The ‘best’ beginners in improv make the worst improvisers.
It’s this time of the year I’m teaching a new Level 1 drop-in class. I’m psyched for it, but I’m also anticipating a common issue: overexcited, overconfident, aggressive ALPHA players steamrolling over passive Beta and Omega players.
This is a vicious cycle: the alphas think they are the “better” players because they dominate the scene, and they take up even more space. The Alphas get a kick from that icebreaking laugh out of an absurd joke, and they keep reaching for more laughs. The Betas shrink to the sidelines, becoming even quieter. In some cases, the Betas quit, saying “I’m not funny enough”.
(Alpha players might quit too, because in their minds they have “conquered improv”. They walk away not knowing the real improv. This keeps me awake at nights.)
I always find this paradoxical. Improv is about conquering fears. Then, wouldn’t these Alphas be the brave ones? In some ways it’s true, but the alphas also DON’T FUCKING LISTEN. Alphas charge alone without looking back at who’s joining him/her. Alphas will never connect with players until they change — they will get a rude awakening and hit a ceiling. But improv isn’t about bravery of leading the charge, it’s about inspiring everyone along for the charge. Together.
Beta and Omega players are the natural listener breed to become the best improvisers. But in the beginners class they can get pushed over, disheartened or intimidated. It’s our duty as teachers to protect them.
Teachers, protect our diamonds in the rough
When I teach level 1, I’m hyper-aware of these power dynamics. Now, Alphas aren’t necessarily jerks I made them out to be. Maybe they simply operate at a faster pace, are more playful, so their aggressiveness comes from a place of love. But I’m always trying to keep an eye for steamrolling action.
That’s why I don’t do too much Free Scenes at Level 1, because that’s a place I feel aggressiveness goes unchecked. I like to choose exercises where there are built-in opportunities for both players, like mirroring. I don’t like to directly stop aggressive behaviour, because I feel it leads to a negative space of “Don’t Do That” which can come off as an alarming suffocation of creativity to newer players. Instead, I would place safe zones where people can explore their space without the risk of pressuring others' space.
Then I compliment a lot. I might join the laugh with the class jokers, but highlighting sincere good improv moves is the absolutely vital part. One thing still stuck with me two years and a hundred workshops after, courtesy of Optimistic Oliver playing the Gift Giving game. Oliver is a quiet and unassuming man, but he has the gift of honesty.
Gift Giving. Everyone in a circle, one person passes to the next person an unnamed object with a strange shape. The receiver says “Thank you for the [name the object]”… There were some bizarre ones out there. “Thank you for the dragon with eight wings,” “Thank you for the Justin Bieber singing Baby Baby,” and the obligatory “Thank you for the penis,” all of which are obviously pre-planned a few turns ago. This all gets some chuckles...
Then the gift comes to Optimistic Oliver, who held the gift, felt its shape and weight, and nodded. “Thank you for the vase.” And the class erupted in unison with the biggest laugh of the night. (The star guy who said penis still don’t understand why.)
These moments of sincerity should never be glossed over. I believe all great improvisers are the same people who might have felt scared, unworthy and uninteresting as newbies and may have had a moment where they thought of quitting. But each one had one thing in common. That one genuine laugh from fellow improvisers is their turning point to realize: THEY are the stars.