Vulnerability in Improv

Some things are of that nature as to make
One's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache.
-John Bunyan

Vulnerability probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind when you think of improv. Certainly a great appeal for improv audiences is vicarious vulnerability—"I'm sure glad that's not me up there." But for performers and students, how much thought is given to vulnerability?

For many of us, our sense of humor and our desire to perform serve as defense mechanisms of sorts. We love to do improv and we love to entertain people, but the genesis of these urges may go back to elementary school or earlier. You know, "Hey, I'm not cool, but I can make the cool people laugh," or, "Maybe if I crack up the bully he won't kick my ass," or, "My little sister sure is cute, how will I get Mom to keep loving me?" A lot of that is fodder for therapy and that's not really where I want to go here. For one thing there's the malpractice insurance.

Whatever the reasons, we often lose sight of the value of vulnerability. We are often steeled to our audiences. We can be unwilling to explore deep feelings because we don't think they're funny. Well, Sartre said "Comedy is pain" (not that I'd recommend "Being and Nothingness" for chuckles). I say, "Comedy is caring." Caring about something—the opposite of indifference—means that you are vulnerable. This can be painful.

Vulnerability lends depth, power and integrity to improvisational theater. These are things that make for good theater. Good theater is interesting to watch. An interested audience is going to be attentive and responsive, delighted at the things you and your comrades discover by being open and vulnerable—rather than closing the gates of your minds and hearts and focusing on inventing funny things.

Or, as I tell Transactors, "We're trying to be good, not funny. If we do a good scene, it'll probably be funny. But if it's not, it'll still be a good scene."

Okay, that's all well and good and some of you are already hip to vulnerability anyway. How do you get there with your company and your students? I don't have it down to a science, but experience and good teachers have taught me some things that you may already know too. It may help to put "Try to" in front of the following suggestions.

  • Promote a sense of fun and non-competitiveness with silly kids' games during class sessions and rehearsals and before shows. Tag is fun. Ball is fun. Fun is good.

  • When teaching, learn students' names and make sure you (and they) use them.

  • Do a 'check-in' before each class and rehearsal sessions and shows. Each participant takes a turn and talks about how and what s/he is doing. Everyone gets a chance to speak and no interrupting is allowed. Questions may be asked when the speaker is finished. Check-in also helps you all to know how each other is feeling and inspiring stuff may arise.

  • Emphasize that participants use their current emotional state, rather than feeling compelled to feel a certain way (revved-up, happy, wacky) to do good improv.

  • Employ Paul Sills' "Explore and Heighten" side-coaching to make participants aware of what they're doing, which also generally results in entertaining scenes and thus organically successful experiences for participants.

  • Use a lot of positive reinforcement, praising impulses as well as successful results.

  • Emphasize that success is subjective; that the work is not about being funny, but about "being you." (I wish there were a less New Age-y way of putting that.) Almost every student and actor is obsessed with being funny and thinks there is some standard for what is funny. This takes them out of exploring what is meaningful, interesting and, usually, truly comedic.

  • Stress that this way of doing improv is about collective exploration rather than individual invention

  • Ask students and actors lots of questions about their experiences during class and rehearsal sessions. You may want to point out that it is a learning experience for you too. If you can't say that honestly, try to figure out the reason.

  • Invite and listen to your actors' and students' input.

  • Invite company members to take turns leading rehearsals or directing shows or projects.

  • Give sensitive, specific, positive, honest and non-qualitative assessment of participants' work.

  • Be patient and enthusiastic.

    One final note about all this. If you've ever wondered why there aren't more women in improv, one of the reasons is certainly that most companies are run under a 'male' paradigm. I played on football teams that were more open and supportive than some of the improv groups I've experienced.

    At the risk of sounding sexist, one of the primary general differences between men and women is that men tend to avoid being vulnerable and women tend to indulge it. If you're having trouble integrating women into your work, maybe your way of working is—unwittingly or not—male-biased, by which I mean excessively hierarchical, competitive and rules-based. Think about it.

    For years we've said Transactors Improv is "A Love Thing." Sometimes it has been and sometimes it hasn't, but we're dedicated to trying to make it that as much as we can. We believe our success depends upon it.

    -Greg Hohn, Director