“Side coaching is a guide, a directive, a support, a catalyst, a higher view, an inner voice, an extended hand, you might say, given during the playing of a game to help you stay on focus.”Viola Spolin, Theatre Games for the Lone Actor: A Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2001. p.7
Spolin’s words provide an inspirational and comprehensive description of the improv Sidecoach. As spontaneous play is rarely repeated or revisited, real time adjustments can prove essential when seeking to introduce new strategies or while exploring unfamiliar terrain. A quick and astute word provided in the moment will often allow instantaneous adjustments or course corrections unlike traditional theatrical notes which can easily become highly theoretical: what would have happened if you had tried “a” instead of “b?” No one will ever know as it’s highly unlikely that scenario will ever play out again in quite the same way! Expert sidecoaching nudges players out of ruts or perceived traps and gently empowers their latent instincts, thereby keeping the scenic focus and momentum flowing.
I recognize and deeply value the tradition of in-the-moment coaching, but must also candidly share that it is a tool I personally wrestle with a little for a variety of reasons. As I primarily teach and work in a university theatre department and well-established professional company, I’ve found that players in both of these communities are not always well versed nor receptive to this creative paradigm unless it is conducted with great gentleness. When playing Gorilla Theatre, the director role necessarily assumes this function as they “fight” to get their vision to the stage, although I wouldn’t offer this as a typical model for sidecoaching as most would rightly consider the needs of this format as a little more aggressive and director-focused than a more typical sidecoaching relationship. I certainly deploy this tool when workshopping skills that require consistent momentum such as rhyming and musical sessions. Here, a quick word at the right time will assist much more than a lengthy discussion after-the-fact. In my day-to-day instruction I find myself balancing sidecoaching with more traditional postmortem notes, although as I sit down to write this entry I also realize that in-the-moment coaching probably characterizes my style more than I might realize – it just sometimes takes hybrid forms, such as when I wander around the classroom space between various playing groups offering up little words of help or focus realignments.
I present the following observations with this context in mind. These thoughts stem from my own experiences and preferences on both the receiving and coaching side of the equation. Sidecoaching is unquestionably an expression of our personal artistic and pedagogic journeys and aesthetic. Finding your coaching groove is the pursuit of a life in the art and will undoubtedly reflect your own (positive and negative) experiences in the rehearsal hall as well.
Player A and B are lost teenagers on a deserted beach. After several exchanges establishing their CROW they now take their first nervous steps towards a menacing cave entrance. Player A struggles to turn on an unreliable flashlight while B looks on with terror. The sidecoach has patiently remained silent during these opening moments…
Player B: (stopping dead in their tracks) ” I don’t think we should do this…”
Sidecoach: (with gentle excitement) “Do it!”
Sidecoach: (with anticipation) “What was that sound?”
Sidecoach: (egging on Player B) “Why are you so nervous?”
Sidecoach: (with relish) “Lean into that great sense of panic!”
The sidecoach visibly leans forward in their chair with heightened attention and joy, and silently smiles.
1.) Get in and out quickly. By definition, sidecoaching pauses the scenic action to offer up some words of wisdom or encouragement. Lengthy musings decrease the likelihood that the players can maintain the dramatic integrity while listening to and processing the offered adjustment, so it’s important to seek efficient brevity. If you need more than a few words and your advice isn’t critical I’d recommend holding onto the feedback until the scene has finished rather than grinding everything to a halt (unless injury – physical or otherwise – is imminent.) When on the receiving end you can also do a great deal to minimize any negative side effects of these interruptions: assume a soft freeze as the sidecoaching occurs, don’t feel the need to turn to or address the director, and strive to apply the new information through action rather than starting a sidebar discussion. There is also a lot to be said for assuming good faith on the part of the coach: if something strikes you as odd or unexpected, embrace it anyway assuming that the director has observed a potential that escaped your view.
2.) Nudge rather than solve. It’s my strong preference for a sidecoaching insert to encourage the players to uncover a potential pathway rather than explicitly dictating a specific course of action. A gentle exception to this “rule” might be the oft-uttered feedback of “do it!” when improvisers are stalled in a mist of contemplation, but even in this scenario the coach is typically pushing players to do the thing that they themselves have posited rather than an imposed outside idea. This nudging approach snugs nicely with Spolin’s concept of the “catalyst” that adds heat and momentum to the experiment already in progress. It’s also reminiscent of the “teach a person to fish” analogy in that providing solutions will likely create a codependency with the coach rather than strengthen the improvisers’ own abilities to get into and out of playful trouble. Using questions rather than statements can prove a simple mechanism to make sure major offers are emerging from those engaged in the action as it allows the players to retain the agency of finding their own unique responses.
