Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surviving in a small improv community.

There's a little book I like: Return to Civility. Its description:

This simple little book has a simple little theme, “Act the way you want the world to be.”

Based on the observation that perhaps the world could be a bit more polite, a bit kinder and a bit friendlier, John Sweeney and the folks at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre have written Return to Civility, A Speed of Laughter Project. Containing 365 suggestions to help create a more civilized world, Return to Civility seeks to reclaim the appreciation once displayed for our fellow human beings, our selves, and our planet.

I like it enough to have given it as a Christmas gift this year—hoping people would leave it in bathrooms and on coffee tables so others would pick it up and read it. It features ideas like, "Park wisely and courteously" and "Wear clothing that respects and honors the situation."

It got me thinking there might be some equivalent thoughts for surviving in a small improv community. We're around each other a lot—and along with the mindblowingly creative rehearsals and ridiculously fun after-show gatherings, there's serious drama. The bigger we get, the more entwined the groups become, and the more some people succeed and others fail, the more likely it is we'll piss each other off.

So some thoughts, inspired by Return to Civility. I've screwed most of these up over and over in the last couple of decades. Still do.

Find at least one true, nice thing to say.
Sometimes, saying something nice comes easily; many times, it doesn't. But look a little harder, and you'll find something real to compliment: energy, enthusiasm, a character choice, even just the tenacity to hang on in a tough show.

Stack the chairs. If you're going out to drink beer with a group after a show, take a few minutes to help them reset the theater. Everyone will make it to the bar faster, and together.

Watch other groups. Show up early or stick around after your set to watch the other troupes play. See a new troupe every so often. Revisit a new group after they've had a chance to grow.

Pass along what you've learned. Teach a class. Offer to lead a rehearsal for a group of newer improvisers. Share insights from a workshop over a beer.

Give someone a second chance. Players improve. Troupes grow. One or two sucky shows don't make players lost causes. Be open to the happy discovery that, really, they kick a little ass. (Audiences don't have to do this—so it's gracious when we do.)

Take a freakin' compliment. If someone says you did a great show, don't insult his taste by telling him it wasn't or doubt her integrity by assuming she's lying. Say thank you.

Keep your drama off the interwebs. Cryptic status updates after rehearsal...vague pronouns in your blog post about your last show...angry tweets about your scene partners...they might make you feel better in the moment. But in the long-run, they damage your fellow players and your relationships with them. And force your friends to take sides, which makes you the a-hole.

Know when it's about you.
Not getting to do the projects or play with the people you want to? Ask someone smart—and objective—why he or she thinks it might be. There's a good chance you're getting in your own way.

And know when it's not about you. What we do is ensemble work. Pleas for attention and demands for credit rarely go over well. It's just as cool—cooler, even—to realize that you're standing on the shoulders of giants, and they're in your own troupe.

Buy a beer for a newbie (21 and over only). You might be a guru in someone's eyes. How great is that? If someone who's just discovering how much they love this wants to talk to you about it, hang out for a bit. It might remind you why you like it.

Ask for permission before you offer a critique. You're not necessarily doing people a favor by pointing out what they did wrong. Make sure they're in the right frame of mind or even interested in your point of view—and if they're not, hush.

* * * * *

I've tried to put these in a gracious, positive form, but just can't. Again, these are all things I continue to screw up over and over. So these are the don'ts...and we do them more than we mean to. Sometimes even revel in them. Yeah, it feels great in the moment...but these the things that make us assholes.

Don't blab things about a troupe you wouldn't feel comfortable saying to their director to his or her face. Sober. And in the same words.

Don't badmouth another player to make yourself look good. It is always, always, ALWAYS transparent, and will have the opposite of the effect you're shooting for.

Don't undermine your director. Not to other players, not to outside improvisers. If you don't agree with your troupe's leader, here are your choices:
—Shut up.
—Offer your opinion, then shut up.
—Leave the group.

Don't forget that everyone knows everyone. There's a damn good chance the player you're gossiping about is good friends with the person you're gossiping to. Or will be, someday. Plus, in a tiny community like this one, the chance you'll work together on a project is really good.

Don't drive home drunk from McCoy's or the Foundry. 1. The fact that you were drunk may mean you blurted something incredibly inappropriate. 2. There are improvisers close by. Someone will give you a ride or let you crash on the couch.


  1. Anything in particular spark this post?

  2. To whom should people blab their grievances re: Tantrum since we don't have a director?

  3. Trish, I can describe you with one word...Leadership. I say that to alot of people as a joke, but this time, I think it fits.

  4. Josh: I think we should all just get drunk and yell at each other.
    Jared: Pete's blog, usually.
    Nick: Oh, crap...

  5. Seriously, thanks for posting this. Even not being a regular part of the KC improv scene for several years you gave me some good reminders of how we should treat others and how things are perceived a little differently by every person who is witness to the same event.

  6. So really there is no drama? I'm not seeing the drama.

  7. Good words to hear, Trish. Thank you. 'Return to Civility' sounds like a great book!

  8. Jenifer: It's awesome. I'll bring you a copy Thursday...if you're letting more books in your house!

  9. My blog is a source of drama? Here I thought it was an open forum for discussion. I'll admit there have been times when I thought that Jared was being antagonistic, but we've spoken face to face and have chalked it up to the inability of text to adequately convey intent or emotion. We're cool - no drama.


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