Humility = Teachability


Timmy Mayse Improv NerdIf you want to be a better improviser, humility is an important part of the process. Not fake humility, like that bullshit that people say when they are given a compliment after a show, like, “Oh, I am not that good,” or “You think I am good, you should see Billy so-and-so; he’s really good.”
I once heard the best definition of humility: Humility is being teachable. Sometimes it’s hard to be teachable, especially if your ego gets in the way when you get a note, or if you start getting defensive or making excuses for yourself when you get feedback.
And if you’re like me and you’ve been doing improv a long time, you can forget that you haven’t learned everything about it.
Last Saturday I was in rehearsal with John Hildreth, and we had asked Jack Bronis to coach us. Bronis told us that we both “improvise from our heads.” To shake us up, he wanted us to enter our scenes with a strong emotion and then be open to the emotion evolving during the scene.
At first, I felt defensive. In all my years of training, I thought you weren’t “supposed” to come into a scene with a preconceived emotion. For at least the last 25 years I have been entering a scene completely blank, watching and listening to my partner for some sort clue as to who we are to each other and what is going on between us. This is also something I teach my students, especially the ones who really need to connect with their partner or who have a head like a piñata filled with plot.
So when Jack said I should come in with an emotion, part me felt like a fraud and part of me felt relieved.
That afternoon, John and I experimented with entering scenes with a strong emotion, or a secret, or something we needed to reveal to the other character ― for the most part, emotional-based choices. As we continued to improvise scene after scene, we started to express more emotions on stage, and it was starting feel fun again.
Expressing my emotions freed me up, and choices were flowing to me. The game seemed to just appear effortlessly, and the joy slowly began coming back. The best part was it was easy. I know that when improv is easy, that means it’s working, and when it’s not, it’s like you’re “FLOP sweating” all over the stage.
The next night, Timmy Mayse was my guest on Improv Nerd, and we got an audience suggestion of “egg” for the improv portion of the show. Before we started our scene, I asked Timmy how he uses a suggestion to build a scene. He explained that he tries to figure out how the suggestion makes him feel and thinks of a character it embodies.
For example, he said egg made him think of housewife, and housewife made him think of critical. So he knew he was going to be critical housewife when he entered the top of the scene.
He took the suggestion and went from just playing a character to playing a character with a strong emotion. We didn’t know who we were to each other or what was going on between each other ― that’s what we were going to discover together.
Using Timmy’s method, I broke egg down to “walking on egg shells.” So, I entered the scene knowing I didn’t want to upset Timmy’s character. We didn’t know our relationship at the beginning, but we quickly discovered we were mother and son, and it was clear through the emotional tone that I had done something wrong, which led me to reveal that I had gotten a girl pregnant. Timmy’s reaction to me “dropping that bomb” led me to believe that my father was someone else, and Timmy revealed that it was either Ronald Regan or the Unibomber.
The scene was great, and after 25 years, I felt like I was learning again.
In improv, the joy lies in the surprise ― surprising myself and my partner ― and that scene helped me get back in touch with what it was like when I first took my first class almost 30 years ago. I hope I continue to stay humble.