“When we are in action, we open ourselves to more possibilities. Because others are interacting with us in ways that we have not planned, our feelings, thoughts, and how we would handle a situation emerge spontaneously and honestly.”Patricia Sternberg and Antonina Garcia. Sociodrama: Who’s In Your Shoes? 2nd Edition. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2000. p.19
Compared to most other performance traditions, there are few immovable barriers preventing entry into the art of improv. This doesn’t mean you can walk into that ensemble you admire or onto the biggest stage in your community without considerable effort – and even then, it may not happen at all – but the tools of improv are widely available to everyone, and the form itself welcomes amateurs and neophytes like few others. If you have an open space, a fellow player, and an idea or two, you can improvise: if someone else is willing to watch, then you have the semblance of an improv show. The systems supporting improv companies and governance, on the other hand, can reflect biases and toxicity, and we must be ever vigilant as a community that the core tenants of the craft are being upheld both on and off the stage. But if you see yourself finding joy or increasing your creativity through the tools of improv, it is highly likely that there can be a place for You (you just might have to make the first move in making it happen).
There is a You in Improv
1.) You are enough. We are all works in progress and it’s healthy to have a sense of perspective about where you are in your own growth and journey. That being said, it’s equally important to celebrate that you are where you are today. Using every performance to “prove” your worth (to yourself or others) will likely just put you unhelpfully in your head. Rather, use each new performance or workshop opportunity as a chance to connect, learn, and grow. If you remain open, in the moment, and receptive to feedback and discovery, the “you” of today won’t be the same “you” of tomorrow. But also remember that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy where you are currently in this time and place and with these specific collaborators. Don’t become so lost in the pursuit of greatness that you can’t see what’s already great right now.
2.) Your experiences are important. Your experiences, struggles, and dreams belong on the stages you populate. These facets of your life are what make you unique and interesting in addition to making your “obvious” different than everyone else’s “obvious.” If you’re working in an environment that doesn’t actively invite and value your truths, that is something that needs to be addressed; spending your stage time obfuscating or hiding your hard-earned stories robs everyone of opportunities to develop empathy and understanding. The fluidity of improv allows previously unheard voices to stand proudly front and center and it would be a shame to throw away this power, especially if you haven’t typically seen yourself honestly represented in mainstream art. Or if you belong to the well-represented majority, remember to model allyship by elevating others through stepping aside freely and often.
3.) Your feelings are valid. As improv is, by design, essentially a staged rehearsal that is always looking to evolve and deepen, there will undoubtedly be moments where the results don’t live up to our expectations or ideals. When stumbling occurs (or, for that matter, “success” that is tone deaf or exclusive in nature) your feelings are valid. Whenever you can, speak your truth on stage or during post-show reflections. Give the ensemble the benefit of your perspective and wisdom; allow the audience to see a subject from a hitherto unconsidered angle. Your voice has a vibrancy and place as improv is only greater than the sum of its parts when all of its parts are empowered to participate fully and openly. Don’t let the machine consume you in the name of groupmind or unquestioning acceptance.
4.) Your journey is your own. Not everyone who finds improvisation is looking for the same thing, and that’s more than okay. You are on your own journey, and you don’t have to be on the same path as others nor do you need to compare your progression or goals to find validation. Savor every step as you climb. Soak up the view on your way up (and down) the improv mountain! It’s certainly helpful to ally yourself with a company or fellow players that share some facet or your vision, but you should use the tools of improv to construct your own individualized edifice. Enjoy the process of finding out about your own artistry and expression, train where and with whom you want that speaks to your soul, surround yourself with those who will support and challenge you. Authenticity is a much more valuable currency in improv than misguided efforts to do what you think some hypothetical (or perhaps real) improv council wants from you.
One of the awkward truths of many Western-style improv theatres is that their education wings are revenue drivers in a way that is less common for our scripted kin who rely more heavily on subscribers, donors, and fundraising to keep the doors open. A potential side effect of this training-dependent model is that companies can peddle dreams a little: look at these photos of some of our famous alums on our walls – you can be like them if you study here long enough. And maybe you can be if the stars align. In my traditional acting classroom, we talk a lot about playable objectives. “To be famous,” by most standards, would be considered a problematic “want” as it is passive, vague, and doesn’t invite clear actionable steps. While I hope such a fate awaits over the horizon, in the spirit of improv, don’t lose sight of the lessons of this current moment and these particular players. If you spend too much time looking to an unknown future, you’ll miss out on the amazing now that makes improv such a vibrant and enriching art. Give your fellow improvisers the unabashed creative presence that is the incomparable you.
Related Entries: Commandment #1, Commandment #9, Consent, Ensemble, Groupmind, Inclusiveness, Looking Good Antonyms: Over-Originality Synonyms: Obvious
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
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