Tag Archives: eagerness

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 Spot a Healthy Improv Troupe

Maybe your dream troupe is patient and grounded, or maybe it’s stylized and off-the-wall. Maybe it’s short form, maybe it’s long form. Maybe it’s a dozen people, maybe it’s just you and one other player.

Regardless, you want to be in a healthy troupe. Not just a funny troupe or an impressive troupe, but a healthy troupe. If you’re not healthy, it doesn’t matter how charismatic or witty or patient you are; things will get miserable.

What does healthy look like? In my experience, a healthy troupe is characterized by:

  • Eagerness — The players are eager to try anything, eager to learn from critique and experience, and eager to support others.
  • Honesty — The players are open and honest, both on stage and off. On stage, honesty often begets comedy. Off stage, honesty begets solid relationships — which, in turn, creates good comedy. As conflict arises, players talk about it in person rather than gossiping or shelving.
  • Showmanship — While practicing improv can be therapeutic, it is not therapy; it is preparation for a performance. Players work on technique to improve their shows and care for their audience.

This is the kind of troupe I want to coach.

It’s the kind of troupe I want to play with.

So I guess it’s the kind of player I ought to be.

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.