Tag Archives: politeness

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?

Give it all, give it now.

“Spend it all. Shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I was reminded of this Annie Dillard quote by Laura Turner’s guest post at Rachel Held Evans‘ blog this week. Turner writes, “Where am I giving from, and what am I holding back? Am I giving from abundance? And if so, why I am I holding on to so much when I know that everything I hold back from God is exactly what separates me from him?”

I would add that everything I hold back separates me from other people, too. And this is a problem if I want to do improv.*

If I find myself holding back my ideas and my impulses — which are all I have to offer on stage — I won’t connect well with my scene partner, and then the audience won’t connect with our scene. We won’t stumble into truth or comedy if we can’t connect, and we can’t connect if we’re not willing to give generously of ourselves.

I go through phases of having trouble giving of my ideas. “My ideas aren’t good enough” is one reason; “My ideas are AWESOME and I’m saving them for myself” is another. Both of these attitudes are selfish. The first masquerades as humility, but it’s actually selfishness and fear.

When I first started learning improv, I would try and come up with good ideas to use at my next practice. And sometimes, during practice, I’d come up with a Really Good Idea. A Hilarious Idea. An Artful Idea. But I wouldn’t play it right away. I’d want to save it for a show. No sense wasting it in practice, right?

Ironically, when I did use these good ideas in practice, the scenes turned out to be flat and uninteresting. And those good ideas I had on the sidelines to save up for a show? I don’t remember actually using any of them. They were ideas that made sense in the moment, but not outside of it. They absolutely turned to ash.

Preparing characters and situations before practice is not actually improvisation; it’s writing. Writing is wonderful and valuable, but it’s a different pursuit altogether. Improv really is best when it’s improvised.**

Those impulses you have on the sidelines? The ones in your gut? Go with them. Right now. Don’t judge them. Don’t save them for later. Don’t hold them back out of politeness. Don’t be polite at all; be generous. The most generous thing you can possibly do is throw your idea out there for the group to play with.

Maybe the idea won’t play the way you thought it would when it occurred to you. Maybe it morphs into something else. That’s ok. If you’re on stage, the idea has already served its purpose. The only time an idea has any value is if you let it move you from the sidelines to the stage. 

Once you’re on stage, it’s not your idea anymore, anyway. It belongs to the group. That means it’s not up to you to make it come out ok. You can relax.

Remember that attitude of thankfulness exemplified in Red Ball? Generosity is born out of that. If you feel like you can’t afford to give your ideas and go with your impulses, ask yourself if you’re thankful. Everything is a gift you can be specifically thankful for.

thankfulness –> generosity –> connection –> truth/comedy

*It’s also a problem if I want to live life in the Church. Or even if I just want to be, you know, a human being who has friends.
**Duh.