Tag Archives: judgment

That Guy

In a jam or workshop, a good general rule is to assume every player in the room is an artist, a poet, a genius. In this lovely ideal world, jumping into a scene with Stranger A is just as safe and potentially awesome as jumping into a scene with Stranger B.

But that’s not how it often works. Often, after the first round of scenes in a workshop full of strangers, I catch myself on the sidelines doing some mental math about how best to avoid being in a scene with that one guy.

You know, That Guy.

  • That Racist Guy who has only been in three scenes so far, but every one of them sounded, at best, like something your grandmother who still says the n-word would say.
  • That Wild Guy who doesn’t seem to know his own strength. He just started a scene by jumping into a scene partner’s arms, and the partner obviously wasn’t ready for it. It’s jolly and innocent, but you have no guarantee he’s not going to do the same to you, and you’d rather not end up with a back injury from a game of Freeze.
  • That Gross Guy who is sexual or violent right out the gate of every scene, saying things that wouldn’t make it onto network TV unless it’s by the criminal in an episode of Law and Order: SVU.
  • That Touchy Guy who is extremely touchy. Whenever he’s in scenes with women, he quickly establishes a romantic history and therefore feels justified being overly physically affectionate. He would do this even if you initiated the scene as his mom, his boss, or his niece.

The common denominator here is that That Guy is That Guy over and over again. It’s not a character he’s playing for one scene or set with teammates he knows. It’s that he has a pattern in workshops of treating players he just met like they’re garbage. If you jumped into a scene with him, you’d get stuck either saying yes-and and seeming to condone his That Guy-ness, or you’d bicker and risk being accused of denial, a cardinal sin of improv.

Most women have a radar for That Guy. When the teacher asks for volunteers, we wait until That Guy’s already had his turn. Or we wait until one other woman or guy-we-know-outside-class has volunteered, and then we jump up to be the second person in the scene. The result is that the men end up with a lot more stage time than the women.

We cannot take for granted that a teacher — even a really good teacher! — will pick up on that every woman in the class is creeped out by That Guy. At least, not of the teacher is a man, which is likely. The teacher will, instead, think we’re hanging back because we’re insecure. He tells the women to be more confident instead of telling the men not to be jerks. My theory is that this is part of why Level 1 classes usually have a more equal male-to-female ratio than Level 5 classes.

Earlier this summer, in an effort to relax about who I played with, I ended up in a scene with That Touchy/Gross Guy. (He’d already threatened to knife a woman in an earlier exercise with no provocation; I think she’d asked him to set the table or something.) His first line in our scene would have gotten him reported to HR for sexual harassment if we’d been coworkers, and I spent the rest of the scene shutting down his attempts to get physically closer to me. I dropped any kind of attempt at character. I think my second line of the scene was, “I am not going to allow you to touch me,” which backfired, as That Guy takes that sort of thing as a challenge. He got grosser, and I had to go to greater lengths to avoid being touched by someone I didn’t trust. I was 7 months pregnant, and this was neither funny nor graceful.

When the scene was over, the teacher didn’t give notes on it. He just moved on to the next pair. After the workshop, a different guy approached me and asked if I was alright. “That was hard to watch. It was not ok. I’m sorry you got stuck with That Guy.” This is the only time I’ve ever heard a male classmate say something like this. He later told me and some others that he had survived abuse and found that sort of scene triggering and Not Funny.

By the time I stopped in the bathroom after the class, all of the women were standing around the sink, talking not just about what a jerk That Guy was, but how unsafe they felt for the rest of class because the teacher hadn’t called That Guy out. I was not the only one affected. For the rest of the workshop, which we had all paid for, the women were too busy protecting themselves to get their money’s worth, and the teacher either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I wonder if teachers don’t call out That Guy because he’s often clueless, not malicious, and the teacher doesn’t want to distract from class. But that That Guy is ALREADY distracting from class, because all the women on the sidelines are manipulating the order of when it’ll be their turn instead of learning new things and taking risks. Not calling him out is privileging That Guy’s time and money over everyone else’s.

Will Hines has probably the best advice for teachers about calling out That Guy, as well as how all of these rules change with context in a group of people who already know and trust each other and allowing for students to make honest mistakes. From his post, “Chivalry and Improv”:

Teachers should stop those scenes immediately, quickly note that it’s rude for a guy to do that to a girl and not allowed, and either re-start the scene or move on to two more people.

I don’t think a lecture is necessary there; it puts the male student on the defensive and asks him to be resentful. And students are allowed to screw up in class. Abruptly stopping, saying it’s not cool and restarting quickly saves time and send a simpler stronger message: just don’t do it. …

I like putting it in terms of the audience rather than the feelings of the female actor. The female actor, if she’s the type who likes improv, probably isn’t as easily offended as an audience would be, and probably doesn’t want anyone to fight her battles. It’s not fair for me as the teacher to presume what she feels and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about any one student as it is creating a standard of politeness for everyone for the audience to see.

