Q. How can I handle improvising with a partner who always puts me in awkward or uncomfortable situations?
A. Kat: I’m assuming we are talking about “awkward or uncomfortable situations” ON STAGE, although I’ll also talk a little bit about off stage, too, in a moment.
In terms of awkward situations on stage, here are some things to think about:
Improvisers sometimes feel trapped by the improv tenets “delight your partner” and “say ‘yes, and.’” Being aligned with those principles can feel limiting or frustrating if you are playing with people that you may not feel aligned with. Of course, it’s when you are NOT innately completely delighted or on the same page that these concepts can be most important. That said, “delight your partner” does not mean abdicate responsibility for yourself and the scene. And “yes, and” does not mean agreeing to enact whatever your partner “makes” you do. Here are some thoughts on engaging with a partner who consistently makes you feel uncomfortable on stage.
1. Claim your power.
Remember that “yes, and” still leaves infinite possibilities. The foundational principle of “yes, and” requires improvisers to accept and build with what has been created. Because there is no script or pre-planned activity in improv, when we ditch the “yes, and” principle, we are left adrift and scenes degenerate into arguments or confusion. If my partner enters the scene and says, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” I’d better accept that there is a “honey,” and this is his “home.” But the “yes, and” principle still leaves a huge number of WAYS of accepting and building. Laura Livingston used to say it this way: There is an infinite number of numbers 1, 2, 3…, but there is also an infinite number of numbers between 1 and 2. So once the context is set, you are not obligated to accept and build in one particular way—even if you believe it is what your partner was expecting. You are simply obligated to accept and build somehow.
Let’s take the example above. Here are some potential responses that fulfill the improviser’s obligation to “yes, and.”
- Oh, Honey! It’s so good to see you! Give me a hug.
- Hello, George. The cat isn’t here. I gave him away. Maybe now you’ll pay some attention to me.
- Don’t come any closer! I have a restraining order, Frank.
- Ah, Lord Crumpet. We weren’t expecting you till next week.
Each of these responses builds on what was given and still gives the responding improviser influence over what kind of scene and character they are playing. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel awkward without your consent.
2. Focus on your own growth edge.
Identify what feels uncomfortable or awkward to you. This is not the same for everyone. Some improvisers love doing romantic scenes, some love violence, some love being put on the spot to come up with clever rhymes. Some improvisers love realistic scenes, others love surreal, stream-of-consciousness ones. All those preferences are fine. As artists we should embrace our personal “vein of gold”—the place where we feel delighted and that we shine. AND, part of the discipline of improv is stretching ourselves. The more we are able to expand our range of options on stage, the more powerful and artistic we can be. The great Dion Flynn says that when you get that uncomfortable, butterfly feeling, you should train yourself to move toward it. That’s where the real creativity is.
Ask yourself: Why does this situation make me uncomfortable? What would be possible for me if I “went into the cave” —moved toward what makes me uncomfortable—rather than away from it? What censors/judgments/limits could I conquer by going wherever my partner wants to go?
3. Connect off stage.
One of the glorious things about improv is that it is an act of faith. We come together in a high-pressure (if not actually high-stakes) situation and say, “Together we will create something. Just you and me with no net.” When it’s working, nothing is better. And this act, like any other intimate, collaborative act, requires trust and communication. If you have a partner who is constantly doing the opposite of delighting you and making you feel safe, you might consider talking about it outside of performance. The conversation doesn’t have to be about blame, just a simple sharing of, “Here’s what delights me,” or “I notice we do a lot of scenes about ________. I’d love to try something different.” Or “I’m working on playing characters who ____________. Would you help me by not always labeling me as the vixen?” If those conversations don’t work, perhaps even a more straightforward, “It makes me uncomfortable to play scenes in which we_____________. Could we agree to not do that for a while?”
In summary, feeling comfortable on stage is not always the goal. But having a collaborative, trusting relationship with your colleagues is. So, take responsibility for creating options, stretch yourself and be willing to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and talk about the work with your partners, rather than talking about them.
Got an improv-related question? Don’t know where to turn for answers? Ask Kat & Michael!