Am 9. Oktober 2012 hatte ich das Vergnügen, in der 16. Folge der Radio-Sendung “Hyperbandrauschen” von ColaboRadio zu Gast sein zu dürfen. Während Chips-Tüten rascheln sprach ich mit meinem Lieblingskollegen macro und mit dem einzigartigen hein-c über meine Zeit bei der c-base und, natürlich, über Impro-Theater! Viel Spaß beim Hören.
In improv, the question about rules constantly pops up. A nice reflection on that has been written by macro recently (in German). And I agree with him that it is indeed paradox in improv: On the one hand, there’s the statement “There are no mistakes in improv”, while on the other hand, there’s a full bunch of colourful rules that players are confronted with.
I think, the dilemma – or paradox – can be solved in that very moment when rules turn into attitudes. My observation is, that a lot of players who play improv for a longer time, slowly, slowly internalize the rules, so that they are actually no longer rules but attitudes, which – in case of doubt – can be applied offstage, too. Here, I have things in mind like “Say yes!” (acceptance), “Embrace Failure!” or “Let your Partner Shine!” Of course this does not mean that you live these attitudes always and everywhere. We’re all humans and as such, we are sometimes jealous or even mean – of course. But, even here, the rule “Embrace failure!” can be applied, which in this context means as much as: Be generous to yourself.
As soon as rules have become attitudes, the players have a much higher flexibility for their play. Because they can remove a large chunk of their attention away from following the “rules” and can focus on other aspects of their play or the show / scene.
Translation by: Claudia Hoppe
If you ask people starting to play improv whether they feel more comfortable in the high or the low status, most of them have a clear preference for one of them. When confronted with this question earlier, I felt a slight tendency towards the low status, and I constantly admonished myself for this, yes sometimes I even hated myself for that! Respectively I declared it my grim goal that the high status eventually had to feel “natural” to me (KINDLY!!). In the meantime though, working as a trainer myself, I see that improvisors who claim to intuitively feel more comfortable in the high status, often have a harder time in playing improv, because they’re not “natives” in drawing their attention to others. For sure, this is no rule of thumb, meaning that you can automatically conclude “Every improvisor who intuitively feels closer to the low status, is the better improvisor” – holy shit, definitely not!
Nevertheless, I think that the “typical low status player” often has a gift which “typical high status players” have to work on even more: The thoughtfulness of others and their sensitivities! Persons who tend to feel themselves a little bit “lower” than others in real life, often observe these others quite carefully to find their way around, and they have a knack for their needs. And in my opinion, exactly that is a core competency of a good improvisor: The attention for the fellow players and what they currently need! Insofar, I don’t necessarily consider it as a deficit any more if you realize “Oh, I actually feel more close to the low status than to the high status.” At least for playing improv, this can be a powerful gift! And the fact itsef does not mean that you shouldn’t be working on yourself, improving yourself. Of course it is – for a good show and also for the personal development – important, not to focus solely on one status in your roles, but also strive to perform the other status in a way that it feels good and natural to you! Therefore, my dear low status players: If you notice this gift in yourself, don’t take a rest on it, but strive for higher! Otherwise, it can happen to you that you become one of the extremes of the “bad improvisor”, whom I described in my first podcast (in German), the hesitant improvisor.
However, enjoy that it might be easier for you in this regard than for your fellow high status colleagues, as they yet have to learn this “pay-atthention-to-the-other-and-respond-to-him” – and I have couple of examples of improvisors in mind, who haven’t figured that out until now, and who are actually more playing their solo thing on stage than creating something together with others. I find it very difficult to play with such guys, and I don’t really enjoy watching them either, as they’re often behaving like Rambo on stage.
During my stay in London for the iO European Summer Intensive this month, I have talked to another participant quite exhaustively about the topic of “status”, and I had a lot of insights from these discussions: It’s not at all about one status being better or worse than the other, or even morally superiour (although I still have the impression that in our current, western society a high status behaviour is – in terms of social recognition – more attractive and appealing, and therefore more desirable for many of us). As a behaviour, both high and low status serve as a tool to manipulate other people. The low status by sending a signal of “Don’t hurt me! I’m not worth getting hurt!” and the high status by showing a dominant behaviour that’s meant to make others do what s/he wants (“demonstrating power”). Both strategies are defensive and serve the purpose of protecting one’s personality, and usually, behind that is fear (e.g. of being hurt, or of not finding the right place in the pecking order). What I was wondering in this regard was: How can you break out of that pattern? And above all: How can you achieve that others don’t show that kind of defenisve behaviour (high or low status) towards you? The answer for me is: being open. Showing empathy. Signalize them, that there’s no reason for being afraid. And, from my point of view, especially improv theater is the attempt to overcome these protective mechanisms, let go of the fear and open yourself up.
