Devon Hyland is one of those annoyingly talented people who acts much older than he is. (Meaning he’s as funny as Don Rickles, but without the receding hairline.) He writes and performs award-winning Fringe plays, plays a mean guitar with his band Fashion Tips, and does improv with The Second City among other things. When he’s not making people laugh, Devon has been known to attend the occasional Blue Jays game.
Firstly, I was asked to write this article about improv. Don’t be getting all uppity because you think I’m not smart enough to be writing articles on anything.
Secondly, I was going to write an article called Shows Not Starting On Time! or Behaving Professionally! or Angry Face Emoticons: A Visualization Of My Views On Toronto Improv!, but I realized that was completely negative thinking.
Improv teaches us to be positive, so instead of telling people what I think is bad, I’m going to focus on the good. That’s why I chose to write this positive list of positive things that I have found to be positive (true) about improv.
1. People Change: You And Your Fellow Improvisers Will Get Better
When I was a younger pup than I am now, I’d sometimes watch performers and write them off. I determined that they were “the performers that they were,” and that I had seen all I needed to see from these people to know how good they would become. They did not have the “It” factor. Because of this, they were simply not destined to be performers.
I imagined they would eventually slip away and I would be left, alone, centre stage, reaping the benefits of being born with the “It” factor. It was only a matter of time.
Now, however, I do not believe that someone cannot obtain this coveted “It” factor.
This is because I’ve been shown over and over that I was wrong in my initial assessments. These performers are funny, I discovered, and I don’t know why! And it’s not just me; they now succeed in entertaining rooms full of varied audience members with ease. These are the same people I thought were never, ever going to become as mysteriously wonderful as I now think they are. And with good reason: they stunk!
They were lacking confidence, quiet, hunched, and non-deliberate in their actions. They literally repelled my eyes. Why couldn’t they realize they weren’t meant to be performers? Why couldn’t they realize that people like me – naturally wonderful people – had more of a right to the stage?
Now I look on and mope as a bubble of beautiful potential (the “It” factor, I’d argue) surrounds their bodies.
With hard work, performers have the power to find the gifts that are hidden within themselves. Maybe barking jokes isn’t your thing. Maybe subtle acting ain’t your forte. You’ll eventually discover what you believe to be your skill set. This skill set is the reason you started improv in the first place, and once you’re confident in it and can show it to your audience, the world’s your oyster.
People do change, and the boring performer you’re watching (or are), has the potential to blow you away (or blow yourself).
2. Somebody’s Probably Enjoying It
The unfortunate reality is this: many audience members do not want to be there. So as an improviser, you’ll often perform a show for crowd of people who:
a) have no interest in improv, or
b) have no interest in you
This is usually demonstrated by eye rolls and yawns. But even though it seems like the whole crowd is against you, I’ve found that there’s more often than not at least one person in the audience who’s enjoying him or herself. There’s no way to know where this quiet, happy peanut is sitting, so why don’t we just pretend he or she is at the back of the room? Play to this person and don’t worry about the naysayers.
And while you’re at it, why not play to someone else at the back of the room, too? Imagine a person you love and want to impress. Maybe it’s your soon-to-be-girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife/soon-to-be husband. Maybe it’s Lorne Michaels. Perform your heart out for that ghost person. Hopefully doing this will bring out a better performance in you, and those dumb yawners will shift their focus to the stage. After all, yawners change.
3. You Can Learn From Anyone
I used to think I was above taking classes from my peers. Ohhow wrong I was! Please don’t believe that just because you have equal or greater experience than someone that they can’t teach you anything. And please don’t disregard somebody’s opinion because you think you’re a better performer than they are.
Because I’ll tell you this: you are not a 100% all-around perfect performer. In at least one instance, I’ll bet these new scrubs have got you beat.
Whether it’s the way they drop puns into medieval references, or the way they paint the stage with more whimsical grace than an a-squiring knight, they have something to teach you. Everyone has something to teach you. There is no person in this world from whom you cannot learn, so take classes often and anywhere.
4. Don’t Wait Your Turn
Apparently I have been younger than everyone else my whole life, because no matter what my age, there’s always someone who pats me on the back and says, “Oh, you’re just a young thing.” I find this more telling of them than it is of me. After all, they’re only stating my age – something of which I should hope I need no reminder. In their case however, they’re pointing out that they see this as important. I do not.
While I’m not advocating that new improvisers should disregard experience as an asset, I would encourage newbies to believe that their experiences will resonate with an audience just as profoundly as those of a seasoned veteran.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on this Earth; you’ve experienced life in an infinite number of unique ways that open-minded audiences are clambering to have shown to them. You’ve also experienced life in so many universally-common ways that crowds will have no problem connecting with you.
Show your audience you’re confident in the connection you have with them, and they will respond positively. You don’t need to wait until you’ve performed 300 shows before you start thinking your improv is worth watching. You are an interesting and funny person now.
Now get up there and let us all bask in your glory, jerkwad.
5. Good Show > Good Improv
I’ve watched improv troupes sink deeper and deeper into a hole of unfunny, boring improv about a thousand times. They’re stuck. The audience knows it, and they know it. What could the non-performing members on the sides be thinking at this point?
“This show is going so badly. I can’t wait for it to end. I’m going to stick on the sidelines of this scene and just ride it out. Eventually we’ll all get through this. Then I’ll grab a beer and think about my wrongdoings.”
Just sweep it. End it. Cut your losses. For your own sake and for the audience’s sake.
Nobody wants to watchfour more minutes of a boring scene so you can show us you’re able to weave your way out of a seemingly-contradictory situation. We won’t appreciate the accomplishment as much as we’ll appreciate laughing. And we want to laugh!
The positive angle on this seemingly-angry rant is this: you do not need to believe that your audience is only interested in “good improv.” They want to have a good time.
While it may be true that some on-looking improvisers will snub their noses at you for contradicting your stage mates, sweeping a struggling scene instead of saving it, breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience, or pretending to eat what you’ve just said and moving forward as though it never happened (a favourite of mine), there are more people in the crowd who will thank God that they do not have to sit through any more “good improv.”
I’m not advocating that you sell your teammates down the river. I’m advocating for you and your teammates to recognize that the #1 goal in your performance… is a good performance.
Once we recognize something isn’t working, we have a chance to make it out alive. We just need to do something about it, instead of hoping the Improv Gods will respect us for playing nice and riding a terrible scene through to completion. Because they won’t respect you – they’ll be furious with you for boring the heck out of the audience members who aren’t improvisers themselves. This was positive, right?
6. Talk to People You Admire
One of my favourite early experiences in improv was congratulating Marty Adams after one of his first Second City Touring Company shows. He was thrilled. At least, he acted thrilled. He put on a big smile and shook my hand and said “Awww, thanks so much.” I felt great, I’m sure he felt great, everyone felt great. So don’t be afraid to talk to people you respect, unless you hate feeling great.
For a long time I was deathly afraid of talking to people I admired. I used to go and watch the improv sets at Second City, and afterward I would stand outside for a few minutes for the performers to come out. I’d only wait a few minutes because that’s how long my nerves would allow me. After that, I’d scurry back to the subway, thinking to myself, “I’ll never get the confidence to talk to those people and oh how they must think I’m square!”
My advice to shy people is this: engage the performers you respect. If you start a dialogue with a performer you admire, you’re more likely to learn something about why they are such a great performer.
On top of that, people love to be told they’re awesome. Can you name someone who doesn’t like to be told they’re awesome? If so, give him or her this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk to this freak. Seriously, that email address works and I would love to talk to this freak.