Rick Andrews is a teacher and performer at The Magnet Theater in New York City. He teaches and performs around the country with The Magnet Theater TourCo, with ensemble Brick, and his duo, The Cascade.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two words we hear a lot when improvising: “Fear” and “Trust”.
One of the biggest hurdles in becoming a good improviser is our fear. Fear and threat are pretty good motivators for all kinds of things. Simple, physical tasks respond super well to fear. If I wanted you to move a bunch of boxes across the room, I could easily get you to move them faster if I made you afraid by, say, threatening you with a whip.
Creativity, however, doesn’t respond well to fear. If I gave you a pen and paper and told you to “write a beautiful poem,” threatening you with a whip if it wasn’t beautiful enough probably wouldn’t lead you to write a better poem. It’ll actually probably lead you to write a worse one. There’s a whole bunch of pretty solid research to back this up.
This is because when we’re being creative, we need to be able to take risks, to make choices that reflect our personal voice, desire, and discovery; we need to be all-around mentally unencumbered by anything other than the creative process. Improv is a creative process, and as a spontaneous one, and one that we tend to do in front of other people in scary situations, it’s pretty susceptible to fear.
This fear makes us worse improvisers. It leads us to say and do things we don’t want to say because we think they’ll get a laugh, or the audience wants to hear them, or they’re the “right” things to say and do. We threaten ourselves with laughter, or rather, lack of laughter. As improvisers, we often hold an imaginary whip over our heads when improvising. Sometimes scenes feel like a sprint to get the first laugh, as if were the scene to go on for 30 seconds with no one laughing, the audience would simply stand up in unison, give you the finger, and leave.
To become a great improviser, I think it’s essential that we conquer this fear in some way. The way we do this is by having trust; we put trust in our scene partners, our team, the audience, and ourselves. We trust that they will help us, make us look good, look out for us, etc; we trust that they will help us avoid the things we are afraid of. The comfort afforded by the trust allows us to be our most creative selves.
When we first begin improvising, we trust specific, singular individuals on a kind of “prove-it-to-me” basis. If we get up there and do a scene with Michael, and Michael seems nice enough and Yes And-ed me and didn’t throw me under the bus, then pretty soon, I’ll trust Michael.
Then, if the classroom or team environment affords it, improvisers might extend that trust to a whole group of people, e.g. “I feel pretty comfy, more or less, with everyone in the class/team. No matter who I do a scene with, they’ll have my back.” This allows us to step out into a scene without fear, because we know that whoever joins us, we trust them. This isn’t always the case, but it’s wonderful when it happens.
Next, after improvisers do and watch enough shows, they begin trusting based on observation, e.g. “I saw Jermaine do that scene, he seemed pretty supportive/good/funny; I trust him.” At this point you might be stepping out with people you’ve never personally played with but still can find the freedom to be creative.
A little more, and improvisers start to trust the process of improvisation itself. When you see quality players come together and jam, they’re more or less putting faith in the process of improvisation, of Yes And, listening, heightening, etc. “I’ve never played with Tito or seen Tito but, oh well, let’s go do the improv thing and I bet a scene will happen.”
This is closely followed by trust in yourself as a capable improviser. This is great because it means you can confidently improvise with anyone at all, novice or expert, without feeling afraid or stifled. At Magnet in New York we have these great shows called “Mixers” where anyone can sign up and do a scene. New folks who’ve never done improv before are often paired with experienced house team members. From the experienced player’s point of view, they have no idea who this person is or if they’re any good. In fact, they probably have evidence that the person isn’t very good, since most everybody isn’t very good the first time they do improv. And yet, these scenes are almost always fun and funny. It’s not even like the experienced player is “carrying” the scene. They simply trust themselves, trust that if they keep YesAnding and listening, that a scene will happen, and that they’ll be able to find some fun.
All this trust is so that we can overcome this fear; we trust that these bad things won’t happen. However, for the most part, the worst thing that is going to happen to you because of a bad improv scene is that a bunch of people won’t think that you are very funny. And at the end of the day, that’s not so bad. No one dies, no one gets hurt or sick, everyone who cares about you still loves you, etc. Even for those who make or hope to make their livelihoods off of improv or comedy, one bad scene or show won’t ruin that. Whenever I’m feeling strangely nervous before a show, I try to remind myself of that. It’s not perfect, but it helps.
At the end of the day, there’s probably some combination of a few, many, or all of these things going on when we “trust” in improv. And the more you’re able to face down that fear, trust yourself and others, the better an improviser you’re going to be.
Previous guests: Kristen Schier, Andy Eninger, Jeroen Van Dyck, Remy Bertrand, Caspar Shjelbred, Sean Michaels, Kareem Badr, RobYn Slade, Ian Parizot, Rachel Klein, Dave Morris, Alex Wlasenko, From the old blog