“This is what stories can do, this is what art does: describe the most difficult truths in a way that we can bear to remember because the rendition is beautiful”Jonathan Fox, Acts of Service. Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Publishing, 1994. p. 216.
Speaking Your Truth is a safety valve mechanism committed to maintaining the beauty and inclusiveness of our collaborative storytelling. The concept is synonymous with “calling it onstage” and I tend to use both terms interchangeably. To speak your truth is to momentarily conflate character and player (if this is not already your stylistic norm) so as to provide timely feedback to your teammates. You may elect to utilize such a response if you are physically in peril, emotionally triggered, artistically thwarted, or morally offended. This practice shouldn’t be confused with commenting which inelegantly suspends the dramatic contract for a cheap laugh or reaction but is rather an appropriate utilization of a player-based sidecoaching device designed to maximize safety and candid communication. When used with this intent in mind, a player can express discomfort, frustration, or critique of an in-the-moment improvisational decision that needs addressing now. It shouldn’t be used lightly – hopefully breaches that warrant such interventions are not commonplace on your stage – and whenever possible it’s helpful if this correction is utilized with a light touch. There are certainly moments when a no-holds-barred reaction is warranted: for example, blatant or harmful stereotypes demand a quick slap down especially if this is a repeated behavior. Retaining a playfulness in less egregious or more run-of-the-mill situations, however, can provide the opportunity for course correction while also maintaining a sense of joyful momentum.
When approaching this topic, it was tempting to focus on how to speak your truth, and this act is certainly complicated, vulnerable, and fraught with the potential of unintended consequences. (On a simple level, I utilize the phrase “In truth…” as a marker for company members that the next statement expresses the needs of the player.) In sensitive moments and during the fragility of improvisational creation, speaking your truth is truly a brave act. For this reason, I actually want to focus on the craft of receiving such an adjustment as it is in this moment of allyship that we either forge stronger collaborative bonds or retreat into defensiveness and bad behaviors. When we are trained as a company to engage in deep listening and empathy, missteps can serve as moments for growth and connection. If truth telling, on the other hand, is met with caustic push back it is unlikely to function as an effective tool in the service of collaboration.
As the scene has unfolded, Player A has become increasingly uncomfortable.
Player A: (standing atop a platform as they are being urged to jump) “In truth, I could really hurt myself doing this…”
Player A: (after a well-intended teammate accidentally offers a backstory element that is too close to home) “In truth, that’s really not something I want to talk about right now…”
Player A: (having patently waited for a minute to make a verbal contribution to the scene) “In truth, it’d be nice if you all would listen to me for a change…”
Player A: (responding to an offensive or reductive off-the-cuff endowment) “In truth, I don’t see anything of value coming out of exploring that.”
How to Fully Accept a Fellow Player Speaking Their Truth
1.) Listen without judgment in the moment. When a teammate takes the risk to “in truth” you, make sure you are listening deeply and carefully to both their text and tone. Especially if they are endeavoring to keep an air of their character in play, it’s feasible that you might need to read a little between the lines. Perhaps in our physical danger example above the player in jeopardy has been playfully egging on the game up to this point but are now cueing that the “obvious” next step can’t happen. Trust that your teammate knows their own needs and limits. Unequivocally let them know that they’ve been heard and understood.
Player B: (to their teammates and partner atop the platform) “Don’t move a muscle. We can help you.”
2.) Assess your course correction good-naturedly. Ego can be tricky on the improv stage and it’s easy to become deeply invested in a scene’s current trajectory. In fact, while we should assume a flexible attitude in our play, a complete lack of investment in our choices probably isn’t the best standard mode of operation. Subsequently, caring is usually an admirable quality. If your partner requests a halt it can be jarring. You might not understand their reasoning (it doesn’t matter) agree with their reaction (it doesn’t matter) or have a really cool next move that you really want to make (it doesn’t matter). What does matter in such a moment is that your partner feels heard and safe. So, if their response leaves you creatively reeling a little, take a breath and assume a supportive and good-natured energy.
Player B: (to their scene partner who has unexpectedly bristled at a choice about their character) “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s talk about something else.”
3.) Adjust your path accordingly. Once you’ve taken a breath (if you needed it) make sure you help to steer the scene into less troubled waters. It’s not uncommon for almost anything to become a game or opportunity to riff on many improv stages, but this irreverent response really isn’t in the spirit of “calling it onstage.” Also remember that just because your partner has expressed the need for a new direction this doesn’t mean that they have an option loaded and ready to go. Be sure to roll up your sleaves in the pursuit of a door number two. That being said, it’s also generous to leave some room – especially initially – for the effected player in case they need an opportunity to remedy the situation in a way that addresses their primary concern.
Player B: (in response to Player A’s observation that they have largely been silenced thus far in the scene) “Sorry, my excitement got the better of me, Kaitlyn. The floor is yours…”
4.) Listen without judgment after the fact. There will be instances when this communicative device will fully serve its function on stage with players accepting the proffered adjustment in the spirit it was intended enabling the scene to then gallop forward to richer pastures. However, when more complex issues arise – such as recurring antisocial behavior, micro (or macro) aggressions, or choices that are uneducated or perpetuate ignorance or harmful stereotypes – it’s likely that these highlighted moments will need further redress after the show in a postmortem or similar. Just as it’s important not to become defensive on stage when nudged by a fellow player, so too is it incumbent upon players to listen openly when debriefing. We should be as willing to change off the stage as we are on.
Player B: (to their teammates as the scene in question is being discussed) “I know I messed up in that scene. I’m listening…”
There are a wide range of situations in which the tradition of speaking your truth can prove invaluable, from minor confusions to more significant unforced errors. I personally see little value in shock improv that seeks cache from offending merely to offend, but if we pursue Fox’s vision above of beautiful “difficult truths” then it is foreseeable that our own biases and blindnesses (and those of our partners) may become exposed or challenged as we wade together into uncharted waters exploring material worthy of our time and attention. Speaking your truth in such moments offers a tool for addressing stumbles as well as a priceless opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
Connected Game: Narrator