“W” is for “Winning”

“The greed for power, the hatred and dishonesty which have become associated with competitive games are not an inherent part of them but have found their way in them through a false sense of values. Prizes separate people, pit them against each other, discourage the less able and set the more able apart.”

Neva Leona Boyd quoted by Paul Simon, “Neva Leona Boyd, A Biographical Sketch.” Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Neva Leona Boyd. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. 7-19. p. 9


How do we define winning on the improv stage? In the sporting arena, the answer is generally obvious: the team who leaves the playing field with the most points, tries, or touchdowns assumes the winner’s title and trophy. While some improvisational franchises assume a similarly competitive frame, in most cases, this is pure conceit designed to give the audience some additional buy-in. A team might be announced the winner, but this rarely (hopefully) has any real cachet or meaning. And yet a competitiveness can lurk in the not-so-distant background of many an improv event if players aren’t careful and, as Boyd notes, can serve as a doorway for anti-social and anti-collaborative play. So, I return to my opening question: how do we define Winning on the improv stage in a way that does not leave fellow players discouraged or discarded in the shadows? And are there new ways to frame this very issue of competitiveness that better serve the broad discipline that is improvisational theatre?


The improv company takes a bow together…

Towards a Winning Formula

1.) Elevating the whole team. When improvisers become solipsistic or overly concerned with the success of a smaller team unit, the greater chemistry and commitment to unrestrained collaboration suffer. Engaging improv demands that all participants are rowing in the same direction in spite of any structural conceits that might imply the opposite. When we’re not working for the good of the whole, we’re likely hampering the play that follows. If a competitive edge makes an improviser second guess entering a scene that needs an assist (or, equally as troubling, makes those already in the scene question the intent behind a “rival’s” good faith contribution), then the company has lost a great deal already. Even (especially) in overtly team-based structures, there is something inspiring about watching players all truly rallying together to benefit the scene or show. The ensemble should really emerge as the only “team” of any consequence.

2.) Honoring your contract with the audience. I’ll admit openly that I’m about to espouse a product-centric assertion about a performance style renowned for its process-centric attitude, but an area where you can harness a winning temperament towards a fruitful end is when it’s applied to the greater goals of the performance event. What contracts have been made with your audience, and have these been attempted with every sharpened spontaneous tool in your tool belt? In service-focused modes, this may look like modeling and forging an open and inclusive environment where participation is welcomed but not coerced. For long-form pieces, this success might resemble collectively crafting a playful narrative that smartly uses the pertinent stylistic tropes and structural elements. For competitive short-form shows, “winning” might involve skillfully playing a wide variety of games with abandon while giving the impression that a heated competition is taking place. From such a vantage point, spectacularly recognizing and embracing an epic “loss” with a healthy sense of performed passion could fit the bill. This last example also honors the overly theatricalized performance at the core of professional wrestling entertainment that served as a key source of inspiration for Theatresports’ founder, Keith Johnstone.

3.) Privileging the process. And to balance the above product-centric considerations, did your ensemble “win” when it came to the process of creation? This will also look different from company to company depending on your stated or implied mission. Was your play marked by a sense of abandon, acceptance, and active listening? (Or, to paint a less rosy picture, blocking, bulldozing and bulletproof characters?) While there’s no guarantee that a joyful process will necessarily result in an equally successful product, experience would strongly suggest that attention to the former greatly increases the likelihood of generating work of any lasting value. An ensemble fraught with interpersonal tensions and unattended injuries will struggle and undermine any elevated artistic intention. If you have inadvertently created this very dynamic in your pursuit of excellence, you will often face a Pyrrhic victory at best. I’ve already written about making others look good on the improv stage here; this would be the much less discussed equivalent of making others feel good.

4.) Prioritizing personal and ensemble growth. Personally, I find this variant the most palatable form of competitiveness in improvisation; namely, can I do better than my prior self as opposed to others involved in the performance event? In this context, “winning” really becomes synonymous with personal growth (or company growth, for that matter, when this lens is applied to collective hurdles that the ensemble is working to overcome). Perhaps I’m focusing on getting more comfortable with accepting and enjoying change onstage and in my characters, or avoiding rushing to inorganic conflict that stalls the action, or I’m striving to bring CROW ingredients more efficiently and elegantly to my scene starts. The added beauty of relocating competitiveness in this fashion is that one player’s victory does not come at the expense of another nor preclude anyone else from enjoying similar highs. In fact, the opposite holds true as when we “beat” our own old habits or hindrances, we are probably simultaneously raising everyone’s improv game. In my own ensembles, I’ll often start a performance with players sharing a personal challenge to encourage this particular mindset.

Final Thought

True competitiveness encourages a style of play that promotes shining, upstaging, and one-upping. These dynamics can find a temporary home in deciders and tiebreakers where “winning” is part of the gimmick, but I’ve found in my own work that when such energies infect the evening as a whole, everyone ends up losing a little. When we’re too invested in our own ideas and contributions we will often miss the brilliance that resides in the work of others or the magical potentials that are unlocked when ideas combine and blossom in the hands of a joyfully collaborating ensemble.

Related Entries: Commandment #3, Commandment #10, Looking Good Antonyms: Ensemble Synonyms: Competitiveness, Shining

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Slow Motion War

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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