Written by Shawn Westfall, The Get Real Project’s Improv Guru
Failure is Quantifiable and Predictable
I’ve been teaching improv for the last nine years, and performing it for the last fifteen. In that time, I’ve watched and been involved in a lot of improv scenes. Some were the products of my students, some the products of my friends and colleagues, and some were my own. Some scenes succeeded; others failed.
Why does one improv scene result in peals of audience laughter, while another results in silence? The uninitiated watching it might find that a difficult question to answer, and fall back on something like “well, it simply wasn’t funny.” But in my experience, there actually are quantifiable and predictable reasons for scenes not succeeding. Primarily, they are:
1. Lack of focus
2. Lack of commitment
3. Lack of energy
If you’re already thinking that each of the above is implicated in the others, you’re right.
And if you’re thinking that the presence of focus, commitment, and energy corresponds with resiliency, you’re right about that too.
Second-Guessing Impedes Success
Starting an improv scene can be daunting, especially to inexperienced, novice performers: “What do I do? What choice do I make? There are multitudes of options..” And indeed there are. And since improv performers are trained to choose, they do: they reach up and mime taking a glass out of the cabinet. They say to their scene partner, “hurry up, we’re late for the party.” They begin strumming an imaginary guitar.
All fantastic choices. All with unlimited potential to be turned into something successful and entertaining.
But then what happens? They end up second-guessing their own choices.
They don’t think it’s good enough. Or funny enough. So they begin throwing more choices into the scene , by turns forgetting the initial one: the “getting-a-glass” choice gets forgotten for a dozen other items. Their offer of “hurry up” gets thrown to the side for a choice that negates it, confusing the internal logic of the scene (improv performer: “Let’s sit down and watch this movie…”; audience, to themselves, confused: “I thought you were in a hurry?”). The choice to strum a guitar turns into a scene about baseball (audience again to themselves: “What happened to the guitar?”). Because of a lack of commitment, the scene begins losing focus, since there’s so much information floating around. What’s more, the scene loses energy, because the actors are confused about what to do or where to go.
And, by extension: the audience lacks focus, commitment to its outcome, and energy.
We’re Resilient When We Stand for Something
Successful improv scenes are like successful novels, movies, plays, sitcoms: they’re about one thing, and one thing only. The characters in them usually have one goal in mind (getting the girl/guy; remaining standing at the end of a boxing match; taking that balloon ride you’ve been meaning to take your entire life). The second they begin losing that focus, digressing from the story, confusion sets in.
Successful improv scenes are like successful novels, movies, plays, sitcoms: they’re about one thing, and one thing only.
What would have happened had the actor who made that wonderful choice at the top of the scene had been more resilient, had instead believed in the choice he or she initially made, and held on to it? What if he had found ways to flex and adapt within his choice, without losing his focus?
While it’s certainly no guarantee of resulting in humor, there is a guarantee that a scene will not be funny when the audience is muddled. Actors who trust—themselves, the audience, and the moment to coalesce into brilliant improv—are by far the most successful. Audiences are very generous when it comes to contexts, and they will graciously follow a scene until something funny comes along. With resiliency, invariably, it will.
Actors who trust—themselves, the audience, and the moment to coalesce into brilliant improv—are by far the most successful.
What Works on Stage Works at the Office
Focus. Commitment. Energy. They are just as important to organizations as they are to improv scenes. Try to do too much, and your customers get confused. Give into doubts about your choices your stakeholders quickly follow suit. Be fragmented, rather than flexible, and the system loses steam, because everyone’s confused about what to do and where to go.
Focus. Commitment. Energy. They are just as important to organizations as they are to improv scenes.
On the other hand, choose courageously from myriad options, then stay true to your goal, and clarity prevails. Stand by the courage of your convictions and confidence grows. Flex within the pillars of purpose, values, and strategic goals, and energy builds.
Trust your audience to be generous and to follow you until the results prove out.
With resiliency, invariably, they will.
Find out more about Shawn.