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Glued to the Back Line in Improv Scenes

We have all been that person stuck on the back line during an improv show terrified to step out and do a scene. We stand there, unable to move our bodies. We’re paralyzed, convinced we have been crazy-glued to the back wall, and we only become unstuck when the show is over.

Sometimes we are lucky and the Improv Gods smile on us, and one of our noble teammates peels us off the back wall, throwing us into a scene, like a lobster into a boiling pot of water.

But the question is, is it helpful to pull a reluctant teammate into a scene or is this co-dependent?

In one of my recent Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv classes, one of the students was grabbing people who were stuck on the back line and doing scenes with them. Then later, we had a thoughtful discussion about whether that was a good idea or not.

So I called my friend, Dan Bakkedahl, a master improviser and wonderful actor, and someone I admire very much, and asked his thoughts. Dan said a cast member, Jim Zulivic, pulled him into a scene when he was playing his first improv set on Second City’s Main Stage.

“(I thought), Oh my God, what is he doing?” Dan said. “Even though I was frightened, he did me a big favor.”

Dan then went on to tell me about a Harold team that he was on where they were encouraged to pull people into improv scenes if they were hanging back on the back line. After a while the team stopped that because it wasn’t working for the team anymore.

I was always very appreciative when people pulled me into improv scenes when I was starting out, and I like to pull others in as well. But I am also super co-dependent, and when you spend too much time focusing on others, you ruin your chance of getting better yourself. Improv is about give and take. Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in your group, you also don’t want to always take on the role of the rescuer.

In class, a student asked me how I changed from being scared and standing on the back wall to getting out into improv scenes. For me, I started jumping into scenes when I got sick and tired of not getting out there. It was the pain of feeling shitty after the show that gave me the courage to change, and you don’t ever want to take that away from someone, because I needed to bottom out on that to get where I am today.

So, ultimately, how you decide whether to pull someone into a scene or let them sweat it out on the back line is all about balance. Sometimes we have to help our teammates, and sometimes we need to let them help themselves. Good luck experimenting and finding the balance that works for you. I would love to get your thoughts on this subject, so please let me know.