When we talk about failure in improv, we’re often talking about missing information; for example, misnaming a character or making a story choice that goes against something that was said before. When we’re new to improv it can feel like blanking or doing something ‘too weird’. We play a lot of games and run exercises in class to make students ‘comfortable with failure’ to allow a larger comfort zone and tolerance of mistakes and miscommunications, to harness errors and to make them part of the tilt or fabric of the reality.
I’ve been doing this a long time, but clangers can still feel bad; after all, the Patriarchy says I should only things it if I’m perfect and indeed if I’m better than the boys. I’m also aware that failures can be the exciting bit, the bit where the magic happens. At the point I mess up, the show gets more interesting. It’s stopped following the train tracks, it’s not prescribed or predictable. My failure has created a place where someone (including me) can take this new information and steer the scene according to a new truth. It’s the place where improvisation justifies itself as an art form. We all know that failure is inevitable in any creative enterprise. The more we fail in fact, the better an outcome we get; iterations give us solutions.
So why does it sometimes feel great and sometimes feel awful? I think that’s all in the reaction to the moment. Firstly, there’s our own reaction; if we broadcast that it’s a mistake with our facial expression, body language or speech, it’s going to be taken as one. That’s commitment 101. Sell every line, every idea like they are excellent. Secondly there is the moment that comes after. Our mistakes can either be embraced, or met with rejection.
“If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.” – Miles Davis
I personally never loved games or scenes where students are jokingly told ‘that was shit, get off’ or where there’s an elimination or punishment aspect (unless it’s self-policed, then I’m okay with it). Particularly for women, perfectionism is so strongly baked into us by society that to mess up a silly warm up game can feel like the end of the world if we are being shamed for it. If the failure is celebrated and embraced as an achievement, that puts me in a much better headspace for risk taking.
If the whole jazz band suddenly stop playing and look at you like you’re dogshit, that’s how rejection feels. As Brené Brown tells us, it’s a human need to belong, not just to fit in.
I’ve certainly experienced my failures being both embraced and rejected in improvisation.
I was playing in a teacher show at an (amazing) improv festival. It was getting crazy and I came in with a weird chef character that was a big choice; I was hoping to solve a problem in the scene. One of the other players said “And I have to yes-and that?”. It got a big laugh. It was certainly a way of releasing the crazy tension in the scene. For me – I felt awful and didn’t really make it back on the stage much for the rest of the show. I felt shamed and exposed; I had been told by a well-known improviser and in front of my students and community that my offer (and therefore my improv) was terrible. I don’t bear the improviser any malice, but it is a useful illustration of how rejection influences play.
In contrast, I have a very fond memory of playing in The Improvised Star Trek Podcast that ran for 5+ years and shared some of the cast of the more famous The Magic Tavern Podcast. I was worried about remembering all the names, titles and circumstances of years of backstory. I decided to play a lowly cleaner on the ship so that I wouldn’t have to ‘know’ all of these facts as my character. Rather than let me play in the background for the whole show, the other characters all decided to change jobs and to promote me to captain. Every offer I made felt golden and I had the time of my life. When the offers you receive are fun and generous, all you want to do is be generous back!
I wonder if ‘get off, you’re shit’ rejection is a British Old Boys’ Club embracing of toxic masculinity. It is certainly reflected in some Clown training too. See this great article on Via Negativa. Casual bullying and name-calling was always part of the fabric of my education in school and symptomatic of a society that ranks individuals, breeding a culture that believed tearing another down was the way to rise to the top (whatever the top fucking means).
Perhaps the reason I was so thrilled to learn IO Chicago’s ensemble style was because I wanted to fail with joy and not rejection. To belong, not to filter my behaviour to fit in, to feel like every offer was a gift, not to be judged, but to be embraced.
How do we cultivate a joy over rejection model of improvisation?
Build up trust and be kind before every rehearsal, workshop and show. Make sure that you have exchanged boundaries and foundries (things that fire you up with joy) and warmed up or at least gotten on the same page. People are less likely to throw you under the bus if they trust that you have their back and if they like you.
If you felt rejected or shamed in a show, talk to the person who made the rejection move. They were likely in a fear place and telling them how you felt might change their future choices. Remember not to shame them for their choice, just tell them the story you’re telling yourself about that moment. This is how we grow understanding instead of resentment.
Ideally you’ll be playing with a group that knows how to play that sweet next note, but if not, you need to support your own failure, even if no one else on stage does. If the rest of the band are looking at you like dogshit, play your own kick-ass solo. Repeat the thing you did until it’s a running joke, or elegantly justify it being there. If you get a name wrong once, be a character who gets names wrong. If you made a story move that didn’t make sense, hold onto it and fold it into a clever plot twist at the end. The writer put it there, so there must be a reason.
Remember how you can bring the joy for other people; make their mistakes feel golden. Try not shame others by throwing them under the bus. Justify those tilts so that they are the one note that makes the song.