Vulnerability in ImprovSome things are of that nature as to make
One's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache.
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.
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