We discussed the first rule of improv in our post “Always Say Yes…” Now it’s time to move on to the second rule of improv which is “Always Make Your Partner Look Good.”
There’s a reason that public speaking always ranks so high on surveys of people’s fears. It’s scary. Putting yourself out there in front of a crowd with the spotlight shining solely on you can be very intimidating, and if you’re attempting to add a bit of humor into the mix and your opening salvo goes over like a lead balloon, it’s likely to become a disaster of Hindenburg proportions… and that’s with a scripted speech that you’ve probably rehearsed several times over.
Imagine now going on the stage without a net – no script – just you and your scene partner. It’s only human to be a little nervous, and perhaps a bit self-focused. “What am I going to say next?” “Are they going to laugh at me, for the right reasons?” “Are they going to hate me?” Unfortunately, while all these thoughts are running through your head, you just missed the fact that your partner established the scene by pantomiming building a campfire and asked you if you wanted marshmallows. Now he’s looking at you, and sadly, you have nothing to add to the scene but a blank stare. Hello, disaster.
That’s why the second rule of improv is what it is. By not focusing on yourself, but on your partner, you’re sure to stay attuned to what is actually being done and said on stage, as opposed to lost in thought about the infinite possibilities of what might come. But the rule is more than just “look at your partner” – it’s “make your partner look good.” That also means not stealing the spotlight at the expense of the narrative, or throwing them under the bus for the sake of a quick laugh.
How many times have you seen a “me-first glory-hound” completely steamroll their way through a scene, dictating everybody’s words and actions and hogging center stage? Sure, it may work on occasion, but more often than not, it’s no fun for the actors and even less fun for the audience. My favorite (or should I say, least favorite)example of this kind of behavior comes during an improv rhyming game, where the two actors are tasked with setting each other up for the next line (or lines) of dialogue. Here’s an example of what I mean:
A: Come here my brother, and look at the view.
B: I’ll be right there brother, I’m tying my shoe.
A: Hurry! You’ll miss it! An incredible sight!
A giant gorilla with stripes that are white!
B: My god! And behind him... __________.
Now at this point, B has an infinite number of possible choices with which to fill that blank. And since the goal is to make his partner look good, he should set him up for an easy rhyme…
B: My god! And behind him... swinging from that blimp...
As A has just referenced a gorilla, he should have no problem coming up with a line ending in the word “chimp,” which will likely impress the crowd no end. But an actor who isn’t thinking about his partner may hook onto the white stripes and utter the following phrase…
B: My god! And behind him... with stripes that are orange...
Now what is A supposed to do? B should have been focused on making his partner look good, but instead he has given him a near impossible task and the scene might not ever recover from it.
Part of building trust with your fellow improvisers is to set them up for success and not for failure. If you know you’re doing a scene with an incredible singer, then you can “pimp” them in the middle of a scene…
A: Grandma, do you still dream about Grandpa?
B: Oh, yes. I remember everything about him.
A: Can you sing me that song he always used to sing? Please? You know, the one about the war?
Now, when B pulls it off, the audience will go nuts. Everybody wins.
And yet still, there will be performers who simply don’t get it, and never will. Such as the time I watched in horror as one improviser “pimped” the other to do some jumping jacks, when he knew full well that the performer in question had come into the theatre that night on crutches… at least he should have known if was paying attention to anyone besides himself. And to her credit, she did the calisthenics without complaint, and thankfully, without doing any permanent damage to her knee.
As for the improviser in question? Let’s just say that from that scene forward, as far as the company was concerned, he didn’t have a leg to stand on.