“He listens well who takes notes.”Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Due to the unpredictable and ever-evolving nature of an improvisational production it is common practice to conduct detailed note sessions or Postmortems after each performance (unlike our counterparts on the scripted stage.) This has been the case with all of my professional and collegiate companies although the look of these debriefs changes a little from venue to venue. When there’s a resident director or you’re working in an educational setting, it’s common for postmortems to be more unidirectional – with feedback moving primarily from the artistic team to the improvisers. In professional settings this can also be the case or note sessions can prove a little more multivocal with responses moving between players perhaps facilitated by the evening’s host or a senior member of the troupe. When this post show ritual is handled well and with finesse it can further unite the players in a common mission; when it is fraught or needlessly divisive it can do more harm than good. There is certainly no guaranteed approach to unpacking the soaring successes and fumbling fractures of a performance, but I’ve found that a commitment to listening and learning from our struggles and mistakes stands as a crucial element of a thriving improvisational environment.
Here are some pointers on the two equally important functions of both giving and receiving thoughtful analysis in your improv debrief sessions:
Thoughts on Giving Notes
1.) Seek conciseness. Focus on what will benefit the company and individuals moving forward, patterns that need elevating or breaking, and adjustments that will serve the greater vision or mission. It can prove disheartening for all involved when undue attention is given to a misstep that was so situational that it will likely never happen again. In most cases improvisers have already mentally given themselves the note when such fumbles occur so don’t needlessly dwell on these struggles but rather briefly acknowledge them if it’s necessary to offer up future prescient strategies. (If they’re truly oblivious or in meltdown, this is better addressed in a one-on-one anyway.) Also be wary of lengthy musings as to what you would have done in that situation – offer a tool rather than an after-the-fact personalized and ultimately inapplicable blueprint.
2.) Seek balance. Strive to find balance between constructive and positive notes. (It’s a shame that most artists experience this binary when well-articulated suggestions are also acts of appreciation and support.) I’ve noticed that there can be a tendency to over-emphasize the former category, especially if time is tight, but players are generally more receptive to critique when they also feel adequately and sincerely celebrated. Admittedly this can add volume to the postmortem session so also consider after-the-fact ways of helpfully continuing the conversation. In some of my devised pieces I have explored distributing written notes and just sharing the high points in person (although this certainly adds a time burden on the company director.) With my on-campus troupe we’ll utilize social media platforms to allow players to give supportive shout outs and personal musings as well.
3.) Seek empathy. Especially if you are leading a note session (or are a senior player or more regular participant) keep front of mind how challenging these endeavors can be and don’t focus on unhelpful minutiae. Be careful of your tone or preambles that will make the listener defensive or on edge, such as a foreboding “This note is for you…,” “I’ve noticed that you always…,” or “If there’s one thing I hate it’s…” It can be easy to forget how impossible it is to improvise and balance so many competing needs at once. It’s also important to practice empathy during moments of discord or when a fellow player shares feeling marginalized or hurt by a choice. Sometimes it can prove helpful to simply offer the note from a more personal (rather than high status) place in these moments: “I’ve experienced a similarly difficult moment. While I couldn’t find a path at the time, afterwards I thought about…”
4. Seek joy. Read the room and set a tone accordingly. If it’s been a bit of a challenging show and the company is clearly beating themselves up a little, this might be a good time to emphasize growth and lean into the successes. After a performance where company members are riding high, this might provide an opportunity to consider some more nuanced or granular issues that can open up even new heights for the future (although be wary that you don’t cast an unnecessarily large shadow over the glow of success.) I believe it’s important to acknowledge the dominant mood: if everyone knows the show was rocky it will feel disingenuous and ultimately unhelpful to doggedly insist otherwise. But it’s also probably not a good time to heavily lay on feedback that will be perceived as negative. Failure is inherently part of improv and it’s healthy to find ways to laugh in the face of our struggles. Joyful notes can go a long way towards building up a troupe’s tolerance and acceptance of risk and fumbles.
Thoughts on Receiving Notes
1.) Take the note… even if you have a pressing justification or reason for your choice. As improvisers most of us can quickly come up with a string of great justifications for why we did what we did, but at the end of the day a note is responding to how we did what we did landed or the way it was received by our partners or the audience. Be open to the reality that your choice may have had an unintended consequence despite your efforts to the contrary.
2.) Take the note… even if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t understand the observation, seek a moment with the director or company member after the session (or perhaps sit with it for a night and then approach them if it’s still pertinent.) Ask for clarity in the note session only if it’ll benefit everyone present. I can struggle with keeping notes contained as a director; assuming a “thank you” approach as a player can go a long way in this regard. Those providing feedback are just as fallible as those receiving it, and sometimes an offering will be opaque (or kindhearted but not particularly apt) just as is the case on the stage.
3.) Take the note… even if you have to pass up a great opportunity to show how much you know, or who you’ve studied with, or why you should be appreciated more… When postmortems become status battles you’ve headed off the map into dangerous territory. There are certainly appropriate places to muse on the greater philosophical ramifications of our craft – in my circle this is typically at a bar after the show – but strive to avoid intellectual flights of fancy during the postmortem itself. If you make a one-upping move in a company of improvisers, someone is more than likely to quickly join the game – perhaps without even consciously choosing to do so – while the minutes will continue to tick away.
4.) Take the note… literally consider taking the note and writing it down so you can review it later, especially if you are working on a new or complex piece. In addition to being a mark of respect for the creative team – “I value your feedback enough to record it to look at again later” – it also allows you to self diagnose trends that you might not immediately catch when you are no longer in the heat of the moment. Are you constantly being praised for certain choices or behavior that you can now lean into? Are there skillsets, games or structural components that keep tripping you up that might warrant more training or a conversation with your director or mentor?
I’ve reflected on the import of well facilitated postmortems here when it comes to dealing with ruptures in how we treat and represent each other on stage. As I continue to grey I am increasingly of the opinion that complex interpersonal and habitual performance issues rarely find fruitful solutions in a public or community note session. Regardless of the sensitivity of the facilitator such moments invariably can feel shaming or become mired by other well-meaning improvisers either trying to kindly dull or less kindly sharpen the message – some conversations are just best handled one-on-one. In my experience, postmortems infused with respect, playful professionalism and, dare I say love, can actually capture some of the creative joy and comraderie that hopefully defines our onstage successes as well. If your note sessions routinely feel angsty or cynical this may, in fact, suggest more systemic issues in your company.
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