Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of teaching a workshop to aspiring directors, the topic of which was “Planning and Executing Rehearsals.” The main focus was on setting goals and then generating exercises to work toward those goals. To practice, the group divided up into threes and chose a skill and an exercise they might use to work on that skill in a rehearsal. Interestingly, of the four groups, two chose similar skills, but from opposite directions. While one group wanted to work on developing character by running an exercise where people had to initiate multiple scenes in a row with strong character traits, the other wanted to run an exercise where one’s scene partner endowed them with a strong trait which they then had to justify in response.
It made sense that two groups focused on this skill—building a strong and believable character is an important foundational skill for good improv—and it also made sense that they’d come at it from opposite ends, since improv is a collaborative art, as much about what you bring to the table as what you pick up from it.
But beyond just being interesting serendipity, I pointed out to them how, in one rehearsal, you might do both exercises, on purpose, rather than choosing one or the other because you’re worried that they represent a possible redundancy in working on that particular skill. To explain to these newer directors why you might choose this “doubling up” strategy, I used (as I am wont to do) an athletic metaphor:
When engaging in strength training, it’s very common to choose exercises that work corresponding “pairs” of muscles. In fact, many gyms’ weight machines are set up in a way that highlights the relationship between the different muscles in a group. Consider the seated quad machine versus a seated hamstring machine. Walking up to each machine, you might not even see the difference between them at first. Both have a seat, usually pitched back as a bit of an angle. Both have a sort of roller attached to an arm that juts out a few feet from the end of the seat bottom. Both have a rack on the side where you choose the amount of weight you’d like to lift. The only functional difference between these machines is, in fact, what you do with your body in relation to the machine—with the quad machine, you place your shins below the roller and pull up, whereas with the hamstring machine you place your calves above the roller and push down (yes, some of you gym rats might point out to me that, for leverage’s sake, a hamstring machine often has an extra roller above your lap to help hold your thighs in place as you press down which would distinguish it from a quad machine—point ceeded, back to the metaphor).
In other words: from an outsider’s perspective, the motion and the mechanism look almost exactly the same, but the person doing the work feels the activation of two very different muscles through two different types of motion. There are two fascinating improv takeaways from this very small observation:
Firstly, we know that both exercises are needed to develop your body in a balanced, healthy way. In other words, sure, you could just learn to create great characters in a vacuum, assuming your scene partner will never give you gifts. Or you could come out all the time like a blank slate and get really good at justifying others’ endowments of you. And most people are better at one of these skills than the other, just like most people have muscle groups that are inherently stronger or more susceptible to growth than others, but you’d never purposely devise a workout plan that deliberately ignored the muscles that are harder for you—in fact, you’d find opportunities to strengthen them while also maintaining and growing your stronger muscles. And not only that, you’d devise workouts that purposely alternate between the different muscles in the same group, in order to help them grow and work together. You wouldn’t say, “We’re doing all hamstrings today” and ignore your quads completely—that would be an imbalanced workout.
And imagining, from the other end of the process, that you are the teacher or director (the “trainer” to maintain the metaphor) you need to think about the “muscle groups” you want to activate in your rehearsals and find a way to work those groups from both ends so that the whole improviser is growing healthily and proportionately, because to a large extent their growth as a performer is in your hands.
If the first insight is one regarding process, the second insight is one about product. As I said before, from the outside, the two exercises look pretty much the same, just as how, from an audience perspective (especially an audience of people unfamiliar with the specifics of improv techniques), a great character looks the same whether you’ve generated it yourself or justified it based on your scene partner’s endowments. In the end, it’s not technically going to matter in that particular performance moment who started what. That’s an awesome thing in one way, because it takes the pressure off of us to think we can only succeed in a character/scene/show through one set of techniques. But it can also be a crutch, so that if we begin to think only from the perspective of that audience member’s experience, we might start to ignore an entire muscle group that’s maybe a bit challenging for us, or that doesn’t get the results as quickly as another group. We might start to build our “glamour muscles,” which look pretty but aren’t really making us stronger in a well-rounded way. We become all flash and no core, because we’re content to see ourselves only from how we look to others rather than how we feel on the inside. Remembering that a single product is not the only nor always the most reliable indicator of an overall productive process can help us find a balance between pleasing the audience in the short term and growing ourselves into the kind of performers that will actually find more success in more scenarios, with more and different kinds of scene partners, teams, etc. in the long term.
It’s true that these kinds of long-term results take time to show up, and might never “show” the way a more imbalanced, aggressive glamour-oriented workout will, but just like at the gym, it’s important to know the difference between superficial flash and real strength on stage. You want to always be the “rock star” in every scene, never “switching your grip” to set someone else up for the laugh? You might get the immediate feedback of audience approval, but you’re not only building your muscles in an imbalanced way, you’re prohibiting your cast mate from developing her muscles too, which will hurt everyone in the long run (and even in the short run, as your “big laugh” move can often result in dissipating the energy of the scene before your partner can use an of it himself). You like to always wait on your heels for someone else to start the scene and then jump in with a great justification? Okay, but what about the day when another person just like you steps out onto the stage with you? I’ve seen that scene, and it’s two people awkwardly staring at each other in silence until on of them grasps at some weak explanation for why no one’s talked yet. Not fun.
Yes, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and no workout regimen is going to completely eliminate and balance these natural propensities. And sure, in the moment of a show, you need to give the scene what it needs to succeed, but to ignore the fact that these onstage choices are the result of a series of conscious off-stage choices during the rehearsal process, and to ignore the role of the rehearsal process in shaping our work, is to deny our power to grow ourselves into the kind of hilarious and generous improvisers that our fellow performers love to play with and audiences (whether they can put their finger on the difference or not) love to watch. And just like going to the gym, it won’t happen overnight, but if you put in the hours, it will happen. Just like sports—which, incidentally, might be a helpful explanation this Thanskgiving when Uncle Glenn asks you for the seventy-fouth time how you can possible “rehearse” improv.