I am neurotic about sideline etiquette. When I see an improv team for the first time, I find myself enjoying them more or less based on how the players are holding themselves when they’re not in the scene.
Maybe it’s because I spent high school on a Destination Imagination improv team. I picked up some unhelpful habits from DI, which I had to break when I started learning short form and long form. (For instance, in DI, it was very important to be correct to the letter. In ol’ regular improv, it’s more important to be supportive.)
But DI also taught me I am being judged all the time. I don’t mean judgement as in one mom judging another mom for not cloth diapering; I mean judgement as in judges awarding points to a gymnast.
Our DI coaches and advisers made sure we knew that we were being judged any time a judge was in the room, not just during our 6 minute performance. Judges watched our performance, but they also took notes before and after, from the moment we walked in the door and took an oath of secrecy* to the moment we shut the door on our way out.
Then the judges quantified their impressions of us by giving us points for teamwork, presentation, fluency, resourcefulness, and ability to follow instructions. (And, of course, on our ability to build a structure out of mailing labels and Popsicle sticks that could support added weight and float in a tub while we wrote and sang a jingle advertising a fictional country.) If we got more points than everyone else, we moved on in the competition. If not, we were cut, and DI improv was devastatingly over for the year.
How does this apply to grown-up improv?
Just because you’re not in the scene doesn’t mean you’re invisible. The audience sees you the whole time. They’re not giving you points and making pie charts and deciding whether or not you’re allowed to continue improvising, but they are deciding whether they’re going to come to your next show.
If you are attentive and alert, your body and face show that you care about the scene. That adds energy and makes the scene better. If you’re picking at your fingernails and resting on the back wall, you communicate that you’re bored. That sucks energy out of the scene and makes it less fun for everybody.
So if I’m standing up straight and looking alive on the sidelines, it’s probably because I know you’re judging me. I’m doing it for looks. But my brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between pretending to be interested and genuinely being engaged, so I use my posture to trick it.
And since I don’t have to waste valuable seconds shifting my weight from the back wall to the floor, my timing is better; I can be onstage the moment I realize a scene needs me to enter or edit, not a beat after that moment.
Also, on a practical note, unless you’re in a venue with a savvy light tech, there is no literal spotlight. If you’re on the sidelines, you are the spotlights. Your eyes and posture show the audience where to look and how to feel.
*Any good extracurricular involves an oath of secrecy.