Thoughts on Improv as a Workplace

I’m going through old posts on an old blog, and posting some of them over here. This post is originally from 2005, but I feel exactly the same now as I did then.

People join improv groups for a variety of reasons, from honing their improv skills to just plain having fun. Depending on their experience level, these people have vastly different expectations of how an improv group runs. But one thing seems to be clear — the less an improv group is run in a businesslike fashion, the less successful it will be.

Directors: Every workplace needs a boss. The boss of the show, the director, is one of the most important parts of any show or group. The director knows how the show should look and sound, and can guide the players so that their performances match up with the goals of the show. A group without a clear director is also one without clear direction. A prime example is a group that forms from a group of friends who took an improv class together (which happens more frequently than you’d think). All they know is that they enjoy improv, and they enjoy improvising together. But without someone specific set as director, eventually people set their sights on different goals. A group I used to be in finally reached a stalemate when there were three different ideas about which way the group should grow, and roughly even numbers of people in each camp. Without a director to choose the way, the group fell apart.

A director, like any boss, has a huge level of responsibility and at times is spinning many figurative plates. They try to strike a balance between keeping everyone happy and keeping the show as good as they possibly can. Sometimes those two things fall out of balance — many times a boss has to make an unpopular decision because it’s what is best for the company. But it can be so much harder if the employees of that company don’t consider themselves as such.

Notes: The main way a director can guide his players is through notes, whether those notes come during/after rehearsals or after performances. It’s like getting tiny workplace performance reviews throughout the year, instead of one big yearly review (though a full yearly review can happen as well). But notes can be a huge source of contention for the performers who don’t view their show or group as a proper workplace, but merely an outlet for them to have fun.

There was once a player who didn’t do very much in the way of teamwork or scene building, instead preferring to interrupt scenes with puns and jokes in order to make himself look funny to the audience. When he would be given notes on the subject, he would blatantly ignore them, wave them off, or even argue them with the director. Fortunately, he’s moved on to other things, but his attitude is one seen more frequently than a director would like. The performer doesn’t see these notes as an effort to improve the quality of the show; instead, they see it as a “jealous” director trying to stop them from getting so many laughs. The thought that they’re making the job harder for everyone else doesn’t cross their mind — they’re only concerned with having fun. But how is that acceptable in a workplace? Picture this guy in an office, spending his time making paper airplanes instead of working on a group project. Yes, he’s having a great time, but he’s hurting everyone else working on that group project, and without his fair contribution, the quality of the project just isn’t as good.

Notes can be very a very touchy subject, because a note can be very close to a personal affront. It’s criticism of the choices we make and the things we say on the spur of the moment. But good notes can help us build a foundation of knowledge so that we make better choices in the future. This is also why notes should be given by one or two experienced observers or directors — group notes sessions are almost always a bad idea. Most players don’t like being given notes by other players, especially if there is an experience gap. A young, new player’s note may be perfectly valid, but it still won’t be taken well by a seasoned player with many more years of experience. This is again where a good director comes in — so you can discuss any notes you may want to give with them, and find out where they stand. If that note is about another player, talking to the director about it privately and having the director address the note will give it much more impact and validity. Notes are best if they simply lay out exactly what the show’s direction is, from the mouth of a director.

Ideas: Every improviser has, at one point, come up with a great idea for their group. Maybe it’s a new show, or a new angle on an existing show. There’s nothing wrong with having great ideas — the problem is when those great ideas aren’t accepted the way the improviser would like. Too many times, I’ve seen someone propose an idea to a director. After some thought, the director has to decline the idea, because it doesn’t fit with the direction of the group/show. The improviser who understands that the group is a functioning workplace can understand that their boss has the final say, and while it’s disappointing to have their idea struck down, the director knows what is best for their show. But the improviser who’s in it for the fun, and who thinks that everyone should be on an equal footing, is crushed. They’ll openly criticize the director for not “getting” the idea, or for being jealous of the performer’s talent, or for any number of other reasons. I’ve also seen examples of these people trying to work their ideas into a show anyway, because they think they know what’s best for the show. Who would do that in a workplace?

Imagine a Blockbuster Video employee suggesting to their manager that BBV should start serving hot popcorn to the customers. The manager considers it, then lets the employee know that it would be too much mess and expense to implement the idea. Now, picture the employee complaining to all the other employees about what an asshole the boss is, and how the boss wouldn’t know a great idea if it dropped on their head, and that the boss is clearly just jealous that they didn’t come up with the great idea. Picture that employee bringing in a popcorn machine and starting in on their idea anyway. Sounds like a good way to be fired, right? So what makes it OK in an improv group?

When someone has their idea turned down and complains about it, there’s a common response: “Then why don’t you start your own group?” Almost always, the complainer will hem and/or haw, and say something along the lines of, “Well, it’s not that big a deal,” even though from their level of complaining, you can tell it is indeed a big deal to them. They don’t want to answer honestly, because deep down they understand how much work goes into leading and running a group or show, and they don’t want to put in that much work. It’d be like telling that video store employee to go ahead and start up his own place, Popcorn Video, where all customers are given popcorn. Naturally, he doesn’t want to start at the bottom with no customers and no inventory, and work his way up — it’s so much easier to try and change the established business.

Friends: Because the work itself is fun, and the atmosphere in which the work is performed is fun, a lot of performers fall into the mistaken idea that the other performers are not coworkers so much as friends. Some people seem to be absolutely convinced that every single other player is their friend. Yes, some friendships may form among players. But there is nothing magical about being in an improv group that automatically makes everyone good buddies. You wouldn’t expect to be friends with everyone at an office job or a retail job — in fact, you’d probably expect to dislike at least one or two people. It’s an assumption that can cause a lot of hurt feelings. If you’re having a gathering of some sort and only want to invite your actual friends, you have to be prepared for the fact that other improvisers will be upset that they weren’t invited. Never mind that you have nothing in common with them, have never spent time outside of rehearsals or shows with them, or don’t even know anything about them other than their name. Many moons ago, when I was in a different group, my roommate and I held a housewarming party. I invited probably half the improv group — the ones who I considered friends. One of them brought another improviser with them — a man whom I couldn’t stand. They rationalized that if one group member was invited, all group members were invited, and that this guy’s invitation was lost in the mail. It’s unfair to all parties involved.

Yes, some friendly people will invite everyone to everything. But you wouldn’t expect someone working in the same office, whom you’ve never done anything social with and who might not know anything about you, to invite you to their wedding/garden party/birthday.

Bottom Line: If you make the mistake of thinking of an improv group as just being a fun gathering of friends, and not as the money-making workplace that it is, you’re just setting yourself up for unhappiness. The group/show has a goal. That goal is not to let you have fun, or give you an outlet from your boring workaday life, or instantly give you an awesome circle of friends . . . even though all of those things most certainly can happen. No, the main goal of the group/show is to make money, so they can continue producing more shows. The director is not there to be your friend, though they certainly may be such. The director’s main goal is to do what’s best for the show, even if it means making decisions that are unpopular with some of the players. Their job is not to offer you the fulfillment you seek — it’s to give a paying audience the best possible show they can. And performers should have the same goal.