If you’re making everyone happy in comedy, you’re not doing comedy right.
When I was starting out in Chicago theater, I was fortunate to work with some of the city’s more renowned and well-respected actors. I remember two striking exchanges with these actors, which changed my view of them–or at least how I viewed myself in relation to their amazing talent.
One actor I understudied is a joy to watch in any play. He consistently works around town performing drama and comedies, classical works and contemporary plays, Shakespeare and musicals. He’s an award-winning actor who can do it all. If I hadn’t made it clear by now, I greatly admired him and hoped to be like him one day.
Once, I mentioned to him something that happened during a Second City class I was teaching.
He asked, “You do improv?” When I nodded, he gave a little shudder. He shook his head and replied, “I could never do that.” I was stunned.
This man has stood alone on a stage in front of 500 people and commanded their attention as he moved them to tears, and he’s afraid of a little game of Freeze Tag? Yet from his reaction, I could sense how intensely improv filled him with dread.
A later incident provided me with the clarity to understand his fearful reaction. In preparation for performing one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the director arranged a multi-day workshop with Stewart Pearce, whose many professional titles include Resident Master of Voice at Shakespeare’s Globe (tell me you didn’t start to read that in your head with a British accent).
Part of the magic of Stewart’s command of sound is the ability to teach his students how to find their natural, purest voice. We learned how to start our voice in different parts of our body, how to stand and hold our spine in specific ways to support the intent of the text, and how to let our physical reactions naturally create emotion when we spoke. He had us walking like we were swords, leaning against walls with only our neck and head touching, and pushing sound out through our toes and fingers. For me, it was a transformative time which forever changed my acting and, perhaps more importantly, my everyday speaking voice.
Our workshop time with Mr. Pearce ended, and we returned to the regular rehearsal process. During a lunch break, I was sitting with cast members who were all very similar to the gentleman I mentioned earlier–established, successful actors, admired for classical work and musicals. They proceeded to list all of the reasons why they were not going to apply anything taught in the workshop. Their reasons all came back to variations of, “What he taught may be good, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know what works for me.”
These two experiences strike me as two sides of the same coin: not wanting to be uncomfortable. The first actor is a master of the material when he knows what he needs to say, has had time to practice his reactions and can expect his fellow actors to respond precisely as rehearsed. The idea of the unknown frightened him. The group of actors rejected the new vocal techniques that required change–which would create uncertainty–taking them out of their tried-and-true habits. They knew what they knew, and they liked it, by gum!
As improvisors, this coin of uncertainty is the very currency in which we trade. We don’t know what our partners will say next, or how we’ll react, or even when the scene will end. Our partners may bring up subjects that we know nothing about–or topics that elicit deeply felt negative feelings in us. We strive to react purely in the moment, so much so that what we say may be unknown even to us…until after we’ve said it.
Public speaking consistently ranks as one of people’s greatest fears. When researchers have delved into why, they’ve discovered people have irrational, overblown fears of what could happen if they show their fear when speaking. They imagine horrible outcomes including losing their job, having their spouse leave them, or even someone dying. It’s the unknown consequence they fear. Improvisors practice to work through the fear of the unknown and to embrace the possibility of a moment where the outcome isn’t determined. To be clear, we learn through lots and lots of failure. We also discover it’s never as bad as we thought it might be. So improvisors become more comfortable with trying and failing. We become comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of the unknown.
How do you react to situations with unknown results? Are you afraid of all the bad things that could happen? Or do you relish the opportunity to discover new possibilities, even if it results in a gloriously epic failure? Get uncomfortable and try something new. The results will be much better than you imagine.
Jason Ball is a Chicago actor, director and Learning & Organizational Development consultant who began teacing at The Second City Training Center while also working as a professional actor in television and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Lookingglass Theater and the Congo Square Theater, among others. His workshops for Second City Works focus on innovation, communication, teamwork and presentation skills.