Find people you trust and enjoy, and this becomes a non-issue. Circus Police doesn’t have That Guy. Most teams I enjoy watching don’t have That Guy. The better the players, the more you can relax and play without wasting any energy on That Guy.

One of my goals as a teacher is to nurture an environment where players don’t have to hang back on the sidelines to avoid That Guy, while also being a place for everyone (including That Guy, who I have to hope will grow out of his That-Guy-ness) to become better players. Any suggestions?

Geniuses, Poets, Artists, and Unexpected Guests

geniusThis is the “do unto others” of improv. Image by David Kantrowitz. Buy a print here.

At Open Source Improv‘s June show, the host introduced True Story and invited any improviser to jump up and play with us. We do this every month, and it’s given me a chance to meet and play with new people. It’s great.

However, on a bad day, I find myself hesitating on the sidelines when I’m playing with new people. Hm, I don’t know that guy. I don’t know his style. He might be tough to play with. What if he’s way worse than I am and I can’t save the scene? Or what if he’s a zillion times better than I am and I can’t keep up? I’m going to hang back and wait to play in a scene with someone I trust. And before I know it, I’ve leaned my back against the wall, violating my own neurotic rules of sideline etiquette and basically guaranteeing I won’t take any risks. Boring.

(See also: How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun)

But this month, one of the people to jump into the True Story was a kid who looked about 8 years old. Suddenly, there was no room for that, judge-y internal monologue. It was immediately obvious that our main goal had to be to make this kid feel like a rock star.

The scenes he was in didn’t make a ton of logical sense, but they were the most entertaining scenes in the piece. He got to drive a car, he was a criminal mastermind, he was the new Batman. I don’t know that he said more than three words together in the whole piece — he was too busy giggling — but he seemed to have a lot of fun.

A friend in the audience pointed out to me later that we “Yes, and!”-ed more boldly, without any hesitation, when the boy was in the scene. We were better at supporting one another, better at giving and accepting gifts, and better at treating each other’s ideas like the best ideas in the world. For those scenes, we were all trying so hard to make this kid feel like an artist/poet/genius that we had flashes of becoming those things ourselves.

Now if I can just turn that internal monologue off in jams when there isn’t an eight year old. Maybe that kid will come back every month. He was the best.

Pointing at Things

A few months ago, I substituted for my friend Laura, who teaches art at a classical school. Classical education focuses on memorizing facts in elementary school, applying logic in middle school, and speaking and writing persuasively in high school. So when the lesson plan was to play Surrealist games, some students middle school kids were distressed or dismissive. They were Logic students! They’d been trained to be right, and there’s no way to be right in a Surrealist game.

It made me want to play “Pointing at Things,” so we did. Pointing at Things has three stages:

  1. Point to a thing and say its name. (Point to a chair while saying “chair,” then point to the ceiling while saying “ceiling,” etc.) Be excited about it, and treat it like a race. Lots of speed and energy.
  2. Point to a thing while saying the name of last thing you pointed to. (Point to a window and say, “ceiling,” point to the piano and say “window,” point to your foot and say, “piano,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as fluently and energetically as you could do the first step.
  3. Point to a thing while saying anything but the thing’s name. (Point to your teammate and say, “octopus,” point to a table and say, “sonnet,” point to your glasses and say, “apple,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as quickly and energetically as you could the first step.

People tend to prefer either the second game or the third game. The second game is about memory, and the third game is about spontaneity. I have a theory that the best teams are made up of a mixture of Second Game People or Third Game People.

Most of Laura’s middle school students were Second Game people. I am, too; I suspect that’s more common. I am great at remembering what’s already been said and done and weaving it into what’s happening now. I can see the big picture and the little details that make it up, but I’m liable to get stuck if I have to pull an idea out of thin air. I have to force myself to relax enough to play the third game fluently.

So when I’m on a two-person team, I prefer to be with a Third Game person. This works pretty well for Flash Fiction; my teammate, Brendon, is very much a Third Game person. While he’s fast and spontaneous, I make connections that depend on his memory and focus. We balance one another out, and playing with him challenges me to be more fluent and judge myself less.

The same is true on Circus Police, a newer team I’m playing with. One or two of the players are stronger at the Third Game, the others of us are better at the Second. We balance out in the end.

