Tag Archives: Mick Napier

Something I loved, something I need

Mick Napier says:

If you have a note for another actor, just don’t give it to them.  If you must give another actor a note, then don’t. If you really must give another actor a note, then ask permission first. And be o.k. with their answer. Do you know why?  Because they may not want to fucking hear your fucking note.

If “note” is “something you need to work on,” then I totally agree. Unless you’re my coach, or someone who has been playing a lot longer than I have and whom I respect, I don’t want to hear you tell me how to improve. But notes don’t always have to be negative. I think practicing giving and receiving notes can cultivate trust and produce better playing in a group, as long as the tone is both enthusiastic and matter-of-fact. I also think that, just like practice needs warm up, it needs a cool down, too. Short notes can be that cool down.

When I’m teaching improv, my favorite way to end class is to stand in a circle and cool down with notes. Each person says one thing she loved that someone else did and one thing she needs to work on herself.

For example, “John, I loved your facial expressions in the barbershop scene. It gave me a lot to play with. And I need to work on not hesitating at the beginning of scenes; I felt kind of stuck tonight.”

Here’s why I love this:

  • Self-given notes stick. Players’ self-directed notes tend to be accurate. You might listen if I told you after practice that your characters were all kind of the same, but if you discover it for yourself and say it out loud, you’ll be more likely to do something about it. People will notice if you say the same thing every practice, so you’ll be accountable for whatever you say. Your coach is listening, too, and now knows you want to be called out if you’re still in this character rut next practice.
  • Hearing others’ self-given notes is disarming. I’ve had some students who were defensive if I gave them any note at all, but when asked to give themselves a note, they knew exactly what they needed to work on. The only way to fit into the group is to give yourself something to work on, so you HAVE to come up with something. You’ll seem like a jerk if you can’t. And if you’re intimidated by any of your teammates, hearing their notes to themselves reminds you that they still have room to improve, just like you.
  • Accepting praise makes players braver. Usually, the thing people are telling you they liked is the boldest thing you did that night. If you struggle to take a compliment, this gives you practice at just saying “thanks.” That way, when an audience member says they liked your show, you’ll be less tempted to argue with them.

Words of caution:

  • Keep it short. No matter how big the troupe is, this shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes at the most.
  • This is not a debate. Nobody gets to argue about notes or kudos. If it becomes a debate, practice will run overtime and end on a low note.
  • This is not therapy. I cannot stress this enough. Improv is not therapy.
  • Keep the tone light and energetic. Self-given notes are not for beating yourself up, and the thing you liked from someone else should be specific to practice that night. So not, “I want to work on not sucking. I just felt awful about everything I did tonight.” And not, “Leah, I loved how you played tonight, and also always, because you’re just the best friend and roommate anyone could ask for, and let’s be best friends forever.” That’s sweet, but it doesn’t edify the group.
  • If you’re leading the practice, go last. If there’s a guy who hasn’t been mentioned yet, and make sure your “something someone else did that I liked” involves him. Otherwise, make your praise something that involves something the whole group did, or a way they’ve improved overall. Especially praise them for improving on their “something I want” from earlier weeks. It might help to write their self-given notes down after they leave so you can reference them as you plan the next practice.

We have all kinds of warm ups at the beginning of practice, but we sometimes neglect the cool down. Just like warming up with Red Ball helps you give and receive well, cooling down with these kinds of notes gets you ready to go back into your non-improv world with focus and thankfulness. It serves the same function as the final prayer of the Eucharist service:

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer is thanksgiving for the things we love (membership in Christ’s body, Eucharist), and it’s a request for what we need (strength and courage, gladness and singleness of heart). It prepares us to leave this time-out-of-time and reenter the rest of the world with the right attitude and focus.

“Words, word, words. I’m so sick of words.”

In college, there was a deaf student who frequently came to our improv shows. He usually had a friend with him, translating our words into sign language. Our troupe had a goal that we wanted the show to be interesting and fun for the deaf student even if, by some chance, he didn’t have an interpreter that night.

