Improv #8: Dramatic Irony

*Knock Knock*

“Who’s there?”

“An indecisive person”

“An indecisive person who…?”

“I have no idea. Who would you like me to be?”

I just finished my first level of Improv training advanced enough that we actually get formal feedback from our instructor, who is a member of the main performing troupe for the theater, and a written evaluation which goes to the next class if we’ve successfully made it into it. (I did, for those wondering. I can legitimately say I didn’t influence that decision, as you will learn if you read this post all the way through, though that’s not necessarily as good a thing as you might initially expect!)

You know how they say art imitates life? My art is dramatic irony at its finest.

According to my instructor, I’m actually a great performer when I’m leading. I offer up creative narratives with a lot of humor potential, I willingly offer side support, I seem to have a good sense of how to create relatable characters with genuine emotion –  though I should play more with being the high-status character instead of always the low-status character – and my next instructor should encourage the class to engage with what I offer because I’m a strong leader who drives scenes forward when others do follow.

The problem comes when others don’t follow. Even though “Yes, And” is the foundation of Improv, failure to “Yes, And” – or just “Yes, Anding” in a thoroughly unexpected fashion – is a thing that happens often enough that I need to learn how to play off of it as strongly as when I do generate consensus. At the beginning levels, there can be a failure to accept an opening offer because the actor just isn’t experienced enough to recognize it. At the more advanced levels, since many actors that make it that far come from a theatrical background, many will just see my offer and raise it anyway because they think they have a better idea. If I ever do make the main troupe, I will be playing against audience members who will often offer complete non-sequiturs simply because they legitimately don’t know what “Yes, And” even means.

If my initial gambit is accepted, I’m decisive. If it isn’t, I’m too often indecisive and reorient the character or emotion I was exploring to be in consensus with whatever the other person(s) offered up.

Some performers get told they need to be more open to emotions or to improve their object work. Some just get told, “hey, be willing to share the stage a bit more.” Most performers get feedback that they need to remember to “Yes, And” more frequently. Me, however?

I get the feedback that I need to remember that there can be too much of a good thing. When an actor gets on stage and goes a totally different direction from what I initially was exploring, I need to remember that it is possible to “Yes, And” and still be decisive in who my character is and how they feel. “Yes, And” means that I have to accept whatever new facts are offered without disagreement. It doesn’t mean my character has to agree with them or come to a consensus on how they feel about those facts. If my character just lost an eye in a war (actual scenario from one of our sessions) and the entire rest of the characters react indifferently, I need to not be afraid to commit even more to how my character would react to that level of additional betrayal after such a life-altering event instead of instinctively deferring to the other characters’ opinions. The best humor comes from the audience recognizing authentic reactions to universal life experiences played out within fantastical and weird situations. It’s inherently funny to see my character decisively show his hurt and frustration because we all know that feeling, even if we can’t quite express it in such an over-the-top way…

So, I need to have the confidence to act high status and lead even when others don’t follow, I need to act decisively and I need to be true to who my character is even when others try to paint them as something else? Sure, why not?

It seems appropriate that I’d discover that I do have the potential to go all the way. The only thing standing in my way is just that pesky “resolving the central conflicts of my life born of experiences that shaped me long before I had any say in the matter” bit. Never ironically call Improv trauma therapy: you’re daring the universe to “Yes, And” you on it…

P.S. – as in real therapy, there is homework. Mine is to find situations that are fundamentally safe – not work, obviously – and practice coming to snap judgments, expressing them loudly and just sticking to them despite opposition. Bonus points if it’s a different decisive decision than what those who know me well would expect and if I don’t tell folks what I’m doing so they can’t inadvertently make it easier on me by giving in too easily.

My first decisive expression of this is that I’m going to my About page and removing that bit where I invite constructive criticism. My instructor also told me he had a feeling that – of all the class members – everyone but me would offer at least some justification of why they felt they deserved to go on to the next level regardless of his judgment about their readiness. I’d just say “whatever you think, you’re the expert.” Part of being decisive, however, is defending my right to my creative voice. Improv is subjective, and future instructors might not always rate me as highly as he did. That doesn’t mean I should automatically accept their judgments as gospel. So, given that advice, at this point, I’ve decided that my blog is what it is. If you don’t like it, go read something else. Art is subjective, after all. 🙂 )

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.

