“Genuine theatre of liberation can never provide more than subsistence wages. It requires a lifetime commitment and a willingness to shed star complexes as well as high material expectations. Its only payoffs are moral, social, and cultural, never monetary.”Eugene Van Erven, The Playful Revolution. Theatre and Liberation in Asia. Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana UP, 1992. p.232
It strikes me that the habit of bulldozing and the desire to shine are improvisational relatives. The former generally emerges out of a misplaced taste for control while Shining reflects an insatiable act hunger that inadvertently places the individual’s ego and desire for accolades over the greater good of the show and ensemble. I don’t view either improv trap as intentionally malicious but rather as a manifestation of misdirected excitement. We’ve all succumbed to these temptations, I’m sure. And, as I discuss here, moments of creative finesse certainly have a valued place in the craft: we shouldn’t become needlessly paranoid of stepping into the limelight when the scene invites us to do so. Problematic shining, however, occurs when players actively seek or create such moments repeatedly in spite of what might best serve the storytelling process. If we liken our improv abilities to those of a super hero or heroine, the shining player frequently uses their powers for their own advancement rather than the greater good of the community. (This may, in fact, serve as an interesting definition of villainy!)
I’ve dealt with facets of the current theme in several other entries: Bulldozing offers some strategies for upending your own attention-seeking patterns; Looking Good provides helpful ways to throw the attention and joy to your scene partners; and Commandment #3 considers when shining may actually serve the greater artistic mission. So for this current musing I’d like to illustrate some subtle and not-so subtle manifestations of the shining impetus that represent simple moments to disrupt your own less-than-ideal habits.
Just as the action is about to fittingly follow Player B on a revealing journey of self discovery, Player A steps forward…
Player A: “But first let me just give you some unsolicited advice…” (to the musician) “Hit it, Steve!”
A long solo song ensues that doesn’t pertain to anything of note or consequence, although Player A is clearly a gifted singer…
Signs You May Need to Reduce Your Luminosity
1.) You typically play to win… Some improv formats utilize a competitive frame to make the event more accessible and structured for an audience. With few exceptions, however, this is merely a conceit that shouldn’t eclipse a more collaborative style of play. Even in short-form Deciders, where players are clearly pitted against each other, there are ample opportunities to make others look good and to elevate the ensemble over the individual. And audiences will rarely savor a meandering twelve minute opus that has long since out stayed its welcome as players wanted to win at any cost. In non-competitive frames a “winning” attitude can also infect an otherwise collective affair with players seeking to dominate the stage action, aggressively pushing to beat fellow improvisers to connections or punchlines, or maintaining a character’s upper hand regardless of the need or consequences. If you’re not joyously celebrating the victories of others – often and earnestly – then you’re likely falling into this camp.
2.) You always take the strong position… While this heading could easily apply to the habit of using a high status position as a means to force your own agenda on the improv stage, in this setting I am using it on its face value: literally don’t always put yourself in the strongest stage positions thereby forcing your teammates to upstage themselves. For those with some traditional theatre training it can become second nature to gravitate to center stage in order to keep yourself “open,” but in an improvisational setting where an outside eye can’t adjust and set these staging choices, making others assume weaker stage positions time and again can become symptomatic of not wanting to cede the scenic high ground. Arguably, if you don’t consciously engage in strongly giving focus on stage it is foreseeable that you are consistently taking focus from others instead.
3.) You’re the first to grab the call or shift… Although this habit occurs primarily in the specific subset of called short-form games, it serves as an apt metaphor for a more pervasive improvisational approach as well. In called games a scene is punctuated by a series of prompts from an offstage player that invite immediate changes and justifications. These provide built-in micro shining moments as whoever makes the first choice generally has an unobstructed playing field with the most low hanging fruit available. If you always claim the pole position in such moments this is likely at the cost of sharing the light around. This can also upset more organic scenic rhythms if another player has been situated to make the next choice but you leap into the fray anyway. (Even in games where calls have a singular recipient, such as one-person emotional rollercoasters, it’s still possible to share the latent opportunities provided by these moments.) In non-called games or scenes this over-eagerness can have a similar effect if you lunge at the next moment whether or not it makes sense for your character to make the next move.
4.) You heavily rely on a known stock of characters or tricks… Some improv schools and projects have a greater appetite for stock or set characters than others, and most players certainly revisit tropes or personae that have served them well in the past – this could be likened to the theatrical concept of “type” (although I have a lot of issues with this pervasive theory.) While it makes sense that we might lean into character terrain that has the comfort of familiarity, we should also be mindful that we’re not using our bag of tricks as a crutch that prevents us from taking strategic risks or supporting the work of others. If we’re only willing to enter the fray when we can assume one of our polished personae, or manipulate scenes so that we can present one of our surefire improv tricks, it follows that we may be missing many opportunities to more selflessly serve the specific needs of any particular story. The same holds true if we’re only willing to play the games that are firmly in our own wheelhouses without supporting others in their preferred formats.
5.) You routinely have more fun than your fellow players… This last point is a little tongue in cheek but I think it warrants some rumination. I know I have had shows where in the moment I felt like I was “on fire” and then after-the-fact have realized that this heat had singed some of my castmates. That’s not a good feeling for anyone involved. Alternatively, I’ve watched performances where improvisers have so clearly been trying to individually impress me as an audience member that they have done exactly the opposite, leaving me instead with the ponderous question as to whether or not they were actually having more fun than those watching them. So many of us improvise because it is a source of joy and freedom and gives us a chance to share our voice and vision. And improv certainly can and should serve these needs. But there is value in also keeping in mind whether or not our more personal goals (and desires) are impinging upon the joys and journeys of our collaborators on both sides of the stage divide.
Van Erven is writing of a particular branch of improvisational performance but these observations hold true for most of us involved in the profession. There are few improv-related avenues that can promise wealth or fame (although many training companies point at the few outliers as motivation.) The social and community-building rewards of improv, however, are often substantial. While it’s understandable that we all have our egos involved in these enterprises – and it’s certainly nice to be congratulated or noticed – it’s a worthy endeavor to strive to use our individual lights in the service of others as well as ourselves.
Connected Game: Emotional Door