I wrote in an email to my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, “I’d love it if a deaf person watched our show and got the gist because of stage picture and body language, but things should definitely be harder for the blind.”*

An improviser I don’t know well asked me how I met one of my troupe mates. I said we’d taken a clown class together. Because he looked confused, I quickly explained that clown — at least, the kind I had been learning — was like improv, but without words. He said, “But that’s what improv is, is just words!”

No.

Words are the quantifiable part. The seemingly-easy part. The least important part, if we’re doing it right. The part that can get us into the wrong kind of trouble if we’re lazy about them.

Most of the pitfalls Mick Napier lists in his book Improvise under “Common Problems” are about words. He’s got over seven pages about one version or another of talking too much (“Too Much Exposition” like in Blade’s sidewalk improv) and only one page about not talking enough.

I am aware the I’m starting to sound like Eliza Doolittle.

“Never do I ever want to hear another word … ”

 

*I just typed, “Things should definitely be harder for the blind.” Google is probably flagging me as a menace.

Women in improv: Support vs. Submission

I’ve heard a couple of different improv friends lately mention a person being “the kind of player who takes good care of her partner” or “the kind of player who takes good care of himself.” (I don’t think the pronouns were arbitrary; more on that further down.)

I’m going to suggest that this is not the most helpful distinction. It’s important to take care of yourself AND to take care of your partner, but you can kill both of those birds with one stone by making strong choices. What we need here is a deeper understanding of the word “support.”

In Improvise, Mick Napier puts it this way:

If the first thought in your head when you approach an improv scene is “Support your partner” … [w]hat are you supporting them with?

Are you supporting them with thoughts about supporting them? That’s very nice but not very supportive. … Do you say nice things to them, do you uber-agree, do you pat them on the head, offer them a chair, rub their shoulders? No, the most supportive thing you can do is get over your pasty self and selfishly make a strong choice in the scene. Then you are supporting your partner with your power, and not your fear.

If you want to support your partner in an improv scene, give them the gift of your choice.

So, what’s the best way to take care of myself? To make a strong choice. No brainer.

And what’s the best way to take care of my partner? Also, to make a strong choice. Not deferring to them, saying “yes” a lot, and keeping your own ideas to yourself.

For me, the latter concept was difficult, because I confused ‘support’ with ‘submission’ for my first couple of years of improv. I’m sure there are guys who deal with this, too, though I haven’t met many. I have seen this over and over with evangelical women.

Conservative evangelical gals grow up being told that good Christian girls are polite and deferential. We’re told, for instance, that the only reason Deborah and Jael were allowed to lead is that Barak and the rest of the Israelite men were too wimpy to step up. A woman could only be strong if all nearby men had abdicated their manhood. (Here is a more reasonable interpretation of that story, preached earlier this summer by Rev. Karen Miller at Church of the Resurrection. I highly recommend investing 20 minutes of your day listening to this sermon.)

Even if you don’t consciously buy into these ideas, they’re in the water, and you have to filter for them.

Being polite will not serve you or anyone else. Being generous will. It means giving of yourself, not abdicating yourself. Generosity means making strong choices.

It’s not as though strength is a single cake, and for one woman to have more of the cake, it means a man or another woman has to have less.

Strength is NOT a cake.** It’s more like the widow of Zarephath’s oil, which never dried up during the famine; she always had enough to give some food to Elijah.

Or like the other widow’s oil, which Elisha told her to divide into other jars. She took all the jars in the neighborhood, and no matter how many jars she poured her oil into, there was always enough to fill another jar.**

In God’s upside-down economy, giving things away doesn’t necessarily mean you have less for yourself. Grace isn’t a zero-sum game. The more I give of myself, the more I have. That’s how we’re supposed to live, and good improv is a small, concrete example of how it can play out.

Making strong choices yourself doesn’t mean your scene partner can’t. My strong choices should make it easier for you to make strong choices, which will make it easier for me to make strong choices, in an endless loop of strength and support.

*THIS IS A WAY IN WHICH IMPROV IS NOT LIKE CAKE. My improv worldview may collapse.

**Elijah and Elisha had a thing for widows and oil, I guess?