The Improv Handbook (by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White) has this to say about what’s going on under the surface of this simple game and why it can be so hard:

“You are used to using your brain like a retrieval mechanism — a biological Google. Give it a well-defined question and it will come back with a well-defined answer (or a well-defined ‘I don’t know’). But this exercise is like typing nothing into the Google search box and expecting ten splendid websites to pop up. It won’t happen! To play this game, you have to treat your brain less like Google and more like a lucky dip (grab bag). Stick a hand in and see what you get. …

What’s also surprising about this game is how easy it is to trigger the learning-anxiety response. This is an utterly trivial game; it cannot possibly reflect on your ability to broker stocks, cure diseases, design buildings, program websites or charm the opposite sex, or however else you tell yourself you are marvelous. Yet very few people initially approach it with anything like the relaxed, positive attitude which it requires, and almost everybody punishes themselves bitterly for what they perceive as a failure.”

Jet Eveleth once gave me the note, “You see the game, you’ve got the big picture; now get out there and do some fucking gayballs shit!” [Don’t hold back. Make weird, bold choices without judging yourself.] Remembering that helps; so does remembering that I’m not a middle school student anymore, so there are no grades.

If you’re better at spontaneity, what helps sharpen your memory and focus? And if you’re better at memory (like me), what helps you loosen up?

The Sidelines, where feeling judged isn’t always bad

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.

How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun.

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.

I’ve created a handy quiz, like in a magazine, to help you figure out if you are the jerk.

Click the picture to see full size.

If improv isn’t fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You’re judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd.

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you’re making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody’s having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up — physically and emotionally — and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it’s easy if you’re having fun?

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about you being a jerk. It really is everybody else’s fault.

It does. not. matter. Have fun.

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you’re having fun, your shortcomings won’t matter as much, and you’ll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you’re not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if your coach is asking you to exercise muscles you didn’t even know you had, have fun. Be sore later, but have fun now.

Even if you think your director is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own maniacal ego, have fun. And maybe consider firing him later, but don’t think about that during practice.

I know that middle column of the chart well because I’ve spent some time in all those white boxes leading to JERK. I know that 90% of that was my own fault. The other 10% was the fault of my coaches for not calling me out.

As for that lower left hand quadrant, I’ve written here about playing with depression and here about finding a troupe with a common goal. Do whatever it takes to have fun anyway until it’s time to walk away.

And there is a time to walk away. The good folks over at People and Chairs have an excellent post called On Coaches, Chemistry, and Finding Your Dream Team that talks about this. I recommend reading the full post, but the ending especially is gold (emphasis mine):

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Yes, there is time to walk away. Figure that out with your coaches, your teammates, and your journal outside of practice. During practice, have fun anyway.

Standing in Neutral — or — Just another day with the gremlins

Standing in Neutral

Ideally, you would do this exercise before you had time to get to know your class very well.

One at a time, stand in neutral in front of the group for 45 seconds. Don’t grin, stiffen up, or layer any quirks onto your ol’ regular self. Try your best to be a blank slate.

After those 45 silent seconds, the class should make observations about what unconscious ticks or habits they observed. If this person was a character just as they are, what character would they be?

When you hear your classmate’s thoughts, you’ll want to argue. “But I wasn’t being a character! I wasn’t playing anything! I was in neutral! Where are you getting all of this?”

But the truth is that there’s no such thing as true neutral. My neutral looks radically different from your neutral. We project all kinds of things about ourselves without saying anything. We can control this to some extent by what we wear — for instance, I dress professionally for a job interview so that I will be seen as a professional.

For the most part, though, we’re totally unaware of how we come across to others. If you’re going to do improv, it’s helpful to get a sense of how others see your neutral, because that is how they’re likely to endow you in scenes. If I want someone to see me differently from the way they see my neutral, I have to do something to throw my body, face, and voice out of their normal alignment.

Like so much of improv, this exercise is easier to show than it is to tell, so here’s how it went the first time I did it in Noah Gregoropoulos’ class:

After noticing that I was standing very straight, my class noted that I look with my eyes instead of with my whole head. Then they discussed what kind of character I made them think of:

“She seems like that person at the library or on the bus who keeps looking over at you, not because she’s interested in what you’re doing, but because your iPod is too loud or you’re tapping your fingers on your book. She probably won’t actually tell you to shut up, though, unless you really do something to push her over the edge.”

“Really? I thought of her more like that teacher that has a great connection with her students. She’s amazing in the classroom, and the kids love her and work hard for her. She doesn’t fit in with the teachers, though. If she has to spend time in the teachers’ lounge, she sits in the corner and reads.

“I thought she looked like that woman who is staring out the window and trying to be calm, but she knows that the gremlins are coming. They’ve come often enough that she really she shouldn’t be startled, so she’s trying to play it off like she’s not upset, like this is just another day with the gremlins.

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and I wonder how obvious that was. I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.