How to excel at scenework and influence improvisors – part 3

  • “We don’t do short form, we do long form. It’s much more sophisticated and interesting.”
  • “Improv? I don’t do improv comedy. I do improvisational theater!”
  • “You know how they are so obsessed with game? Well we just follow our gut and let what’s funny take care of itself.”

Odds are, if you are an improvisor, you have said something like this when describing your work. You might even have some statement like this in the description of your group or show, maybe even your personal bio. And maybe you have heard someone else say something similar, contrasting what they do with what you do and casting your work in a negative light. Chances are you have felt that defensive lurch in your belly, a wave of anger as you think of things to say in response, to put them in their place.

Me? I’ve been on both sides of this. Gems like this fell out of my mouth quite regularly in my 20s (and probably well into my 30s). I was passionate about the kind of improv I was doing and convinced that there was no better place in the world to study it than where Del Close taught. I wasn’t above being arrogant about my training and the shows I helped conceive. And I certainly wasn’t above putting some other show or theater or group or genre down when describing my work, even if I had never seen what I was putting down.

I’ve also been on the other side and know what it feels like when someone puts down what I do, when describing their work. I still get a little irritated when I think back to someone who used to describe Harold as a “middle form” and her show as true long form. Even to this day, more than 10 years later, I still feel irritated by some of her statements along these lines. She wasn’t from iO. She didn’t study with Del. How could she possibly say that?

Of course, like I said, I’ve done that myself, many times. I’m sure there are people out there who may not like me very much because of similar things that came out of my mouth, or things I posted on the internet.

So this leads me to a new rule for myself (and maybe one for you too):

Don’t put someone else’s work down, when you describe your work

Every time you do something like that, you run the chance of alienating someone unnecessarily. Instead, just describe what you do and be done with it. Talk about your work using positive, affirmative descriptions and if you mention someone else, make sure you are doing it to clarify what you mean, not to place your work above theirs:

  • “We improvise plays, with the goal of creating real, nuanced interesting characters and situations.”
  • “We play fast and hard. We want your gut to hurt from laughing when the show is over and for you to keep laughing for days after.”
  • “We call what we do improvised theater because often it’s a mix of drama and comedy.”

I’ll give you a good positive example of this. I recently heard an interview of a couple of the guys from Centralia. One of them talked about the early days of Burn Manhattan and how they wanted to somehow combine elements from two different kinds of Chicago theater, the raw, emotional power of Steppenwolf with the spontaneous, creative fun of Second City. He didn’t put down either Steppenwolf or Second City. Instead he was praising both theaters and wanted to find out how to combine some of the best methods and ascetics from both places. He used other people’s work as a way to describe what he does, without putting what they do down.

This is the third part in a series about how Dale Carnegie’s book (How to Win Friends and Influence People) might apply to the improv and theatre world. (Part 1, Part 2)

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