Difficult Gifts

I have to confess that this whole week I was pretty snobby about when I entered scenes and who I’d play with. My 301 class is amazing and I love improvising with them, but some of the open workshops and jams I went to have a much more mixed crowd. Many of them are just trying it for the first time, and lately I’ve avoided playing with them.

I’m not proud of that. Not only was I there myself less than six months ago (and it’s not like every scene I do now is some groundbreaking revolution in the performing arts either) but I actually think they’re the ones who are going to help me get better at this.

Part of improv is making others look good. “When you make others look good, you look good.” But if people get better at things by practicing pushing themselves with bigger challenges, then it’d make sense that you get better at improv when it’s more challenging to make your scene partner look good.

And really, if you’re actively listening and giving your scene partner the benefit of the doubt, there’s plenty to unpack in bad improv and terrible offers. Maybe your scene partner is nervous. You have the option to throw them under the bus by acknowledging the performer’s nerves, or to make them look good by accepting that part of the offer too. Their character is nervous, and the performer is just doing an amazing job of portraying that.

When your scene partner stops in the middle of a line to tell the audience “I don’t know…” keep your filter up and hear it from the perspective of your character. This is just a person who’s nervous and doesn’t know.

When they panic and turn to shock comedy in the middle of a classroom scene, that’s fine, it really happened in this world. Your character is shocked, because that’s what they were going for. Cut to the PTA meeting where the parents are demanding that they be reprimanded for the outburst. Cut to the playground where the kids are practicing all these fun words they just learned.

Even if they totally freeze up, that’s a lot. Characters freeze up sometimes too. Maybe this is just someone who needs a pat on the back and a little support from a friend.

I think truly committing means being able to handle a scene partner who’s fumbling, not only without breaking your own character, but by learning to spin what they do into the reality yourself. When their nervousness or panic comes through, listen to it through the lens of your character. There’s plenty to work with if you accept it. The show must go on. Don’t let someone else drag you out of the reality you’re building.

Good improvisers are really easy to play with, and are great for helping beginners learn what they’re supposed to be doing and gain some confidence. But it doesn’t take long before it becomes tough to even gauge your own skill level when you’re performing with people who are better at it than you are. You do a good scene and walk away feeling like “this is easy, I can do anything” because they’re good at making you look good. That’s the point.

If I’m never challenged, am I actually improving? Having good scenes with other good improvisers only means that someone there brought the good stuff, but it doesn’t tell me much about my own contributions. On the other hand, if I can share a stage with a brand new improviser, or someone who consistently forgets everything they know as soon as the lights come up, and we can still have entertaining scenes, isn’t that more meaningful feedback?