One of the early improv notes I got that really helped things click into place was from Rachel Klein who at a Gorge rehearsal one night said something like “no matter what happens onstage, you’re always in charge.”
I didn’t realize at the time but that point in my development I had been putting a lot of limits on my own instincts in order to play “the right way”. I had been putting the ownership of the scene onto whatever “rules” I had learned at that point. I was trying to fulfill things like “The scene is supposed to be about the relationship” or “Game is supposed to be XYZ” - rules that often felt contradictory or irrelevant or impractical.
What I’ve learned since is that these rules felt contradictory or irrelevant or impractical because they often are. For every concept I teach and write about there is an example of the exact opposite working really well. Tons of scenes fail because they’re missing certain base reality/contextual elements, but lots of successful scenes never needed to establish any. Plenty of scenes with a clear game or character pattern have fallen totally flat while plenty of scenes that are complete chaos have been hilarious. What I’ve learned in years of studying improv is that there are no rules, there are only practices that generally tend to be more effective than others. What I’ve learned is that the one true difference-maker is the attitude of the performer.
Confidence fuels competence.
It’s what turns a good move into a great move. It’s an unflappability when things get weird. It’s a total commitment to our choices. It’s an unspoken indication to the audience that we know what we’re doing and everything’s going to be okay. But obviously “be confident” is a much easier thing to say than legitimately embody. Confidence is a tricky feeling that can seem frustratingly self-fulfilling. We need to feel confident in order to be good but we need to feel like we’re good in order to be confident. Knowing that it’s such a difference-maker, what can we do to help build our confidence?
What’s interesting about confidence is it’s a relationship with the self, specifically our belief in our own ability to handle risk-associated behavior. It’s Me feeling like I can do something safely. In improv, like any form of live entertainment, the associated risks are largely social. Success means the acceptance and approval of our teammates and the audience. Failure can mean anything from polite disinterest to outright hostility. So although confidence is a relationship with the self, the social aspects of improv mean improv confidence is intrinsically tied to feedback from others. That’s not to say we absolutely need positive feedback to be confident; we can choose to ignore how others react and still believe we’re handling the interaction well, we just might not get many other chances at it. Being significantly socially alienating is a good way to limit our performance opportunities - either we stop getting invited to do shows or audiences stop showing up to watch. Assuming we’d like to keep performing, ignoring social feedback isn’t really an option.
Positive external feedback is clearly important in building improv confidence, but this is especially tricky for socially risky behavior because the entity providing the feedback is so variable. Fluctuating energy, changing attitudes, and inconsistent tastes mean we don’t always know how other people are going to react to things we do and say, especially when none of us know what those things will be ahead of time. In order to improve our chances of success we need to find a way to create some consistency.
Limit risk by limiting variables.
Onstage this is rather difficult because the content is always different, but we can give ourselves a solid baseline for success by maintaining immersion and avoiding sensitive subjects. However, the dynamic nature of the craft means the majority of our variable-limiting will take place offstage. At the team level it means creating as much consistency as possible. It means performing with the same people as frequently as we can in order to build team comfort and rapport. It means following a predetermined form or structure in order to keep everyone on the same page (and sticking with that form long enough to get really comfortable with it). Consistency at the audience level is much harder to control because it involves (hopefully) a lot more people, but luckily their input is limited (hopefully) to showing up, giving suggestions when prompted, and reacting to the show. The latter they’ll tend to do naturally; the hardest part about audiences is getting them in the door in the first place. We can’t exactly force people to attend shows, but we can make it easier for them by making the show a reliable level of quality (through cast and show consistency) and by performing regularly at the same time and place. Audiences are just like teammates in that repeated exposure builds comfort and trust, allowing us to play more assuredly and boldly. If we make it as easy as possible for them to find us, they’re much more likely to keep coming back.
Unfortunately, limiting all these variables is another example of something easier said than done. Depending on what opportunities are available to us, it might be difficult to perform regularly enough at the same time and place to build a familiar audience following. We might find that the models of existing improv institutions don’t allow for it, or a crowded scene with a lot of competition makes these types of opportunities tough to obtain. Often the best way to get regular stage time is to work outside the institutional system and self-produce, although independent production has its own set of challenges and can be a lot of extra work [more on independent show production in a future post]. Those of us who don’t want to self-produce may have to settle for irregular stage time that makes building a familiar audience much harder.
