“…improv is exciting because it puts actors in vulnerable positions, either to soar or crash.”Laurie Stone, “70 Hill Lane. (P.S. 122, New York, New York).” The Nation 266.9 (9 Mar. 1998): 34 (3).
The opposite of bulletproof armor onstage (and perhaps its antidote) consists of nurtured Vulnerability. While improvisers can accidentally reflect (Western) society’s obsession with winning – thereby resisting opportunities for power inversions or undesirable changes in fortune – vulnerable players and characters happily embrace the exciting potential of such moments secure in the knowledge that accepting the “loss” holds a different creative power of its own. I fear that there are many deeply ingrained social psychosis that value victory at any cost and subsequently squelch any honest confessions of wrongdoing. When this mindset frames onstage play, the theatrical results become argumentative, aggressive, and generally unproductive. Without willingly accepting chances for change, scenic work quickly mires itself in a quibbling rut.
Player A: (angrily/desperately) “You don’t love me anymore, do you?”
Player B: (after a pained moment of thought and without any malice) “Despite my best efforts, no, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
The Glorious Risks of Vulnerability
1.) Risk being wrong as the character. Take the risk of being wrong onstage. Especially when faced with a CAD (confession, accusation, or discovery) that paints your character in an unflattering light, it can be human nature to respond with a bite reflex, lobbing back a similar charge immediately to even the score and playing field. This retaliatory instinct – as a familiar human behavior – certainly has a place on the stage; but, if this becomes your standard or only reaction, scenes will struggle to move beyond matches of wit or anger. When you, instead, take that “gut check” and then assume culpability, exciting pathways will emerge. Yes, you did or said that thoughtless thing, and your conscience has been wracked with guilt ever since, or now you’re relieved beyond compare that your secret is finally known. Being right is boring and resembles the bland trap of nice people doing nice things; being wrong as the character reveals flaws, blindnesses, and fault lines that are inherently more dramatic and worthy of theatrical treatment.
2.) Risk being wrong as the improviser. Take the risk of being wrong backstage. Just as facing characters that are always right and unwilling to admit wrongdoing becomes exhausting, the same holds true for such a proclivity when it’s routinely faced in the green room or note sessions. When we cling to a need to explain or justify our choices to prove that they were, in fact, correct in spite of others’ experiences, we are falling into the same communicative hole that prevents progress, growth, and learning in our scenes. It’s helpful to take a quiet “gut check” during these debriefing moments, too, sitting with feedback in an open way that acknowledges improvisers are flawed and evolving just like their dramatic doppelgangers.
3.) Risk showing weakness as the character. Take the risk of revealing weakness onstage. In many ways, theatre is the embodied exploration of growth and change (or the epically tragic inability to do so). When we embrace weakness and fragility, we also set the scene for later strength and victory. The hard-earned successes for such characters taste all the sweeter when we have seen their honest struggles and embarrassments. The victory of the well-loved underdog is a common theatrical device for a reason. And the inverse holds true for the seemingly untouchable character or villain that after an arduous journey finally descends from their high-status perch and reveals their unprotected underbelly. This move from powerful to powerless (or vice versa) defines the concept of peripeteia so central to Greek tragedies, an effective dramatic conceit that has survived and thrived for millennia because it is so compelling and relatable.
4.) Risk showing weakness as the improviser. Take the risk of revealing weakness backstage. An improviser who believes or projects that they have nothing more to learn quickly becomes problematically just that and no more. My favorite teachers have always been those who embody an insatiable curiosity and are just as excited to learn or discover something new as their student collaborators. Improv is process. The contributing factors always change regardless of how often we have played a particular game, character, or form. A new audience, unfamiliar cast combination, unexpected prompt, or provocative story in the headlines should re-contextualize our play together and offer new subtle or even profound lessons. When we fail to recognize that past wisdoms may not apply wholesale to present practices, we will quickly become out of step with the needs and gifts of the here and now.
5.) Risk embracing failure as the character. Take the risk of failing onstage. Not every character can or should win every scene: generals don’t typically vanquish every foe; surgeons don’t generally save every patient; teachers don’t miraculously break through to every troubled student. Significant or thwarting failures often loom large for such characters and serve as new spurs to action, intensify objectives, and raise the stakes of the playing field as another failure could always be just around the corner. Losing is character forming and revealing. Embracing failure can provide moments of true profundity, comedy, or both. There’s something delightfully unexpected about seeing a character revel in their mistakes and losses or using such occasions as emotional tactics to chart a new path towards hopeful success. In the scripted tradition, playwrights ultimately decide who will win or lose, but it’s a rare play when someone doesn’t lose. Our improv gains finesse when players celebrate well-played character stumbles as ardently as their strategic successes.
6.) Risk embracing failure as the improviser. Take the risk of failing onstage (but as the improviser). In most improvisational practices, failure, or at least the tacit potential for failure, is built into the greater performance event. I think it would be a fair argument to state that many audiences are actually attracted to the form because of the ever-present chance that everything could collapse at any given moment. The home runs seem even more impressive if you’ve seen a few strikes or foul balls first as these remind us all of the requisite skill involved. Watching improvisers try and stumble with good grace, and then get back up again and happily try some more, is rather unique in the arts and is perhaps more reminiscent of the sports player who secures themselves in the spectators’ hearts when they triumph over adversary. Now, an evening of only struggle is another matter entirely, but finding the joyful humility in acknowledging and laughing at your own missteps is a true gift on the improv stage. And if you don’t at least occasionally skirt on the edge of improv failure, it is likely that you might be working from a place of complacency rather than expansive creativity.
While “strong” characters might seemingly provide energy, it is often self-contained and closed. Vulnerable characters, on the other hand, invite audiences and other characters into their worlds and emotions. The former breed of personae (and improviser) can craft impressive moments and plot points; the latter variety forges lasting bonds and connections as well.
Related Entries: Change, Culpability, Emotional Truth, Postmortem Antonyms: Bulletproof, Winning Synonyms: Losing
Cheers, David Charles.
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