I used to be a more generous improviser.
I think one of the most difficult things most improvisers struggle with is the need to be good. Who doesn’t want to be good at what they’re doing? Idiots. And people who don’t actually care about what they’re doing – who presumably are either relatively unfortunate (one would hope temporarily), or just plain stupid.
The need to be good isn’t thought detrimental to most other activities. What other form could the fire that heightens ambition take? It’s difficult to envision someone who has mastered an art without some motivation to develop and perfect the necessary skills and knowledge. How could it not be a positive thing?
The problem, at least as far as longform improvisation goes, is that the need to be good often confounds those who can’t temper it with a more pressing need: to be there for your co-players – to be present with them and to make them look good at all times.
The need to be good as an individual naturally distracts you from finding common cohesion within a group. ‘It’s on me to be good,’ goes the need, ‘I have to do something amazing, right now’. Cue ignoring offers, flabby exposition, reaching for gags, attempts at wresting control and outright denial.
The sad, fatal assumption beneath it all is that you can do something amazing in improv all by yourself. Sure, moments of individual flare, even brilliance, are always possible – but sustained amazing does not occur in scenes unless at least two people are discovering something truthful at the same time. Discovery is the key – if one person starts trying to call the shots, the possibility space for everyone else drastically shrinks – individual excellence does not equal collaborative success.
When I first started improvising with MissImp I felt (like most beginners) utterly confused and out of my depth. I struggled with finding words to follow a simple ‘yes and…’, I asked lots of questions, I couldn’t make very strong characters. However, within three months of weekly jams I was invited to perform in my first show. I was massively flattered and also terrified. I didn’t feel ready – I wondered why other people thought that I might be.
I now believe my biggest asset at that time was having absolutely no clue about what ‘good’ was, or how I could be it. Without that confounding compass, my only available strategy was to try and make things easy for my scene partners, to give and to follow unthinkingly, to trust those around me – and to get pimped like a mofo and just deal with it. My lack of assumptions made me an effective, if unsophisticated scene partner.
These days, again and again, I hear the most experienced improvisers (at least those whose insights ring true to me) talking about trusting, making your fellow players look good, having patience, taking one step at a time not worrying about what comes next – a general abdication of the self and its needs in favour of supporting and respecting your co-creators.
Of course, as a long-term strategy this makes perfect sense. It’s ultimately the path of least effort and resistance – it allows multiple people to create spontaneously without the whole process being overly complex, arduous or scary. Plus, if everyone is doing it, trust is assured and no one can really fail.
That said – believing the above is one thing. Realising it is quite another.