How to excel at scenework and influence improvisors – part 2

My intent with this series of posts was to go through all the principles from Dale Carnegie‘s book and discuss how each one might apply to the improv world. But as I have been thinking about this topic, I have been tempted to wander down a different path. I may still return to the original plan, but I don’t think I’ll be able to until I’ve written about this.

I’ve been thinking of my own interactions with people over the years, where I did well and where I came up short. I feel like there are some situations and stories I’d like to share that might help me in my future interactions in the theatre and comedy worlds. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is status.

Pay less attention to status

I remember when I was in Chicago, I was intensely aware of status within the improv world. I was a part of many conversations that likened the ImprovOlympic subculture to a second high school. The new students were the freshman. After a few classes you might find yourself on a team and begin to feel like a sophomore. The players on house teams felt like the upperclassman, the cool juniors and seniors, with whom everyone wanted to hang out. And that was just the status within iO. There were similar communities at Second City and the Annoyance and while you might feel like a big dog at one theatre, you might be considered a peon at another.

Your status was determined by several things, your talent, how long you had been in the community, what team you were on. Your status was higher if you were a coach or a teacher. And of course, like in any community if you were well liked by your peers, that tended to raise your status.

I remember feeling at the time, that my personal status had a lot to do with how long I had been around the theater. I felt deferential to some players because they had been there a year or two longer than I had. And I also felt entitled to a greater status because someone started taking classes six months after I did. I spent six years at iO, four of them on the house team. I was a coach, a director and a teacher there. I remember feeling like I had a certain status there, one that I had earned.

Now here is where the story becomes particularly unflattering for me. Anyone who knows iO, knows there is a long running show on Monday nights which features “iO’s most accomplished performers and alumni.” I wanted badly to be in this show, but while I was respected as a performer and certainly valued as a coach and a teacher, I had to wait to play in that show.

For a long time, it didn’t bother me much. The people who were invited to play were players who had been around longer than me and were great performers. Even in the early days of that show, some people from my generation were invited to play. However, they were clearly performers who were better than me, and I didn’t mind at all that they were getting a chance that I wanted. As the months and years went by, more and more of my peers were invited to do the show. Eventually even some of my teammates were regulars in that show, but not me. I felt this was a good thing. I was getting closer, moving up the queue. It wouldn’t be long now when Noah or Charna would give me the nod to play one Monday night.

And then I got skipped over. They started inviting one or two people to play who I had coached or taught. If I remember correctly there was even someone who started performing in the show while he was still in classes. I thought I was at the top of my imaginary waiting list for the show, but apparently I was wrong. It wasn’t about how long you had been waiting to perform in that show, it was about how talented you were and how ready you were to be in that show, and really that’s how it should be.

I know I have been in other situations since where I valued one person over another simply because they have been around longer. Being around longer should mean something. If someone has spent five years performing at a particular theater, their experience and their loyalty should count, especially if that experience makes them a better performer. But ability should always trump status when we are talking about casting someone in a show.

One thing that is easy for me to forget, is that people have all kinds of experience and talent beyond what I first notice. This might be their first class in long form improv comedy, but they may have been an actor for years. Perhaps they are a musician who understands many of the concepts I am teaching implicitly already. And maybe, they have worked for years for another theater and they know a hell of a lot more than me. I have certainly taught many people over the years who had more raw talent than I did.

So, I hope I can really put this into practice. I think the older I get, the more I realize that this status is less important than I once thought. There was a time when I only wanted to be coached or taught by people who had been doing this longer than I have, but I realize now that I have a lot to learn still, and that there are a lot of people younger than me with less experience than me who nonetheless have a lot to offer.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes been in the position to cast people for shows, to pick people for teams or decide which shows should get a run at a theater and which should not. I always hoped that I was making the best decisions I could. In those positions, the most important factors should be how good are they or their show and do I want to work with them. Their status inside the theater community shouldn’t be all that important. And yet I know it is. Why? Because people get upset. The actor who has been at the theater for years might feel slighted if they aren’t cast as the lead. The most veteran team is sure to feel passed over if the most plumb time slot is given to a newer team. The politics inherent in decisions like this still makes my head hurt even though it’s been years since I’ve had to make one.

Everyone thinks they just want their fair share, what they deserve because of their status. But really we all want more, more than is collectively available, and so a lot of people feel bitter in the end. If you ever catch yourself thinking something like, “I should be in that show, because I’ve paid my dues,” or “Why does she get to teach that class, I’ve been around here longer,” stop it. Stop it right now and tell yourself that paying your dues or hanging around a theater longer doesn’t entitle you to anything. At least that’s what I’m going to try to tell myself, the next time I hear myself thinking that.

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