Improvising is not perfect. It can be messy, confusing and frustrating. Like all art forms there are many ways to “get there.” For most of us, “getting there,” means being comfortable on stage and entertaining an audience. As anyone who’s taken an improv class or read blog posts about people taking an improv class will tell you, there are a laundry list of benefits from studying and performing improvisation. We in the improv business call this, Applied Improvisation. They are the lessons learned that can be applied to our life and work.
Yet, the two lessons I am thinking about today are more undercover and rarely mentioned. And in our very divided times, I felt they needed to be highlighted now more than ever. They are the lessons of Personal Responsibility and Empathy.
#1 Personal Responsibility
As improvisers, our number one job on stage is to “make our partner look good.” This means that whatever our scene partner “offers” as a detail of the scene (something about the who we are, where we are, or what we feel), we say “Yes And” to it with all we got. In other words, we accept their idea and we add to it verbally, emotionally and physically. As we progress in our improv training, we can get a bit comfortable with how great we are at making our partner look good. Then, we begin to judge others we’re watching do improv. And finally, we begin to judge those we’re on stage with! This is toxic. And here is what I want every improviser and non-improviser to know, as I believe it applies to other endeavors as well, “If you are on stage [or at a meeting, playing a game, etc] and thinking all of these people are doing it wrong, then YOU are doing it wrong.” Admittedly this is a long winded version of one of my favorite improv quotes from Susan Messing, a veteran of the Chicago improv scene, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the a**hole!”
So don’t be an a**hole, take personal responsibility and make your partner look good.
“The answers are in your partner’s eyes.” This is something every one my students has heard many times. It helps us focus on the most important part of an improv scene, the relationship between our characters on stage. As Shakespeare said, “The Eyes are the window to your soul.” And by prioritizing this form of communication, our relationships are more real on stage. The more real we can be with each other, the stronger the audience reaction to the humor found in our reactions to each other and circumstances.
There have been many experiments showing the growth of connection between two humans simply by making eye contact. And although the most famous among them had their subjects hold the eye contact for 4 minutes, it doesn’t take that long. Our brains are wired to scan eyes, nose and mouth when we encounter someone. Our brains then release hormones to replicate how we interpret another person is feeling. This is empathy. And empathy is a powerful tool to help us find common ground and work together.
So the next time you are frustrated with a loved one (or even a stranger), look in your partner’s eyes. The answers are there.