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.