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What to do when your team makes dumb choices

A friend called me recently and said he had just had one of the “worst improvisational shows” of his short career. His group was doing a Harold, and before the show the director had specifically instructed them to let the first beat be only two-person scenes, no walk-ons.

Guess what? It was a cluster fuck. They had walk-ons in the first beat and sound effects from the back line that high jacked the scenes. It was as if the group hadn’t heard a thing the director said to them.

The way he described it, it sounded like a real improv shit storm, the type that if you’ve been around a while, you have experienced hundreds of times before and that you’re hoping you never have to experience again.

My friend went on to explain that because his teammates weren’t “doing it right,” he shut down, felt like he couldn’t participate, and then wanted to single handedly get the whole group back on track.

Oh boy, could I relate, both on stage and off. In his story he covered ALL my flaws: the judgment, the superiority, the need to save the rest of the team, and in the process, once again killing the joy and ruining any opportunity to have fun, which is exactly how I live my life.

Judgment is something we all struggle with as improvisers. We’ve all been on stage when someone starts doing or saying something we think is stupid, and we feel frustrated and annoyed with our teammates.

We might not know this, but we’re judging because we feel scared. We often think if we stick to the “rules” and do it the “right way,” we’ll feel safer, not really realizing that there are no rules. In improv, rules are just guidelines, and everyone on stage has a different idea of the right way to improvise. When you judge you separate yourself from your group.

So what do you do when you start judging on stage? Well, first recognize what you are doing and then, second, realize that everything is in divine order, meaning that this is how the show is supposed to go. You can resist what’s happening and judge it, like I often do, or you can find the handle of the rocket ship and let it take you for a ride.

Remember, you are the problem, not them, and it’s your job to find a way back in. Supporting all the initiations, being vigilant about agreement and matching their energy and tone are great ways of re-joining your group.

I used to work with a person in an improv group who would say “No” in a lot in scenes — I mean a flat-out “no” — and yes, I judged the shit out of this person. Yes, it was frustrating, and yes, I wanted to quit. Before one of our shows, a friend gave me the best piece of advice: “Jimmy, you are technically a great improviser. Overly agree to whatever this person says on stage.” I took his advice and it worked and it was fun again.

I have the habit, too, of judging people every time they start doing a silly scene, like ones with kids in it or a crazy premise, because I don’t think that is the “right way to improvise,” which is a made-up rule in my head. But when I join people who are doing silly scenes, I have a ball and it always makes me a better improviser. Playing silly gets me out of my comfort zone, and I say and do things that surprise me.

Carl and the Passions had some of smartest, headiest people, but one time I remember doing a hilarious scene where three of us just stood there talking about someone’s mother. It wasn’t the way I usually play, but it was pure agreement, and we were simply matching each other’s energies, making it one of the most memorable scenes.

Doing those kind of scenes helps me let go of control and gives me permission to have fun, which is something I have been resisting since I was born.

Remember, often you will not realize you are judging other people’s ideas until after the show, like my friend realized when we talking on the phone. The important part is to acknowledge that you were judging their ideas and realize that judging is just part of the learning curve.

I am not saying this easy. I continue to struggle with judging, and I am almost 50, a lot older than most of the people reading this blog, but something tells me if I can overcome this in my improv, it may actually help me in my life

Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the Positive

In our last rehearsal for Jimmy and Johnnie, our coach, Jack Bronis, said to me and John Hildreth that we need to play every show with joy.

I have been improvising for 30 years and I have never played with joy. I have played with angst and fear and pressure on myself, but certainly not joy. I have not done anything in my life with joy.

If you look at the great improvisers — the TJs, the Susan Messings, the Cook County Social Clubs — there is an element of joy in their work. That is why we love to watch them so much. Messing always says when you play in her show, Messing with a Friend, “If you’re not having fun then you are the asshole.” And given that statement, I am often the asshole.

As Jack pointed out in the rehearsal, I do my scenes in “Heavy Sigh.” He’s 100% right. I live my life in “Heavy Sigh.” I know “Heavy Sigh” to me is reality. I am much more of an Eeyore than a Pooh. And how this effects my improv is that I avoid making positive choices in my scenes because I have hard time making them in my life. This is where improv and life cross, and the thought of making the positive choice about something in a scene, like being happy or excited, seems fake. I tell myself, the tortured artist that I am, that it would not be organic if I were happy in a scene, it would not be truthful.

Recently, I had a chance to put this to the test in the most recent episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was the super talented and lovely Katy Colloton from the Katydids. (Check out their web series, Teachers. It’s awesome.) We did a scene where she announced to me that she was pregnant, and I can tell you my natural reaction would be to make the negative choice. “I don’t want it. Let’s get an abortion.” Instead, I decided to choose something different, as fake and uncomfortable as it was. I chose to be excited about her announcement, which led to whole bunch of discoveries about home schooling the kid, what holiday we wanted to have the baby born on, and that having a baby was like a small business.

As the scene went on, I felt more and more comfortable with the emotional choice of excitement. I can tell you now, playing the positive choice opened me up and surprised me and hopefully surprised my partner.

As Jack further pointed out in the rehearsal, you want to “use your whole palate” of emotions, and I tend to just use the dark colors, while I ignore the brighter ones.

I see some of my students need to use some of the darker colors, because they come to me like they are ecstatically happy and unconnected,and I think I am master of getting students to go the darker, more real place. But like in life, we need balance. We need both positive and negative emotions on stage; that is a truthful portrayal of the human experience.

Recently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes said on my feedback form, “I think you’re a closeted optimist, Mr. Carrane. Come Out! Come Out!” I think this student is right. I think the whole Eeyore thing is part of my persona, my schtick, a schtick that is hard to let go off because in my head it held me together. If I wasn’t always negative, who would I be?

My wife, Lauren, disagrees that I don’t have any joy in life. She says I do have joy, I just don’t have words to express it. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m terrified, but she just smiles, knowing deep down I’m excited.

Where I go from here in my improv and in my life I do not know. The only thing is I know is today I am aware of it, and with that knowledge, I have a chance to change.