Vance Gillis is an improvisor and stubble-faced man who teaches and performs at Montreal Improv. He is a proud member of Dream Hunks, Southern Heat, Soaring Eagle Partiot Hour, 52 Pickup, Monsters of Rock and the Montreal Improv house team, Night Bus.
To me the most attractive quality in an improvisor is a willingness to fail. I admire it.
A few of my improv heroes said something similar when I first started taking classes and I had no idea what they meant. I thought “willingness to fail” meant being big, loud and silly. I thought it meant being outrageous, dropping non-sequiturs and saying provocative things. And yes, sometimes that’s what that means. But it sort of misses the point.
I want to give a shit about your improv. When I sit in the audience I want to get absorbed in your stories and your characters and I want so badly for you to have fun and do a good job. I am rooting for you.
Here’s the ugly truth though: I don’t want you to tell me you are insecure with the choices you make on stage. I don’t want to watch you and think, “Oh, they went for the joke there because they didn’t feel comfortable.” The most “jokey” improv I’ve seen did not come across as the work of confident individuals. It came across as people who were so desperately afraid of failing that they couldn’t build realities or make choices that made sense.
In one of the very first classes I took, my teacher asked me to describe baking a cake while in the locker room at a gym. I started naming off the ingredients; “flour, sugar, eggs, uh… root beer, toothpaste…” I didn’t get much farther. People kind of laughed, I imagine out of camaraderie. It wasn’t funny. “Let’s stop it there” the teacher said and we sat down. Thank God. I was trying to be funny instead of trying to build the scene. The truth was that I couldn’t think of the ingredients and I was insecure so I went for the joke. I wanted people to laugh. I was looking for temporary validation. It wasn’t an organic mistake; it was a lame attempt at being funny. It ruined a decent scene and put my poor scene partner in this position where she had to try and finish this scene which had been fatally damaged by my insecure choice.
“That was boring,” the teacher concluded. He was absolutely right.
If you don’t commit to your ideas neither will the audience. If your character doesn’t care about anything because you don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable on stage then you’ve really limited how effective and funny you can be. Your insecurity on stage does not protect you, it damages you. Feel free to grab onto your strange ideas, to be outrageous and say provocative things but please do these things because you’re inspired, not because you’re scared.
Here’s the key: improv is temporary. It’s here now and it’s forgotten in a few moments. If you do the best improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have about fifteen minutes of glory after the show and then it’s gone forever. If you do the worst improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have maybe five minutes of despair followed by an invite to grab a beer. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t say anything about you as a person.
Improv is one of the only facets of your life where you can fail and suffer so little for it. Why not take advantage of that? How liberating is it to allow yourself to fail at something?
Give a shit in your scenes. Commit. Have fun. Do the thing you are scared to do.
I’m rooting for you.