Playing with your heroes can be daunting, but you can be a little reckless
Like any improviser, I have many heroes. Colin Mochrie, whom I grew up watching… or idols like Susan Messing, Anděl Sudik, Heather Anne Campbell or Patti Stiles. I would have only dreamt of improvising with them.
In the past, this was fantasy. Today, the occurrences are real. One of the greatest thing from online improv is that improvisers of very different experiences could improvise with each other. You, me, or 400 other improvisers (half of the population of the country of Vatican), we have played 10 Minute Scenes with hall-of-famer Jay Sukow. Turns out, the obstacle was NOT that veteran improviser wouldn’t play with juniors. The obstacle was the old currency of mercantilistic improv — stage time — did not allow these free trade interactions to happen. There was little free stage time when you have to pay theatre rentals by the hour. But anyway…
Now that these interactions happen on a more regular basis, I found a new challenge. I suck playing with my idols. Wait, what? How is that?
Why we play badly
When I play with my idols, I freeze up. I do the worst improv ever. The thoughts in my head:
- “I don’t want to mess it up.”
When we do a scene with our idols, we think this is going to be a fragile piece of art. We don’t want to fuck it up. We see our heroes as refined piece of porcelain while we are brutes with a hammer. Let’s not swing the hammer lest it knocks over that “fragile little porcelain” of a scene.
- I start watching.
When my hero is playing I get so dazzled, I become the audience. Sure, when a Stacey Smith starts doing a musical solo piece and spitting bars of fire, I can’t help but have my jaw drop in fascination. I become passive, thinking, “They got this. They don’t need me.” Besides, I can’t step up with the same quality. This happens with me and Brian Palermo (see later).
- I have to prove myself.
I’m playing with my teacher so I make sure I do my theories right. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Oops I didn’t Yes-And my teacher’s offer… two weeks of insomnia of regrets.
Let’s talk chess.
So the reason I thought of this subject, was not from improv, but from chess. In improv it’s not objectively clear when you play well or play badly, but in chess this is all precisely quantified. This article is a major ploy to talk about chess, really.
I’m an avid chess player but I had hit a plateau. In chess, your ELO rating goes up when you win and goes down when you lose, but it also depends on how good your opponent was. Here’s a chart of my rating and pay attention to the plateau from July 5th to August 13th (hovering at around ELO rating 1600*).
*For reference, 1500 is a solid player and 1800 is a very strong player.
I’ve never gone over 1700 in my life. I get anxious when the opponents get bigger. However, a win streak from 8/13/2021 to 8/23/2021 bumped me over 1700 when I wasn’t even paying attention. A Chess.com achievement badge popped out that I am now in the 1700 Bullet club. Surprising! Something had happened. I know why.
This was what happened: I had stopped paying attention to what my opponent’s ratings were. Before, I would check who I am playing at the start of the game. When I played a low-rated player, I made gross moves that can trick them and get a cheap win. When I played a high-rated player I played overly cautious, afraid of making mistakes and the punishment.
But when I stopped paying attention to whom I’m playing with, I play freely. I don’t care whether my opponent would play good or bad. I focus on having fun, every single time. This meant that I gambit my rook dangerously on the seventh rank, open up funky diagonals and concoct weird imaginative shit I wouldn’t dare if I know my opponents were good. Sometimes it works, sometimes it burns down. But I had unlocked a chest of creativity because I was not afraid of my opponent.
I stopped caring whether my opponent would play good or bad. I focus on having fun.
And it struck me that’s what happens in improv. When I play with juniors, I would control the scene. When I play with my improv heroes, I shrink in caution.
Trust yourself, ‘disrespect’ your elders
It goes without saying that improv is a collaborative artform and that you adapt to your scene partners. That said, there is a degree of trusting yourself. I think it’s honorable that my freezing up comes from the incredible amount of respect for my more experienced partners. I want to honor them. This amount of respect is especially high when you come from an Asian culture and always told to respect your elders.
That said, when you do an improv scene, you want to put away that respect for the time being. Here you can trust yourself NO MATTER how little experience you have compared to your veteran partners. Outside the scene you can idolize your improv heroes. In the scene, you are equals.
Outside the scene, you can idolize. In the scene, you are equals.
When you do that, you give yourself permission to play freely. You don’t need to become a bystander, because whatever you put in, it’s just as good as what your veteran partner does. Forget what your partner’s “ELO Rating” is for a moment. Then you can unlock your full creativity.
Also, don’t worry about messing up. The best improv has a little bit of recklessness.
I’ve gotten a little bit better, but I still get pretty star-struck. So these two examples of me playing with teachers I really respect, Brian Palermo and Patti Stiles, who between the two must have at least 50 years of experience.
I should spare you watching the videos.. so as recap, I have to confess that I felt pretty bad in the scene with Brian Palermo. Brian is an amazing, amazing improviser. So amazing that as the scene progresses you can catch me being a bystander because I was so impressed by his character play. Instead of improvising I was watching his brilliance, and I become less and less active. I still cherish this scene! I think I just respected Brian TOO much during the scene.
A few months later, with more experience, I got to play with The Great Patti Stiles, which I adore. Whenever I watch Patti from the audience, I also go “Wow!” whatever move she makes ALLLLLWAYS make the scene better. But this time, I decided not to get too careful. So instead of trying to tiptoe the scene, I just stuck hard to my character, trusted my own instinct and put aside my major respect to Patti and treated myself as if we are equals (spoiler: we’re not). I was a little more reckless. Yet Patti being Patti, the scene works.
Good improvisers are Unbreakable
When I say be a little reckless, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. I say that to balance because we are often afraid to mess up the scene with our heroes. But here’s the secret: your improv idols, good improvisers, they are not dainty little porcelain figures. They are fucking tough. They are unbreakable. Patti Stiles has been mold by the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor and can withstand more than The One Ring can handle.
Good improvisers will take whatever you throw at them, and turn it into gold. And therefore you can afford to be a little reckless because they can fix whatever. Veteran improvisers have gone through many broken scenes, they are kintsugi. #EasternPhilosophyImprovTips
Good improvisers are kintsugi.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of fixing a broken porcelain, and add gold to the cracks and create it back with even more beauty. It is the art of accepting a broken item and the joy comes from restoring. And celebrating the flaws.
Good improvisers are kintsugi, because they will accept our flaws and turn them into gold. They might love you than yourself. They make your move which you thought was broken look good and not flawed. Because they don’t judge you for what you lack in experience. They play with you because of who YOU are. And that’s why you should love yourself more.
In the same veins, sometimes YOU are someone else’s idol. When that happens, you be the kintsugi.