Unfamiliar audiences are less trusting and more fickle than audiences who already know and like us, which means the range of choices we can make in front of them will be narrower and more risk-averse. For this reason, the less audience consistency we have the more important it is for us to have consistency at the team level. I think one of the biggest things that hinders confidence development in young performers is too many variables at both audience and team level - irregular stage time with different people on different teams or teams with inconsistent attendance doing a variety of different forms. While it’s definitely important to get a lot of stage experience with different types of players in different styles of performance, too much variety too closely concentrated can hurt more than it helps.
Stay focused. Be patient.
The first few years in improv are especially exciting and overwhelming. Everything is new and thrilling and everyone is so hilarious and talented. It can be easy to want to consume and do as much of everything as we can. We have people we look up to and we want to be as good as they are and have what they have and we want it as fast as possible. But competence takes time to develop and we can slow our development by spreading ourselves too thin. Confidence won’t come without some sort of consistency. For this reason it’s often in our best interest to do fewer, more active projects with a smaller, tighter-knit group of peers. At a certain point, finding like-minded people who share similar tastes, goals, and commitment levels becomes just as important as getting a lot of stage time.
The reason creating consistency and building confidence is so important in improv is because it involves so many unknowns. The fact that the whole show is a surprise to both the audience and the performers means it only works if there is an immense amount of faith on both sides of the stage. The audience needs to trust that the performers know what they’re doing and that the show will be worth their attention and the performers need to trust that their choices will be supported by the rest of their team. Most important though, as performers we need to have trust in ourselves. Confidence is a relationship with the self, after all, and we need to feel like we’ll make it work no matter how crazy things get. We need to feel like no matter what happens onstage, we’re always in charge.
Once we understand this, we begin to play with a lot more freedom. Even the “rules” that were once restricting become empowering. In Game, for example, the First Unusual Thing is whatever we decide it is. Our reaction defines where Base Reality ends and Unusual begins. A cow that makes chocolate milk might be astonishing to someone in a universe similar to ours, but put it in the CandyLand universe and it’s totally normal. It’s entirely up to us to decide which universe we’re inhabiting in the scene. Similarly, in Pattern creation, our destiny is completely in our hands. The roles of Freedom, Power, and Responsibility (Rachel Klein again) overtly assign us authority in determining the direction of the pattern. The chocolate milk cow could lead us to discovering that the CandyLand universe also has chocolate beef and chocolate leather just as easily as it could lead to us to discovering its chickens lay Cadbury eggs and its sheep have cotton candy wool. We’re especially in control when it comes to building Characters. We decide what they want, what they care about, and what they do, and whatever we choose is correct as long as it’s consistent with what we’ve already established and properly justified.
The audience does have some input in the direction of the scene, as their laughter (or lack thereof) is a cue that what we’re doing is working (or not). But while the audience’s enjoyment should be our goal, their feedback can be unreliable. They may know what’s funny moment-to-moment but they don’t know what makes a scene sustainable. They’ll laugh at all sorts of negs, undercuts, confusion, and untethered wackiness, but chasing these types of laughs are dead ends that slow or halt scene momentum. Ideally we’re using audience feedback to identify the type of humor they enjoy while using our professional judgment to recognize which of their feedback to utilize and which to ignore. An audience that responds positively to negs, for example, might simply enjoy playful antagonism and would respond just as positively to a sustainable inter-character conflict.
What the audience wants most of all, however, is for us to be comfortable onstage. Discomfort is contagious and hard to reverse. It presumes failure and therefore tends to actualize it. We can build our confidence through a volume of experience, we can build our confidence by limiting as many variables as possible, but most importantly we can build our confidence by trusting our instincts rather than trying to meet the expectations of a formula. By going with our gut instead of overthinking everything, and then committing wholeheartedly to our choices. By not trying to do what we think we have to do, but doing what feels right for us. By not trying to be what we think we have to be, but by being our true selves.
Authenticity defies expectations.
It challenges. It reveals. It surprises. It delights. It builds trust. It persists under pressure. It turns our vulnerabilities into strengths. It gives us a voice. It’s what improv is all about.
So whenever things get difficult or confusing or frustrating or uncertain, remember that no matter what happens onstage, you’re always in charge.
Not the form. Not the rules. Not the audience.