Saturday, December 29, 2007

My own worst critic

Recently, a friend told me another improviser had said some not-particularly-nice things about my stage work.

Which is no big deal. And the thought I got to (after the initial ding to my ego and ideas for a few highly immature potential responses) was: “Well, that person is never going to critique my work as harshly or as accurately as I do myself.”

I've got pointier sticks,  bigger stones and nastier names than anyone can throw at me, man. 

That’s the thing about doing this for so long…when it comes to my own work, my expectations are high and my evaluations are brutal. I teach and direct much more than I play, which means my internal editor is big, strong and loud. I recognize it when I do good work—but I can also point out exactly what I did wrong and why.

I do my best work in classes, and I think part of the reason is that there’s a bigger, stronger, louder editor in the room than I am. My favorite example: Michael Gellman yelling “Bullshit!” at a particularly disingenuous choice I made in a scene.

Also, I’m thinky, and class exercises give me a specific point of focus. Concentrating on one thing—isolating one muscle—lets me do that one thing well and everything else tends to fall into place. With enough practice, I build up muscle memory, and my brain hands me the point of focus I need to make a scene work.

For me, it’s almost never an idea for the next thing that happens in the scene. It’s typically a game or status or character’s “thing.” I can recognize a clear, shining, simple rule—and all I have to do is follow it. (See? Thinky.)

Right now, I don’t practice or play enough to have that kind of muscle memory. So when I make a good move, it feels more like an accident than intent. Before a show, I tell myself I’ll use all the gifts teachers have given me. Things like:
—Let a body part or a sound lead or pull you into the scene.
—Experiment with the level of responsibility you take for the scene’s success.
—Hold your head differently.
—Walk into a character.
—Become more of whatever emotion you start with.
—Don’t always be the rational one.
—Give yourself a gift—a posture, voice, emotion, POV, prop, etc.—at the top of the scene. 
—Check in with your partner.
—Experiment with status or body tension.

You’ll notice that most of those are physical and emotional choices—all designed to get me out of my head and into the scene. But when I get on stage, I put all the pressure on my brain. I play-write. I think about what to do next instead of listening. I figure out plot points. Plan connections between characters. I worry about what will happen three lines in.


It’s like going to a shrink: Just because you can name the problem, doesn’t mean you can fix it. This year, I have to figure out a way to put what I know to work for me on stage. I think it’ll take a few things:

—Working with strong directors—bossy, loud ones.
—Making sure I get the kind of physical, emotional, abstract warm-up I need before shows, even if it means doing it by myself.
—Trying some of those Spolin and Napier “improv for one” exercises I’ve read about—just to get more rehearsal time in.

Huh. Maybe those are my New Year’s Resolutions. Because what I’m doing now isn’t working consistently for me. And I don't want to be the poster-child for the saying, "Those who can't do, teach." Most of all, I need to remember the immortal words of Dan Izzo: 

“If your brain drives the bus, the whole Partridge Family dies.”


  1. Thanks for the suggestions, I've been feeling a little low about my performance Saturday night. I will have to use some of those!

  2. Directing so much and playing so little has somehow made you into too much of an observer and you've lost some of your edge.

  3. I couldn't agree with you more. Director and player brains are different. I've always felt like I'm a better teacher/director than performer...and atrophying muscles don't help.

    BTW, there's absolutely no need to post anonymously. I heart feedback.


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