I’ve written about the rehearsal process before in terms of the ways on can break down rehearsal and create both goal-oriented and skill-oriented “lessons.” And I’ve talked about the importance of setting up rehearsals in a way to allow players to take risks and feel safe so that when it comes to showtime, they’ve done the work and it doesn’t feel scary. But I want to go back and stress something about the relationship between the work you do in rehearsal and the work you do on stage, and it comes down to this:
Everything is process.
Rehearsal is process because there’s no audience to observe your outcomes. But, by the very nature of improv, performance is process as well. The product is, in itself, a kind of process. Consider the following analogy:
When you watch a professional basketball game, you know the range of skills you’re likely to see, the match-ups between players, the rules by which it will be played. But you’re not guaranteed a certain product. Just because you went to see Michael Jordan play doesn’t mean the NBA can ensure he’ll score over 40 points, or dunk the ball, or shoot the buzzer-beating goal. You know those are possibilities, but they are not guarantees. Whereas if you see a different type of presentation of athletic and acrobatic skill—say, Cirque de Soleil—the athletic prowess of the performers is not only assured, but their every move has been choreographed and rehearsed to provide you with a consistent and repeatable audience experience. If you see the show twice, you will see the same performers repeating the same skills with the same level of expertise.
Put in this kind of stark contrast, it almost seems crazy that we’d ever purposely watch something that wasn’t guaranteed to be predictably entertaining.
And yet, just like improv, the “product” of the sports game is the display of skill, and the spontaneous outcomes that result from the range of variables present in the game itself. The rules of the game help limit those variables to a manageable amount—otherwise we’d find the proceedings chaotic and unenjoyable (In fact, if you’ve ever watched a sport the rules of which you are unfamiliar, you may have sensed that feeling of chaos as you try to make sense of the game).
Sometimes I think we forget this in improv. We forget that the audience wants to see the spontaneous generation of combinations of characters and objects and ideas, not a particular outcome. They’re not videotaping the show to watch it over and over again later.
And sometimes we even extend this overemphasis on the finished product to rehearsals themselves. We want our scenes to “go well.” We want our teammates to laugh at what we do. We want to be able to say of everything we do, “That would have been great if we did it in a show.”
And I think that this is damaging to the rehearsal process. Not that our peers’ laughter isn’t a helpful indicator that we’ve hit on something good, or that doing an amazing “show-worthy” scene isn’t a great feeling that can translate to on-stage, success, but when we start treating the process of the process like a product in and of itself, we risk losing the benefits of the work at hand, which is the creation of a safe space in which to stretch our skills and abilities—a process by which we grow, individually and as a team, without regard for a finished product to speak of. So go ahead, bomb that rehearsal scene. Take a risk that blows up in your face. Would you stretch yourself that far in a show? Probably not, because people are counting on you to be somewhat consistent. But in rehearsal? Rehearsal is the place to try and fail and try again—to push your limits just beyond the brink of failure, and expand your limits in the process.
Of course, sometimes your coach has an agenda that involves solidifying a certain skill or move as a team. And at those times there is a certain goal in mind within the process. But even then, your coach isn’t expecting perfect execution, and it’s often the failures that teach you and your coach more about what needs work than the successes.
The bottom line: that perfect “spread eagle” dunk that’s immortalized in the MJ statue in front of the United Center in Chicago? That’s an ideal, not a guarantee. And, in fact, it was more common to see that “perfect” execution during the highly controlled Slam Dunk contest than in an actual game. And the joy of seeing Michael Jordan, or any great athlete, play in an actual game, is less based on the hope that you’ll get a glimpse of that ethereal dunk or that perfect serve and more based on the surety that what you will see will be the result of the spontaneous interaction between the player and his environment—the other players, the other team’s strategy that night, the terrain, the weather. We watch because we are engaged in the experience as it unfolds in real time, only once and never quite like that again. The product is the process itself.
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