Translation by: Claudia Hoppe
At the moment, I have a slight aversion against “This is how it is!” or “This is how you have to do it!” kind of statements, because they imply that there is exactly one way of doing things. But I don’t think that this is the case, in fact, there are usually several ways of doing things. And sometimes, even paradigms that apparently contradict themselves can be valid at the same time. A couple of examples from the wonderful world of improv:
Asking for suggestions: Should you take the first one you hear, or should you ask for a couple and then decide for one? I say: Both!
How you hold it to ask for suggestions – it doesn’t matter. Why should you take the first suggestion you hear if it doesn’t inspire you? On the other hand: Are we really still improvising if we gather a large bunch of suggestions beforehand and then pick the one that we like best? I say: Yes! Of course we’re still improvising! (A well-known German improvisor and facilitator, Ralf Schmitt, once said in a workshop: “Those guys are improvisers, actually, they should not need any suggestion at all, they should be able to play any way!”; in the same way, I consider the request for suggestions mainly as a means to get in touch with the audience, to communicate – and not so much as an indispensable part of improv theatre.) Why always take the very first suggestion like “Red – violin – hammer”? But on the other hand: Why not? All in all, I think everybody should handle this in the way he or she is most comfortable with! And that can even change during a show, especially if the hosting is shared between several people – the first one takes the first suggestion, while the other one prefers to ask for a couple of suggestions to select the one he or she likes best. Why not!
Are there things like “levels” (beginners, intermediate, advanced) in improv, or is it all the same? I say: Both is correct!
Berlin has a very famous trainer and improvisor (Deniz Döhler) who believes that there are no levels in improv. When I did a course with Deniz two years ago, I was a bit upset about this attitude, because I felt my skills / development not acknowledged. Since I’m teaching myself, though, I understand, what he means and I agree with him to some extend: the problems that people in my class struggle with are basically the same that a lot people in my improv group struggle with (usually, it’s the continuous attempt to control the events); and at the same time, I see that there are indeed certain skill-levels. Of course, a beginners class can perform certain Theatre Sports games just as good and funny as a group of professional players. Still, I think there is a point in dividing players according to their skill levels, for several reasons: 1. I guess there are a couple of people who feel the same way about that topic that I did: they simply feel better when it’s recognized that they’re doing something for quite a while already compared to others, which implies that they in some way have a higher skill-level; 2. Over time, improvisors develop a kind of routine or “stage-toughness”, which is something beginners often do not yet have; this routine allows them, to react more freely and spontaneously in certain situations (and this has nothing to do with their actual level of skills); 3. improvisors who have been improvising for some time know more “tricks” that they can refer back to, because they know what’s going to work and what’s not; 4. improvisors who’re doing improv for some time have had more time to internalize certain basic rules, e.g. “Let your partner shine”, or even not to be discouraged by their mistakes. Nevertheless: As far as I can see, the intermediate level, and properly even the “advanced” players, are struggling with the same topics as everybody who starts playing improv. In scope of a course system like many improv teaching groups offer it, the difference between those is not clear to me, except for the fact that the ones with the higher level have trained for a longer time already, so that you don’t have to explain certain basics again. Still, it’s giving the players a better feeling if they have the impression to go through some kind of evolution and to become better or “more advanced” – and I think, this is good! The real differences though in the performance level cannot be captured in a course system, because they are hard to verify (and I think it’s more a mater of attitudes than a matter of skills).
Silliness vs. seriousness: Shall the maxim of playing improv be being silly or rather being serious? I say: Both!
A big appeal of improv theatre at least for me is the silliness and sometimes childlike playfulness. So why give up on that asset for a more serious way of playing? On the other hand: If rehearsals are drifting apart solely into silliness and fooling around, I feel empty afterwards. I’m missing the seriousness, the “substance”. Still, I would not sacrifice the silliness and playfulness for seriousness! I think you can be serious in playing improv, and still be easy, playful and silly. The seriousness here is on a different level than the silliness: If you take what you’re doing (playing improv) serious in itself (not too serious, though!!), and you have the vision of really telling something, really communicating something – then you can be as silly and playful in the implementation as you want! The other way round, though, is a rather bad combination, I think 🙂
And, as often, all of that can be applied to life in general: There is no black and white. There is no “This is right and this is wrong.” There is no “We are like that and you are everything we’re not”. Usually, it some kind of “both … and …”. So, if somebody is trying to sell you some kind of dichotomy, I’d rather be skeptical…
Translation by: Claudia Hoppe