If you’ve seen Kelly and I perform at any point over the past two years, then you know that the show we do is unique. We spend a lot of time in silence, making eye contact, not worrying about where the show is going, not trying to force anything. We like to think of it as improv without ideas. When the format works, it’s amazing, and these days it works more often than not. When it doesn’t work, though, the show can be really rough.
We had one of those rough shows the other night. The suggestion was “baseball memorabilia store,” and we lost control of the show within the first few minutes. (We tend to have trouble with transactional locations, but that’s a topic for another post.) We abandoned the activity we began with — buttoning a baseball jersey — for no real reason, and moved on to this weird half-abstract plane where it was very difficult to tell what we were doing and why we were doing it. This was one of those shows where our emphasis on silence and simplicity worked against us. We weren’t connecting, and we couldn’t easily salvage the show. It was embarrassing, and we walked off stage feeling really bad about ourselves.
Something like this has probably happened to you at one point or another in your improv career: You can tell that the show is going wrong while you’re in the middle of it. When this happens, you usually end up either wanting to bail on the scene/show, or wanting to take charge of it; wanting to take it upon yourself to fix what’s going wrong.
But Kelly and I did neither of these things the other night, even though both of us at various times during the show wanted to 1) bail, and 2) take charge and fix it. Instead, we just committed harder to what we were doing, even though it wasn’t working, even though we didn’t want to be doing it. This choice might not have been the right one in terms of this particular show, but I think it was absolutely the right move in terms of the long-term health of our partnership and our format. We have to fail together in order to succeed together.
We’ve mentioned this before, I think, but one of our main performance goals is to have the audience walk away saying “They had a good show.” Not “He was funny” or “she was great.” They had a good show. We want to create something that is so mutual and organic that the audience cannot distinguish between our individual contributions; that they leave the theater impressed by the piece rather than the individual performers.
The counterpoint to this is that when a show goes wrong, we have to fail together, too. One player cannot take it upon himself or herself to save a bad show. One player cannot start judging the show as it’s happening. This undermines the format, it undermines the trust relationship between Kelly and I, and it undermines our mutual ability to, after the show, diagnose what went wrong and devise a strategy to fix it.
We are confident in our format and in our ability to succeed with it. But the format only works if we don’t panic. We’ve worked very hard to banish the panic impulse; to learn to project and manifest confidence in our choices even when we might not love those choices. When you force yourself to stick with your initial choice — when you deny yourself an easy exit — you force yourself to find ways to make those choices matter. You put yourself in the hands of your partner and the world you’ve created together. And I would rather let a bad show remain bad while sticking to these principles than salvage a bad show by abandoning them.
In the context of our format — a format that we’ve developed together, that we really love and believe in — individual invention is always the wrong choice, and intense mutual commitment is always the right choice. If we want people to say “They had a good show,” then we also have to be willing to let them say “They had a bad show.” After our bad show we went out for drinks. The next day we went back to our space, talked about what went wrong, and fixed it together.