Back in May, I spoke at the 3rd Santa Barbara PechaKucha Night. If you can stand hearing me say, “right?” approximately once every 5 seconds, here it is.
Entries in improv (17)
I’ve been sitting on a bunch of improv and storytelling links for a while… and now it’s time to share them.
- Marco Tempest calls himself a “techno-illusionist.” In this pair of short videos, you’ll see he’s quite a storyteller as well.
- Aparna Rao (along with her partner Soren Pors) creates visual art that tells jokes.
- Charlie Todd explains his experiences with Improv Everywhere and the importance of the shared experience of absurdity.
- Brian Raftery walks us through the early history of the Upright Citizens Brigade.
- Alex Lamb — who had I had the good fortune to meet at the AIN Bay Area Conference in 2010 — has a trio of posts on an archetype-based long-form improv format he create.
- My college friend Peter Rogers, who takes amazing notes on these kinds of things, recently attended five improv workshops and posted what he learned.
Last night was my first Friday performance with the Ventura Improv Company in a while, and it was great fun to get back to. We have a slightly different mix of experience levels in our Friday night shows than we do on Saturdays, and we use it as an opportunity for newer members of the troupe to work with our more experienced players. Despite doing this for almost five years now, it’s still hard for me to accept that I’m in the latter group. Last night, though, I felt like I held up my end of the bargain.
I’ll be performing again this month, on Friday, December 30th. That show will be with my long-form team, Instant Karma, as a build-up to our annual New Year’s Eve Gala. If you’re in Ventura that weekend, you should come out to one or both shows. It’s certain to be a lot of fun.
I should stop being surprised by how much my training as an actor and an improviser is useful beyond performance. Today’s epiphany was about feedback.
As an actor, you have to learn to take the note. This was hammered home to me during my sophomore year in college. After one of the last rehearsals before our play opened, the assistant director was giving me feedback on some lines I had fumbled. I was working through them, and in the process I was explaining why I’d messed them up. The director — my friend Rob — looked at me and said, “Paul. Take the note.” And I got it. The AD wasn’t asking me questions, so no answers were required. He was telling what I needed to fix, and my commentary on why I’d done what I had didn’t matter to that. I stopped talking, acknowledged the input, and next rehearsal I fixed it.
Sometimes, when we get feedback on something we’ve done, we don’t always want to take the note. When someone says, “Could it do this instead?” our instinct is to say that would be hard, or to say that they shouldn’t want it to do that, or any of many other variations on “no” that use more words than that. We don’t really listen to what they’re saying because we’ve become defensive and feel the need to justify what we’ve done. Fortunately, there’s way out of this.
First, take the note. Listen to what they’ve said and what concern it expresses. Why are they asking for this change to the feature? What’s at stake here for them? They wouldn’t bring it up if it didn’t matter to them, so your first job is to figure out what’s important here. It’s not about you at this point, so don’t just wait for your turn to talk — listen.
Then, do what a good improviser would do and ask “How could I say yes to this?” The reason you’re getting this feedback is because the person giving it to you perceives a gap between what is present and what is needed. Feedback systems exist to close that gap. That means that we have to be open to changing based on feedback. If not, we’re running in open-loop control.
Saying yes can be hard, of course. Maybe there’s a powerful reason why you can’t do exactly what they’re asking for. If so, see if you can propose an alternative that captures the essence of the concern they’re raised. Maybe you think what they’re asking for is a bad idea. In that case, you really need to figure out their perspective, because you probably don’t have the same understanding of the situation. Dig deeper into the reasons for their request, being open to the possibility that that there’s something you don’t know that makes their position make sense. And maybe you just don’t know how to get around what’s preventing you from giving them what they want. In that case, collaborate on a solution with them. Tell them, “I’d like to find a way to do that for you. I’ve got these problems that I’m not sure how to deal with. Can you help me work through them?” You may not always be able to get to yes together, but you have to try.
In order for feedback systems to work, we have to (a) listen to the information we’re getting, and (b) act on that information to change the situation. These can be hard things to do, but a simple place to start is by taking the note and considering how to to say yes.
Watch this. Then we’ll talk.
When I saw this sometime last year, what immediately jumped out at me was the thought, “Dude totally owned that.” He doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off Lady Gaga, and he knows it. So instead, he embraces his limitations and makes this performance his own. He’s faking it, but we all ultimately are.
A few weeks back, our long-form improv team had a piece implode on us in rehearsal. One of the storylines involved a bet between God and the Devil; we eventually figured out that the Devil had to get a specific person to run naked around a fountain shouting “The Devil is God.” It became clear that we all thought this was kind of lame. That, however, wasn’t the problem. The problem was that we didn’t embrace the lameness. When we talked about it afterward, we realized were holding ourselves to the standard of the Old Testament. We felt like we had to come up with some amazing competition between these two cosmic beings in order for our story to have any juice. What we should have done, once the details of the bet were out there, was to instead make it a story about how God and the Devil have gone from Job to this. This is all they have to do now? Why is that? Let’s mine that for ideas.
That, as it turns out, is the trick, not just in performance, but in life. Given that these things have happened, how do we own them? How do we turn our limitations into our strengths?
About a month ago at work, I make a huge mistake during one of our retrospectives. I accidentally violated the trust the team had placed in me, and the response was immediate, emphatic, and unpleasant. So I owned it. I apologized — making clear that while I hadn’t intended what had resulted, I was to blame for it, and I accepted full responsibility — and I asked for feedback from the team about what we should do. It turned into an opportunity for us to make some of our implicit (and not always shared) agreements explicit, which ultimately has helped us work together better. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to make mistakes, and when they did happen, seize upon them as opportunities.
Miles Davis is supposed to have said, “There are no mistakes in jazz — only opportunities.” Everything can be jazz if you’re willing to own it.