When you’re starting out as an improviser, being put on a Harold team is about as exciting as it gets. We’re talking The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX with a bagful of weed exciting.
At this stage, thoughts like “Who else is on my team?” or “Who’s our Coach?” (Director, for our American readers) are usually far behind thoughts like, “What if I suck?” “How do you do a tangent scene again?” and “I feel the sudden urge to take a crap.”
But once you’ve rehearsed for a couple of months and have some shows under your belt, you’ll find your focus turning to your fellow team members, your Coach, and your relationship with all of them.
After being on numerous teams and watching the development of dozens more, I’ve come to some conclusions about why certain teams shine while others struggle.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” – Susan Messing
You’ve probably heard this quote at some point, and if you haven’t, you will. While it’s pretty self-explanatory, I asked Susan to elaborate. She said, “You determine your joy ride. If you’re not getting off on this work, it’s not your teammate’s fault.”
As the Bible says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”
(Thanks for translating, Susan.)
So before you go around trashing others for being shitty improvisers, try working on yourself first.
Everyone on your team has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are natural editors. Others are great with physicality and spacework. Still others are geniuses at remembering offers and tying everything together.
That’s the beauty of being on a team. Very few people are great at everything, especially when you’re starting out. So go on easy on yourself, and your teammates.
But what if you feel disrespected? If you find yourself consistently getting tagged out, swept early when scenes are going well, or endowed as the “stupid ho” every show, maybe it’s time for a frank and honest talk with your team members or Coach. It could be they’re unaware of these behavioural patterns.
On the other hand, if you’re constantly tagged out or swept, it may be a sign that you need to step up your game.
Back when Standards & Practices had about 37 members, a few of them called Cameron out in rehearsal. He’d been hanging back in shows, and not contributing much to scenes. Kevin Whalen put it bluntly: get better, or get off the team. It was a tough-love moment from someone Cameron looked up to. Happily, he used it as the impetus to start bringing it every show.
That being said…
Chemistry Isn’t Everything, But It’s Pretty Damn Important
You can “yes and” your scene partner all you want, but at some point personalities come into play. And just as you may not love everyone at your day job, you may not be gellin’ like Magellan with everyone on your Harold team.
When you look at the top improvisers, there’s clearly a connection between great performances and great chemistry.
TJ and Dave, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Razowsky and Clifford, the UCB Four, Susan Messing and Blaine Swen…all of these people found kindred spirits with whom they enjoyed performing, and made a decision to pursue playing with them.
But when you’re put on a Harold team, you’re not The Decider.
Different Artistic Directors have different reasons for assembling teams. Chances are, whoever assembled yours wasn’t thinking purely of player chemistry.
Maybe they wanted an all-girl team. Maybe they needed a tall guy to balance out the short one. Maybe they wanted someone fat, thin, bespectacled, or heavily pierced.
It’s a bit like The Monkees.
Photo © Wikimedia Commons
The group was the brainchild of corporate executives who wanted to emulate the success of The Beatles. Instead of finding an existing band, they auditioned four guys and threw them together, leading to the moniker The Pre-fab Four.
Compare that to Nirvana. Never in a million years would a Casting Director have looked at Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and said, “These guys are gonna be huge! They’re gonna change popular music and ignite a generation of kids!”
Nirvana may have looked a ragtag trio of oddballs, but they had chemistry and talent in spades.
When your team has chemistry, it’s a whole lot easier to form group mind. Yes, you can get there with exercises, focus and commitment, but when it comes naturally, it’s like Boom!
Chemistry is the reason why some Harold teams last years, while others implode in five minutes.
Most teams have a lifespan of anywhere from six months to three years. People come and go. Some quit, some are voted out by team members, and some asked to leave by the Coach.
It’s all part of the process.
But even if your team doesn’t have amazing chemistry, there’s a way that you can create it for yourself…
Broaden Your Mind – And Your Network
Attend shows. Lots of shows. Not just improv, either. Sketch shows, solo shows, plays and concerts are all great inspiration. So are art shows, movies, and all kinds of festivals. Anything that enriches your life offstage will automatically enrich your work onstage.
One way to meet new people and make new friends is to take workshops. Master Classes are not only good for learning skills, they’re also a way to connect with people who may be more seasoned than you.
Whether it’s a five-week intensive in Chicago, a weekend workshop to learn musical improv, or a two-hour drop-in class, push yourself to get out and try new things.
Duo nights are another option, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. Forming a duo is an awesome way to do something different with someone you don’t normally perform with.
The same goes for improv jams and cage matches. They may seem terrifying at first, but you’re all there to have fun, so accept the offer if the opportunity arises.
A Word On Coaches
Your Coach is a guide, mentor, and cheerleader, rolled into one. They are not a teacher, but they may teach you new skills or forms.
I’ve been blessed with a diverse range of Coaches: some were focused on acting and scenework, some were big on structure and theme, while others were all about play and being in the moment. I learned from each and every one of them.
Sometimes there will be differences of opinion. Whether you agree with every note, exercise or idea your Coach has to offer, try to at least accept it with an open mind.
But when rehearsals turn into debating sessions, it may be time to look for a Coach who shares the team’s vision.
Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em…You Know What? Just Know When To Walk Away
At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.
When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.
That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.
That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.
That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.
Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.
Photo © Joseph Ste Marie