Okay! I present here for improv nerdy delight and judgment a series of exercises on handling accusations in a scene. Each one evolved out of the previous one, and I think they’re each useful for different levels.
When I say “handling accusations” I mean treating accusations like gifts rather than an excuse to fight or to prove your character “right.”
And when I say “accusations” I mean both:
- Actual accusations, like: “Hey, Jeremy, YOU were supposed to invite people to this party!”
- And the related ‘explain this' statement which is less angry but still makes the other person 'weird': “Jeremy, I hired you to be the clown for my son's birthday party, why are you discussing philosophy with them?”
Both of these things can bait people into either being defensive or deflecting or fighting, so it’s good to practice responding to them.
(Also: great scene ideas in my examples, as always)
EXERCISE ONE: SUPER VILLAIN / MASTERMIND
Well done hero! No more walking for you. You’ve found an airship!
"Let’s see them get me now!" - Captain Phillips
Get ready for everything to get better! This ship will expedite your journey and take you to lands farther than you imagined. And look at all the amenities! This baby comes with beds, weapon/armor shops, item storage/sales, and rooms for everyone in your party. Plus extra rooms for when you meet other adventurers! From now on, you’ll be surrounded by like minds, able to work with all different combinations of heroes to form a party and create the greatest group possible! What could be better?
Man, who knew there were so many heroes out there? This ship has gotten crowded! It’s now full of adventurers, some much stronger/faster/more powerful than you. Since only 5 people can be chosen to be in the party that leaves the ship, lately you’ve stopped being chosen all the time. Sometimes you get to go out, and sometimes you stay on the ship. Eventually it feels like the same 5 people are chosen every time, and that group grows incredibly strong. How can you compete with that? You’re a pretty good adventurer, but your skill might require special timing, or saving up, or a secret ingredient that’s more complicated than the guy who can insta-kill with his special move. And your weapons and armor are just hand-me-downs that the other characters don’t need anymore. It’s not fair! If you had the best equipment, or leveled up all the time, you too would be that strong. But you don’t, and you can’t. You now spend most of your time on the airship, sleeping and eating and generally feeling bad about what you can’t do and what others get to. While you were originally a hero walking to fight evil, now you’re just a guy along for the ride on the airship, surrounded by an increasing group of other heroes just waiting for a turn which may never come.
Have a seat! The AD will see your fart ninja character soon.
As improv has become more popular, each improv theater reaches a point of supersaturation where, though they would love to give everyone every opportunity, they simply cannot. Each theater responds to this differently. Some hasten the turnover of their teams, while others let veteran teams remain almost indefinitely. Regardless, chances are that there will be a small group of people at each theater who seem to get to do everything. The chosen ones, the weekend people - whatever you want to call them. The ones the theater seems to be behind the most. A coveted position, to be sure. But it is very important to understand something as you go through your time at an improv theater. Statistically speaking, chances are that you will not be one of these people. It’s a sobering thought, and one that everyone hopes to avoid. But if it does happen that you’re not one of those people, the single most important thing you can do is make sure that this doesn’t ruin your relationship with your theater(s) - both the people and the establishment.
What you must understand about an improv theater is that each person’s relationship with the same building will often be very different. You respond to it differently, and it responds to you differently. It will respond “better” to some people than you. This may create feelings of resentment toward that place or those “chosen” people. Should you be in that position, what you do with that resentment/those feelings may define you as a person and an improviser for the near (and perhaps far) future. It’s important to make the right choices. Therefore, a few tips:
- Do not treat your time at an improv theater as something to “get through” until you are famous/successful/on the weekend/etc. Make the theater and its community a place you enjoy being right now. You may not get any more opportunities than you have right now, so waiting for the day that never comes is not your best bet. Create a space that is fulfilling for you as a person and comedian now, so that even if you never take a step up, you can die happy, (hopefully) loved and (somewhat) fulfilled.
- Take a look around. Even though you’re at a theater and trying to gain more experience and opportunities, there are new people coming in and out all the time. They bring new shows and new perspectives you may not have. You may think you’ve seen it all, but chances are there’s always something you’ll admire, and possibly someone you want to work with, that you haven’t seen yet. And even if it’s all bad, doesn’t that make you want to replace it with something good?
- Realize that even the people that you think get every opportunity think they don’t. And they look longingly at the people who they think get every opportunity. In some ways, it never ends.
