“We believe that the value of improv goes beyond mere entertainment; rather, in a society filled with isolating and fragmenting influences, improv holds a societally valuable message: it demonstrates how teamwork, trust and support can make something wonderful out of absolutely nothing.”Mission of The Playground, quoted in Amy E. Seham’s Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.217
Little of value occurs on the improv stage without a robust sense of Trust. If players aren’t confident that the ensemble will lift them up in times of challenge and make room for them in times of success, the rapid game of ping pong that is improvisation – with teammates instinctively and immediately exchanging creative volleys – will inevitably collapse. Without trust, improv becomes a rather inward focused or competitive solo affair where players just happen to share physical space and time but little else.
As the lights fade a company member makes eye contact with another in the opposite wing as an invitation to join them onstage for the next scene. Both players happily step into the darkness…
Times to Trust
1.) Trust yourself. Trust definitely begins with ourselves as an inability to see and esteem the contributions of others generally reflects a similar struggle to value our own gifts and attributes. “Trust your instincts” echoes as a common rallying cry in the rehearsal hall, although I’m inclined to adjust this to “Trust your honed instincts.” Our raw or uninformed instincts may actually prove harmful, perpetuating personal and cultural biases. Our honed instincts, on the other hand, hopefully also embody previous lessons and discoveries that have helped us shape and sharpen the tools of spontaneity. When these informed creative choices hit the stage, it’s important that they do so with an air of confidence and joy. If an aura of apology masks our offers – thereby announcing our distrust of our own idea – it naturally follows that others’ trust will similarly dissipate.
2.) Bestow trust. There’s rarely time for players to slowly develop or earn foundational trust on the improv stage (although companies that have worked together for many years may certainly transform these assumed bonds into unshakable steel cables). Especially if you’re working with unfamiliar or new company members, “testing the trust waters” could likely leave you still floundering at sea as the evening draws to a close. Rather, improvisers will struggle if they don’t unconditionally bestow trust as the action begins. This is no small leap and requires an assumption of good faith on the part of all involved – a belief that everyone is working on behalf of the ensemble and with the best interests of all participants at heart. A commonly held company improv ethos, philosophy, or a clear statement of guiding principles can jumpstart this dynamic. In the classroom, this document might be a syllabus that outlines the pedagogic mission and expectations for inclusive play. Regardless of whether such a code is informally assumed or codified in written form, a commitment to our peers forms the bedrock of a trust-filled environment.
3.) Repair trust. It is foreseeable that unreservedly bestowing trust may result in moments of frustration or disappointment. Even if we are united in a common goal, each player will likely have at least slightly different aesthetic or performance preferences. And improv as a fluid form itself pushes against boundaries and established norms. When missteps occur – and they will – it’s crucial that injuries are noted and addressed in a timely fashion. Small cracks in the armor of trust can easily rust and spread when left unattended. Players can enlist a speaking your truth approach if an in-the-moment adjustment feels warranted, or a forthright but kind postmortem should hopefully provide the mechanism for repair and redress. If your team or company doesn’t yet have transparent pathways for frank and constructive feedback, then this will compound otherwise minor fractures.
4.) Trust your audience. Lastly, it’s a common trap to not fully trust our audience either. I believe there are important contracts improv companies can and should forge with their host communities – I pontificate on this here – as an inability to serve, represent, and entertain our patrons is a surefire path to irrelevance. In our efforts to attract and maintain an audience, however, it can prove easy to become cynical or pander only to a lowest common denominator sense of what we think (fear?) they may want. This is often the justification for rather thoughtless or lazy work that blindly ignores societal tensions or shortcomings in the name of “entertainment.” Just as we should play to the top of our (honed) intelligence as improvisers, so too should we strive to play to the top of our audiences’ intelligence. This is not to say we should happily present esoteric or self-serving work with no effort to provide the audience with sufficient tools for comprehension and enjoyment. But we should trust that our audience isn’t and doesn’t want one thing: we can invite them to laugh, think, feel, and contemplate change all within the same performance frame.
Take the leap. Trust.
Related Entries: Audience, Postmortem, Speaking Your Truth Antonyms: Fear, Winning Synonyms: Ensemble
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Game: Creation Myth Scene