It’s September of 2016, and Justin and I have just walked offstage after a show that started well, but ultimately got away from us. We stood apart from the audience and proceeded to mutually skulk and brood about what had just gone wrong on stage. Rather than looking to each other for comfort, we used the spark of disappointment we immediately saw in one another’s eyes to ignite a cycle of frustration, recrimination and blame. As often happens with improvisers, the brooding after the show lasted about seven times as long as the show itself. As also often happens, this brooding ultimately—and needlessly—tainted the rest of an otherwise wholly joyful evening.
Allowing your shows to affect you is one thing. It would be unrealistic to expect performers who have invested so much time and effort into putting up their best work to be impervious to negative feelings when that work doesn’t deliver. We are allowed to be disappointed in our own performances, and to wish things had gone better. It is when we allow those feelings to poison us and infect the people and space around us that we violate the very nature of what it means to be a performer in the first place.
Your own feelings about your show are highly subjective. (If you’re like me, they’re tied into deeply-held insecurities that, frankly, have little to do with what actually happened on stage. Fun!) Just because you thought you sucked up there doesn’t mean that your audience thought you sucked up there. This has probably happened to you: Someone has approached you after a show and said “Good show,” and you’ve responded by saying something like “It wasn’t very good, but thanks anyway.” Stop doing this! Stop greeting an audience member’s positive feedback with sheepishness, apology, and self-recrimination. If someone tells you that you did a good job, that is not your opportunity to try and convince them that you sucked: In doing so, you invalidate that person’s experience, and you rob them of the joy that they felt during the performance. (I have long said that I wanted to teach an entire workshop to New York City improvisers on how to appropriately and graciously accept compliments.)
Listen, I’m not saying it isn’t hard to look an audience in the eyes after a show that you were embarrassed by; it really sucks sometimes. It is easier to hide, and sequester yourself away with your group in the corner of a bar, and tell yourselves that brooding together is a form of support, that it cultivates your group mind. If we could go back in time and tell our younger improvising selves one thing, it is this: collective complaining is not the same as doing the work. It is also, frankly, really unprofessional. Going further, the converse is also true: I would argue that it’s just as unprofessional and unproductive to go to the same back corner of a bar and pat one another on the back for hours. Mutual exultation and the accompanying bits it inspires isn’t doing the work, either. Sure, it feels better than shitting on yourselves after a bad show, but what, ultimately does it accomplish other than serving to further support the notion that improv communities are closed off and insular?
It took us years to learn this. September’s incident certainly was not an isolated one for us, but in response to it, we decided to change up our post-show routine. Regardless of how the show went, we don’t talk about it —at all— in the immediate aftermath, even if it was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. We resolve to talk about it tomorrow. And instead of looking down at the floor and shuffling into a side room, we push ourselves, facing fully forward, back into the audience. We look people in the eyes if they talk to us about our show. If they say good job, we say, sincerely, thank you. If they don’t say anything, we engage them on another topic. We turn the private into the public, and give ourselves zero time to give in to the temptation to sulk or cheer. We can always work it out in practice. We can always talk tomorrow.