The First Thought: Part III – Scene Work Makes the Teamwork

RISE Comedy - Denver Improv Comedy Bar & Theater - Improv Comedy Classes

“Together – one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

Clergyman Edward Everett Hale, Address to President Warren G. Harding

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have people like me as a member.”

Julius “Groucho” Marx, Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills


Hi, you. Thanks for coming back. In my previous posts I’ve mentioned how improv is almost always community-building. That’s the point I want to touch on this afternoon as well as friendships within creative spheres.


I’ll preface this by mentioning, I’m no expert in emotional intimacy. I have dealt with trust issues and problems with depression for a while now. My friendships tend to get to the point of riffing with each other and enjoying shared interests and plateauing there. This is all to say that I may not be the best at outlining the layers of social minutiae[note]A buncha fancy college words will hide my insecurities![/note] that are involved in developing friendships and creative partnerships.


ANYWHO… Aside from solo or actively antagonistic shows[note]I’ve heard of both being performed and the possibility of performing in one scares the crap out of me. [/note], improv performance is a team effort. Learning to support people in scenes is one of the basic skills you start to learn in improv. Even my hedge wizard improv school of a LARP camp focused on Going With the Flow and Making Your Partner Look Good. Because of this, unlike solo creative pursuits like stand-up or writing, improv practice necessitates team building.


Some team building comes naturally, especially if you go through improv class levels with a group. Over the weeks of the class, you begin to get a feel for what sort of jokes people will come up with. You learn who jumps into scenes to support before having a thought in their head of how they will. Who stays back but when they do come out know exactly what they want the scene to be. Who’s good at telegraphing where they want to go. Who likes physical humor. Who likes complex wordplay. Who likes reference humor[note]But seriously, folks, who does? Am I right?[/note]. And a whole gamut of personalities, quirks, tastes, and histories that come with interacting with a group of people for three hours each week. But all that would be possible with any comedic, repeated group activity.


There are a two things that I think incentivise team building and friendships in improv comedy. First and foremost is a point I touched on last post and one I do not believe can be overstated: the importance of humiliating yourself and looking entirely ridiculous through comedic performance. Not all comedy is humiliating but you can humiliate yourself for comedic effect. And early level improv games have this sort of built into them. No one can tell me games like Whoosh[note]Or as you may know it Dukes of Hazzard or some other themed variation.[/note] and Musical Hotspot are not intentionally humiliating. And because they are group, co-operative games everyone has the same things at stake. That way, when you do end up looking ridiculous, people don’t laugh at you so much as they are in on the joke[note]At least this is the case for most non-humorless barbarians[/note].


This is a byproduct of the intent of the games (teaching shared focus in a group and listening) but an important one. It allows for a sort of no-stakes vulnerability. You see me run around like a ninny holding a pretend skirt up, I watch you forget the lyrics to Billie Jean one verse in. We both saw each other do something a bit silly and potentially embarrassing but we still supported each other. Now we can trust each other to do that over and over again. Even in front of an audience. And, occasionally, with the right people, outside of the whole realm of performance[note]Yeah! IRL as the kids say.[/note].


The second thing that I believe sets improv class apart from similar group activities is trust exercises. I’ve experienced my share of them[note]Yeap, you guessed it, LARP camp again.[/note] but I had not participated in one that was as simple and powerful as a puja circle until my first improv class at the Voodoo. You may already know what a puja circle is or you have read about it in a recent article about the Voodoo. For the uninitiated, to create a puja circle you organize a group so that half of the people are in an outer circle staring at the other half in an inner circle. I do mean staring. To participate in the exercise you must look your partner in the opposite circle directly in the eyes and not break eye contact. But first your instructor will have everyone close their eyes and explain the exercise: In a moment you will open your eyes and one of the circles will be given a prompt; while maintaining eye contact with their partner they will talk about that prompt for one minute. Then your instructor will say something like “When I say ‘go’ open your eyes and outer circle, talk about your deepest fears and regrets.”


Or at least that’s what it sounds like they said. The maintained eye contact forces a personal closeness and vulnerability that makes anything Outer Circle says deeply personal. Typically the prompts are actually  closer to “Whatever comes to mind when I say ‘Family’” or ‘Friends’ or  ‘Work’. They seem intentionally vague so participants can fill them up with whatever they’d like. Sometimes this is some recent event in your life that bursts out of you like a geyser you’re so excited to talk about it. Other times the only thing you can fill the silence with is a river of unpleasant memories that are dredged up by the prompt. Such is life.


I have said how close and personal being in the Outer Circle feels but put yourself in the shoes of the Inner Circle for a moment, reader. You are making direct eye contact with a relative stranger, who you just saw throwing around an imaginary chicken, and they are sharing something with you that feels… personal. And all you can do is listen, intently. Think about the bond that is formed there. Or the one that is formed when, inevitably, the roles reverse. The Inner Circle speaks on their prompt and Outer listens. And then one of the circles rotates and you start the whole process over again with someone new. This exercise and those like it serve a purpose in improv class: they build a network of vulnerability and trust that lends itself to supporting one another. Also, you learn who on your team is sensitive to which topics.


From what I have said about these practices it is not surprising that friendships can start to form. Maybe you all participate in a shared hobby, or you just really like each other’s sense of humor, or you share some emotional bond. Or maybe you just go out to eat with a few people after class. Whatever the case, being around the same people each week while participating in activities that create trust and engender group support are part of the improv teaching process. It’s necessary for a group performance that the group works together and trusts each other. And that starting ground is a good soil to grow friendship in.


Creative partnerships with friends can be hard. Often, the background of a relationship can make it more difficult to confront the issues that come up in a shared project than ones with a relative strangers. I have seen enough shows go under or change because one partner was not as committed as the other to not be wary about working with friends. But, starting out in a new creative pursuit, it seems inevitable.


Working with friends, especially friends you make in a creative field, is appealing. Typically you have bonded over your similar taste and interests in the subcategories of your creative field. Brainstorming and riffing with someone on the same wavelength as you can be barrels of fun. In workshops at the Voodoo it seems encouraged. I think that if you are fortunate to find someone you trust, someone that shares your taste and ambition and drive that you have the foundation of something spectacular.


Before I end I want to talk about a word that has come up a lot in this harangue: vulnerability. Personally, I developed my sense of humor partly as a defense mechanism. Humor, after all, can be a form of escape or distancing yourself from emotional vulnerability and the intimacy that comes with it. With enough ironic remove you’re not overwhelmingly sad and anxious, you’re just a hilarious cynic[note]Or so I have heard. *Cough cough*[/note]. As someone who came by humor by this road, baby steps are necessary to get out of your shell. So it makes sense to me that the type of vulnerability that improv classes start with is gamified with self-defined stakes. Yes, we do need to get to know and trust each other but first there are rules. Yes you need to be truly emotionally vulnerable in this moment, but you only need to volunteer what you feel comfortable with sharing. Eventually your group builds up a foundation of trust and familiarity made up of, well, not the truest parts of everyone, but the parts everyone is willing to share. It’s not a bond built of the actual deep emotional intimacy that creates lifelong, trauma-overcoming friendships, only the seed of one. Just enough to be comfortable perform together. A community is formed between you and the other players that is voluntary, supportive, and necessary for group performance. And who knows, with that foundation built, perhaps you can build toward actual intimacy. At least you’ve made some new friends.