How to excel at scenework and influence improvisors – part 1

I recently read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie for the first time. It’s the kind of book that I’ve avoided most of my life. Self help books, especially ones with a strong slant towards the business world, usually don’t excite me. However, it had been recommended to me by a couple of people, and I realized that it might be of some use for me.

As I read the book, I wondered about how it might apply to the life of improvisation. On one level, it’s pretty straight forward. The way you build relationships in the worlds of theater and comedy are not that different from the business world. The advice translates pretty directly to how you should treat your fellow improvisors off stage. The advice seems especially well suited for sales, and while many of us in the theatre world loath selling ourselves, it is something that definitely helps us be successful.

But I also began to wonder how it might apply to other areas. For instance, some of the advice is tricky to follow if you are a coach, director or teacher. For instance, the first principle discussed in the book is don’t criticize, condemn or complain. Obviously critiquing a student or performers work is exactly what they need (and sometimes crave). So can one follow Carnegie’s advice and still be an effective instructor? I think so. The last section of the book addresses this head on, so some of what I’m thinking won’t show up until a later blog post.

It also occurred to me that some of these principles might be applied in interesting ways on stage. For instance, it might be fun to use some of the principles as negative templates for characters. In other words, you might want to follow Carnegie’s advice off stage, but on stage, you might want to create characters who would sorely need to read his book.

With all this in mind, lets dig into Carnegie’s book. The first section of the book is titled “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People” and the first principle is “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”

Don’t criticize, condemn or complain

As an improv student, you should remind yourself of this principle before every class and practice, until it becomes second nature. Criticizing your fellow students work is unlikely to do anything except annoy them. But this should probably extend to the teacher, the theatre and the class itself. People who spend a lot of time complaining are unpleasant to be around, no matter what they are complaining about. This is important, because you are in class to learn and to practice. But you can’t forget that you are also there to network and to make friends. If you go to make a career in comedy, some of the people you meet in your classes may end up being your friend for decades. Don’t be the jackass who spends their time in class complaining about exercises, condemning techniques and criticizing their fellow students.

Like any guideline there are going to be exceptions. As a teacher, occasionally I’ve run into students whose behavior is disruptive to the rest of the class. Sometimes it’s a behavior that I see, but sometimes I haven’t seen it. I think it’s fine for a student to complain to their instructor about a serious problem, but I would wait until a discreet moment, at break or after class. Also, there have been some rare occasions that I’ve heard of where a teacher is conducting his or her class in an inappropriate manner. An example might be a teacher who shows up drunk or consistently late. In this case, you have every right to complain to the school administrator.

What you probably don’t want to do is whine and bitch about a teacher’s style, their exercises or their teaching philosophy. There are going to be some teachers who you don’t gel with. Some instructors might ask you to do an exercise which you don’t understand or might hold an opinion about improv with which you don’t agree. These are not good reasons to have a tantrum. If faced with a situation like this, I would suggest that you suck it up, try your best to do the exercises and thoughtfully consider what the instructor has to say. If after the class, you don’t think you learned anything of value and you didn’t enjoy the class, avoid that instructor in the future. Whining about it in class will likely just turn people off to you.

Your attitude as part of a team or show should be similar. You want to be the kind of performer who other people like to be around. Sure it’s important that you have talent and that you are funny and skilled as a performer, but people have a lot of choices when they are putting together a show or a group. Most improvisors would prefer to perform with an optimistic, fun player with a positive attitude, not someone who spends their time bitterly complaining about their teammates or the theater where they perform.

Now as a coach, a director or a teacher, you have to criticize people you are working with. There is an implicit agreement when someone comes to your rehearsal or class. They know you might criticize them, and they have agreed to listen to your notes and consider them, and to at least try to do what you ask. However, I think there has to be some balance here.

For instance, you are coaching a team and they have a performance which is significantly below their capability. You could go backstage after the show and rip them a new one. You could give them two hours of notes picking apart everything they did wrong (in their 30 minute set). What effect do you think this will have? Will your performers be able to implement every last little note you gave them in future shows? Will they even remember them? Will they spend the rest of the night feeling like crap because their coach made them feel like they suck at improv? Will that help them that much in future shows? I don’t think it will. Don’t get me wrong, you need to critique your performers, but an onslaught of negative notes may not be your best approach if your goal is to truly motivate them to do better.

I guess I would say that as a coach or teacher, don’t complain, don’t condemn, and be careful how you criticize. I’m sure I’m going to expand on this as we go along. The last part of the book has a lot of ideas that should work well in a teaching or directing scenario.

How about the characters you create on stage? Is it alright if they are complainers? Of course! I can think of a lot ways that a character who complains can work on stage. There are some pitfalls to avoid though. For instance, you don’t want the critical nature of your character to stop him or her from doing something in the scene. Let’s say you are playing a husband who complains about his wife’s cooking. If your wife has cooked a seven course meal for you, it’s going to be better for you to go ahead and try each course and find things to criticize, than it would be to refuse to eat anything. I remember Susan Messing often pointing out how behavior that you should avoid off stage, often is great behavior to indulge in on stage.

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