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14 thoughts on “Improv #8: Dramatic Irony

  1. I love the two wrap up sentences. My philosophy on people and life. You have me so curious about your improv. Given your wit here I can only imagine you’re very funny. I just watched Tig Notaro’s most recent stand up on Netflix. I find her hilarious, especially in One Mississippi. Wishing you the best on your endeavor!

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    1. No. I actually started it as an attempt to address the feedback my boss gave me at my last annual review. If I wanted to make true management, I needed to improve my public persona as a saleswoman for what we do with potential clients. My boss was all very “you’re interpersonally awkward” and he keyed in on my 1:1 social anxiety and the hyperactive ADHD way I express that anxiety (especially around him, ugh.) I was hoping doing Improv would help me in that capacity. So…leadership coaching, not therapy, originally. But, I’m apparently learning more and more that the ADHD bit is less what’s holding me back in a lot of arenas, including Improv now, than the C-PTSD – even though I thought I really did hide THAT one well, at least. I don’t show my triggering obviously, but I show the more insidious bits like the apparent indecision, shrinking from authority and all that. I worry it’s worse they don’t know it’s part of the whole trauma response, sometimes, but then my boss will go and make really insensitive comments about mental health and I decide again that it’s probably for the best he just thinks I’m a weirdo data person instead of have C-PTSD. One he seems to believe can be fixed, the other he’d probably find an excuse to fire me. I started joking that Improv was better than therapy when I did a word frequency analysis on my blog and discovered how often I had spontaneously described something from Improv as being related to trauma processing, grounding from dissociation, etc. Add how my instructor laser-beemed now onto traits I know are trauma-related and just was like “here’s how you get better at it” and maybe Improv really SHOULD be part of therapy for PTSD!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I think it’s great this is something you got into in order to address “feedback” from your boss. Talk about initiative! And I can see how something like this would really compliment therapy, by helping with things like confidence and self-esteem. Your boss sounds like a jerk, by the way. But isn’t it funny how the jerks in our lives are often the cause of positive change?

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      2. He is a jerk. Unfortunately, I need to stay in one place long enough to start to at least be rid of the 9th Circle of Hell, which has gotten so bad I can’t even fully find words to describe on this blog. Bureaucracy and humans being what they are – and thus my boss being relatively low down on even the current list of horrible I’m dealing with – I won’t just leave. I will look for an alternative first. In specialized fields – and given the crap I’m dealing with in the 9th Circle of Hell this week – it will happen, but not until it’s safe.

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  2. I think you made a great decision to no longer ask for criticism on your blog. (Not that what I think matters; it’s your blog! 😉) Writing is an art that each writer is allowed to approach differently, which is why it’s so great that WordPress exists to give us all a platform to express ourselves.

    Good luck with that next level improve class!

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  3. Sounds like this is certainly something that’s invited a lot of reflection and, hopefully, growth. Love the decisiveness of adjusting the ‘about L&L’ page. This is your blog and perhaps on here you can practice a little more of that decisive strength. Have you found any other situations yet you can use as part of your homework? xx

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    1. According to my Partner, I sleep talked this weekend and told him that he was *going* to make me his pizza. (He makes awesome pizza but it takes forever because the dough has to ferment into sourdough over like 36 hours. It does, however, result in wheat I have less of an allergic reaction to.) I have no memory of this, but he did make me the elaborate pizza. I guess my subconscious, at least, is practicing asking for what it wants?

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      1. You’re very sensible in your sleep talking, not only to make sense but to get something good out of it. I’d say that’s a win for your subconscious. x

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  4. So I think what you’re saying is that in improv, if your initial offer isn’t accepted, you get stuck. That sort of happens to me when I’m teaching-if my method doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do next. How do you get out of it?

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    1. That’s what I’m currently working on, but my teacher’s advice was to go back to basics: what does your character want/feel and be true to that first. There’s totally a “trust yourself” first and then thinking of the next step will be easier metaphor in there somewhere…

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