass the security system. If we don’t hear anything in the next five seconds, we should be in the clear.”
Both players wait, with varying degrees of trepidation. After a pause to see if Player B is going to make a choice, Player A continues…
Player A: “Alright, hand me the tool kit and I’ll spray the room to make sure there aren’t any infrared detectors.”
Player B: (nonchalantly) “Here you go.”
Player A: “Now you’re positive that the famous ‘Jewel of the Euphrates’ is being kept in the study safe?”
Player A meticulously sprays the aerosol into the room and then begins to move Catherine Zeta-Jones style between imagined beams. Player B follows but without any of this physical commitment or finesse.
Player B: “That’s what I read.”
Player A: “We’re lucky my contacts knew the owners were going to be travelling this week and that’d we’d finally have a chance.” (They suddenly change their posture as if they’ve heard something.) “You didn’t tell me they had a dog!!
Player B: “I didn’t know…”
Some Additional Analysis
It’s conceivable that Player B is doing no harm in the above example: they are, after all, allowing the story to move forward. While it’s difficult to capture performance energies in a written approximation, it would seem, however, that Player A is making several moves that are actively inviting (if not craving) B’s contribution. A failure to contribute consistently in such circumstances makes Player A unduly have to conjure one new detail after another with little support. There are certainly more aggressively destructive habits than being a passenger – such as negating or contradicting established elements – but Player A is largely being robbed of B’s energy and inspiration which will quickly start to impede the joyfulness of the story if this dynamic continues unabated.
Ways to Jump Into the Driver’s Seat
The antidote to playing as a scenic passenger is by no means becoming a dictatorial driver but if you’re inclined to let others make the formative choices time and again, there are lessons to be gleaned from placing yourself more squarely in the thick of the action. So if you’ve found yourself falling into passive roles and choices, consider challenging yourself to do one or more of the following on a more regular basis:
1.) Assume a higher status position. I more often see players falling into the role of a passenger when they self-select low status roles and relationships as a default so it can prove helpful to break this cycle by adopting the guise of someone higher up the status ladder. While there are many ways to play high status – and status needn’t be exerted by barking orders – when status is played well, lower characters should defer to their superiors when it comes to making final decisions. It follows that if you happily assume a higher status you will feel more empowered and encouraged to make strong assertions and contributions. In the burglary scenario, if Player B takes on the stance of an experienced robber then it would follow that they will need to offer up more substantial elements of the plan. Assuming the function of Player A’s sidekick, to the contrary, allows B to spend most of the scene hiding unproductively in the shadows. Similarly choosing to be a neophyte – “this is my first time robbing a house” – discourages bold character choices as you can now ask your partner to lead pretty much every major moment.
2.) Offer yourself as the protagonist. Passengers tend to thrive in the role of the best friend, lackey or underling as these functions cast the spotlight on another character. If the scene above continues along its current path, Player A will surely emerge as the leading character as they are more fully and clearly invested in the action. Without becoming needlessly selfish or dismissive of other players, Player B can reduce the likelihood of insignificance by making their fate critical to the action. In the scripted realm it’s not uncommon for actors to analyze a text exclusively from their own character’s perspective in such a way that imagines themselves as the star (even if from a structural perspective they are obviously a supporting player.) This attitude alone can prove helpful. If B’s burglar pitched this heist due to their own extreme financial situation, their investment in the action will increase exponentially, as will their desire to make contributions that will maximize the chances for success.
3.) Increase your verbal presence and contributions. This is a generalization but I’ve found that passengers are often more comfortable physically and emotionally on the stage rather than verbally. Obviously, rich and fully articulated physical and emotional offers can add amazing things to the scene and may be more than enough to keep the story building and developing. There are times in the action, however, that a specific choice with an energized verbal component may be the next offer required to push the scene forward. Player A, for example, made several strong offers that could have readily benefitted from a good old fashioned verbal “yes, and…” What specific tools were they using? What was so important about the ‘Jewel of the Euphrates?'” Who were the owners and why were they out of town? Player B’s minimal responses do little to add more colors and textures to the emerging painting. If you can fall into this pattern of verbally absent characters, take the risk of exploring more verbose characterizations, or at least make sure your responses transcend the most basic of agreements by providing new details and additions. “I believe they have five blood-thirsty guard dogs that they deliberately keep hungry while they’re out of town…”
4.) Find the self-love. I’ve noted the importance for bulldozers to find the love in their scene work as this tends to reduce belligerence and increase human interactions that organically invite generosity and connection. For passengers I’d advise a more robust sense of self-love and appreciation for your own ideas and instincts. Passengers can tend to under-value their own voices, privileging those of their teammates who appear more confident and spontaneous. It’s difficult to take up stage space when we are prejudging the success of our offers before they have even left our mouths. Just as we are charged with treating our scene partners as if they are geniuses – full throatedly embracing anything and everything that they might contribute – so too must we apply this attitude of audacious acceptance to our own musings and reactions. There is no expectation that every improv offer will emerge as a fully constructed masterpiece. Bring your individual detail or brick trusting that the ensemble will find how best to use it.
5.) Be the first to the stage. Lastly, passengers can find disproportionate comfort waiting all-too-patiently in the wings. Break this routine by grabbing your fair share of scene starts. It’s probably not wise to rush to the stage from a place of fear or obligation, especially if this is going to put you firmly in your head as the lights rise. But when you have that seed of inspiration, don’t be afraid to inform your fellow players that you want to step up. There’s also no need to be alone for these scenic initiations – by all means designate a scene partner to join you – but take the risk of making that first defining choice. On a purely technical level this can firmly set you up to apply some of the strategies above as you can establish your status, centrality or verbal confidence. On a structural level, this puts you in the driver’s seat right from the get-go, even if you are inclined to rideshare and happily pass the wheel shortly after your first few retorts.
Supporting and supportive players are critical to the art of improvisation and few performances will benefit from overly-competitive performers aggressively fighting for scenic supremacy. Just as bulldozers benefit greatly from learning how to cede control so as to raise the voices and journeys of others in the ensemble, so too can passengers gain from finding ways to bring their own stories and suggestions to the forefront with unapologetic confidence. Ideally, improvisers shouldn’t bullishly lead with obliviousness nor sheepishly follow from fear, but rather share the responsibility and joy of collectively creating a vast array of stories.
Connected Game: Double Speak