- If your theater, or your relationship with it, stops making you feel like a hero (comedian), you should leave that theater. For a month, a year or a decade is up to you and your personal situation. But always remember that a theater does not make or break you. You were a comedian before you came to this theater - that’s what made you seek it out. And you will be a comedian after you leave it. Most likely what you need is to simply redefine your expectations - take a few months off and come back with new, probably lessened expectations of what the theater “should” do for you. Remember your simple love for improv, as absence will remind you. For some it takes more than a few months. For some it’s forever. Again these are individual cases. But don’t let yourself suffer through this time. It may be all you have.
An example from my own life: When the Magnet Theater started, I loved everything about it. It was new and fledgling, and yet the work that went up there was so strong. It was also unknown, some secret that I felt needed to get out, and because of that I wanted to put the whole place on my back and carry it to fame and glory and all that stuff. I believed in the theater and was ready to work harder than I ever had to lift it to new heights. What I wasn’t ready for was that the Magnet didn’t see that same potential in me.
It’s a hard thing to reconcile your own belief in a theater and its belief in you when the two are at different levels. It’s like being in a relationship where one person loves the other more - eventually that’s going to come to a head. It did for me, though not through any grand blow-up or anything. Due to the nature of the improv business, you won’t often get a vote of “no confidence” so much as not get a vote of “confidence.” I started to get a few of those “no”s when they eventually came up - TourCo, teaching, etc - all stuff that seemed like the end of the world at the time. I became aware of the gulf in our perceptions of one another. It was all very polite, of course, but it still hurt.
It’s hard to go backwards in a relationship. It colors everything in your view. Things don’t feel new and exciting when you feel like you’ve been there before. So it was with me. Eventually my relationship with Magnet came to the point where I needed to change my expectations. I felt the theater owed me more for my service. I mean, I’d done stuff for them. I ran a jam for 5 years, damn it! So pony up!
Looking back, my need for these votes of confidence now seems somewhat desperate to me. Why was that? I see now that the real reason these votes of confidence were so necessary to me was because, like many improvisers, I developed a sense of identity tied to my theater. As a struggling artist who could barely afford my lifestyle and had few sources of support, if I couldn’t even be sure that my theater believed in my potential as a performer, what certainty in life did I have at all? I was allowing the theater to basically solely dictate my sense of self-worth. That is a wholly unwise idea for anyone who intends to be happy at all. So I decided to change up my routine. I quit a few things (my house team, the aforementioned jam THAT THEY OWE ME SO MUCH FOR WTF!), started doing some new ones (musical improv, sketch, web videos), started performing at a new theater and even changed up my crowd a little bit. It helped immensely.
I don’t love everything about the Magnet Theater anymore. This seems like a weightier statement than it is. Things change. Hell, I came to NYC to bum around and do improv forever. Now I still wanna do improv forever, but other stuff too. I’ve changed. The Magnet has grown way beyond that place I started at - the one where if there were people in the lobby you knew Mike Myers was there. It’s changed. How could our relationship not? I’ve redefined my Magnet relationship many times - from someone I thought was at the forefront of the theater to now basically a musical improviser and esoteric show creator. There was some pain involved in that, but now there’s a lot of freedom. I play/socialize at 2 theaters, and have good relationships with 3. It’s a pretty good place to be.
My feelings on the Magnet have pretty much followed my feelings on my parents - at first they’re the greatest people ever, then you briefly hate them, and finally you love them again and are grateful, but you don’t owe them your life. Once you get old enough to start relating with your parents as two independent agents, things tend to get much better quickly. The same is true of improv theaters, in my experience. My feelings on the people has never changed, though.
I’ve been part of 3 different improv theaters in my time in New York, and I’ve disagreed with aspects of all of them. One must assume that each theater is running exactly (or close to) how they want to run, and that they want different things than you personally do, even if what you think is right seems so universally correct. The key to managing this is to lose that sense of gang identity so many of us have when we start out.
In short, remember that you’re not a comedian because you’re at a theater. You’re at a theater because you’re a comedian.
I am reblogging because I really liked the last statement and I want to read it all later. I don’t know who runs this Tumblr but this seems interesting and smart.
-the man, the legend, Jason Mantzoukas
My brother Kevin and I did a Reddit AMA and answered a lot of super-nerdy improv questions and also dealt with Chris Gethard very deliberately trying to get us to fight about Spider-Man, which we did! Thanks to everyone who contributed.