Monday, November 25, 2013

Mr. Diplomat and me: Improv Rules!

Is laughing with people about yourself the same as being laughed at? On Nov 22, I was the special guest for Mr. Diplomat, an improv show held every Friday night at DSI Comedy Theater. The show's set-up is a special guest comes on, tells stories from his or her life, and then the crack improv team makes up scenes based on those stories.
"And yes I said yes" by It's Greg, licensed under Creative Commons

I was asked to be the guest in a rather informal way: the guy who took my old job is also on the Diplomat team and they'd had a guest back out, so he asked if I was interested. While I may not have any desire to be an actress, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy my time on stage, so I said, "Yeah, sure, I'm down with that." Kit promised I didn't have to be funny, I just had to get up on stage and tell some stories. They would take care of the rest.

Having recently listened to Daniel Pink's To Sell Is Human, two of the primary rules of improv were already on my mind: "Accept all offers" and "Make your partner look good." The first one is commonly abbreviated "Yes, and"; it means you cannot negate what someone else has said. You must accept the detail or suggestion they've offered and build on that for the scene. It's harder than it sounds. The second one is, too. Being a good improvisation artist is very different than being a stand-up comic, who only has one person on stage to worry about, but it is also very different than being in a legit play, because there you typically have a script that you've (hopefully) read in advance. In improv, you have no idea what the other person is going to say. You must trust your partner, that they are performing under the same rule as you: you're going to make them look good.

These two axioms are applicable in the straight theater world as well (I hate that term, but lack anything better at the moment) and I think they are woefully underused. One hopes that a director will trust her actors enough to let them make some character choices on their own. One hopes that designers say "yes and" when a director proposes a specific element.

One also hopes that an organization will say "Yes and" when an audience member makes a suggestion for the lobby or a play they'd like to see.
Or tries to make donors look good when planning fundraising appeals.
Or accepts offers from potential collaborators or business partners.

It's very seductive to fall into established patterns for how an organization should interact with customers. I will readily admit that when I was training Kit, even though I repeatedly said "Find your own way to do this, as mine may not work for you", I still had to bite my tongue when he made changes to things I'd done for years. I found myself saying "Yes and" under my breath almost every day. I trusted that he was making these changes to make the organization look good (and they did, everyone raved, which then made me pout a little, but that's neither here nor there).

Small nonprofit theater doesn't have the luxury of bundles of money to throw away on failed attempts. So what we need is a lot of trust, that by truthfully telling our stories, accepting all offers, and making sure our partners look good, we will make art that is meaningful and build audiences that appreciate that.

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