3.) Elevate the players. Asking loaded questions from the sidelines also has the crucial effect of raising up the creativity of the scenic participants rather than inadvertently reflecting and privileging the skill of the sidecoach. Gorilla Theatre, discussed above, offers a unique exception in this regard in that the overarching premise frames each scene as the manifestation of the director’s vision or conceit, but even here in reality effective coaching will very much recognize and encourage dynamics that emanated from the onstage players. Truly puppeteering the action will quickly become tiring for all involved. In simple terms this requires the coach to as boldly commit to a “yes, and…” attitude as any other player in the space, reserving more oppositional direction for the most exceptional of circumstances. When these more potentially jarring course corrections are warranted it can be helpful to exude an air of your own fallibility – “sorry, my last adjustment was clearly so poorly articulated” – rather than judgment of the players – “why are you unable to do what I’ve instructed?” Like any other collaborative scene if it wraps up and you’re left thinking “that was exactly what I wanted or coached” you’ve probably smothered a lot of the creativity and may be entering the realm of the bulldozer.
4.) Support rather than scold. I’ve certainly worked with improvisers who prefer unadorned critique but generally the flower of improvisation blooms most impressively when it’s watered with positivity and encouragement. Most improvisers will quickly become disheartened or stuck in their heads when greeted by a string of feedback that feels like harsh criticism. This is a direct equivalent to working alongside a negating or blocking energy on the stage as a fellow player. Liberally sprinkling sugar with the salt helps maintain a joyful environment. It’s easy to fall into an unintended rut of primarily pushing players to make new or different choices rather than paying equal attention to encouraging and reinforcing successful and helpful dynamics as they play out. While it is unlikely that all critique can be congratulatory, it is possible for corrective adjustments to also be offered with the spirit and tonality of joyful excitement. If players start to associate any sidecoaching interruption as a foreboding signal of negative critique it’s unlikely that they will be open and receptive to the advice that follows. You don’t want players experiencing a negative Pavlovian reaction to your very presence! It’s no small task to develop and maintain this creative rapport so be aware that needlessly aggressive feedback or energies can harm more than just the current scene.
5.) Enable joyful play. Finally, embrace the sidecoach’s role of ally (or the “extended hand” in Spolin’s parlance.) Sometimes it’s not worth interrupting the scene yet again for that clever observation that isn’t really needed. It can be easy to forget that well structured struggle can teach as much if not more as heavily directed “success.” Spolin extols the coach’s duty to facilitate focus; when feedback begins to actively pull the players’ attention further and further from the stage action, the requisite focus on the improvisatory task at hand will quickly diminish. It’s also important to read the room and individual players. I’m sure I’m not alone in encountering improvisers who find nearly any interruption – regardless of its positive tone or content – as off-putting and thwarting. Others bounce back with immediate and good natured resilience. As is the case with all pedagogic instruments, one tool does not work the same way for all students. If sidecoached scenes are routinely resulting in bruises then consider rebalancing your approach and taking some time to explicitly discuss and model the preferred application.
I’ll end this entry with an anecdotal account of a sidecoaching style that I find a little disingenuous. On occasion I’ve encountered a rather bullish energy where the coach regularly stops the action to aggressively push the players to a new action or beat. The instructions are, more-often-than-not, artistically legitimate but presented with an air of authority: “this is the best path forward and you really should have seen it.” At the end of the exchange the players will arrive at an interesting outcome, but often strike me as a little jangled and unnerved, buffeted by the constant tirade of input. The coach will then frequently button the experience with some jovial iteration of the feedback “look at what you just accomplished!” without any shred of irony that to even the most casual observer it has been very clear that the players have, in fact, accomplished very little themselves other than just anxiously following the series of barked directives. I know I’ve fallen into well-intended iterations of this dynamic – I just really want the players to experience some success or break out of deeply entrenched habits that are getting in their way. In reality though, any benefits from such an encounter will be fleeting: effective coaching requires patience, rapport and an ability to subjugate your own desire for quick results to the greater and messier calling of enabling a rich and imperfect process.
Related Entries: Caller, Deviser, Ensemble, Hosting Antonyms: Bulldozing, Judging Synonyms: Directing, Mentoring, Teaching
Cheers, David Charles.
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