A couple of weeks ago, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was teaching a Harold class. New-ish to it, the class had just worked their way through the form. It had been fun, but difficult. Memories were stretched, brains overloaded. And as we finished, haltingly, unsure if the question was allowed, a student put up her hand and asked: ‘Do you actually enjoy openings?’ She was not being difficult, or obstructive. She was just confused.
Now I’ve done improv in a lot of countries and with people from many more. And improvisers are (nearly) all lovely people. They are kind and open, determined to have fun and tend to accept you where you are and for who you are. Improvisers have been my colleagues and friends, people that I have sat up till dawn with and laughed until my ribs hurt. One is the mother of my two children. But improvisers have also broken my heart
Because too much of a positive can become a negative. Too much helpfulness becomes stifling, too much morality becomes rigidity. Too much love becomes obsession and too much attention to detail, perfectionism. Danger lies in an excess of the habits and patterns of improvisation. Sometimes we need to know when to not.
So below I have listed three behaviors which are easy for improv to slip into. Behaviours that come from holding a good thing too tightly, from assuming that if a problem is not solved, the solution is to do the same thing, but harder. Behaviours that can worm their way into your groups, classes and communities with the best of intentions and from the gentlest of people. But behaviours that can cost you dear and hurt you deep. I like clean threes and subverting Bible tropes, so let’s call them ‘The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.
By no means restricted to improvisers, toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how difficult and challenging a situation is, one should maintain a positive mindset. That not doing so is a personal failure. Keep calm and carry on. Choose love. And if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Now there is, of course, a lot of good that comes out of staying positive. Hell, the chances are that a part of your early improv training was saying yes and, finding what there is to like in somebody’s offer. Positivity is neglected in our culture and negativity often confused with intelligence. Joy is powerful and sometimes a choice. Sometimes.
The problem comes when positivity is all that is permitted. When we police the emotions of those we play with and gently diminish or exclude the person who does not LOVE EVERYTHING. In a beginner’s improv class, we might encourage by celebrating what happened simply because it happened, but as we gain in understanding, we have the right and the duty to say when something sucks and ask why. To express our dissatisfaction or anger. To say when we feel like we suck and we hate everything and then not solve it, but see it as part of the experience.
Toxic positivity ignores the complexity and texture of a process. It decentralises a part of ourselves and requires us to pretend to be tooth-achingly happy. And it’s as dangerous as being endlessly negative.
There are two brands of toxic sincerity. Over honesty and over seriousness. I will not spend much time on the first except to say that it’s not always the best idea to say everything that you are thinking and feeling right away. Sometimes you need to take a beat, consider your options, act smart rather than fast. It’s overthinking that’s bad, not all thinking and anyone saying you should never think when you improvise is probably trying to suck you into a dependency culture. Obsessive, immediate honesty can lead to a community that fetishizes trauma.
And although improv should always be delightful, but that does not mean that it can’t sometimes be uncomfortable, like glancing over the rim of a volcano. In the right circumstance and with the right boundaries in place, one can play an offensive character or a stupid one. In playing (and playing with) things that have hurt us, we can take away their power. After all, if one can treat the frivolous with gravitas, then one can be light-hearted about the serious.
Over-seriousness is a tricksier thing. After all, if we are making something that aspires to be more than simply funny-ha-ha, we need to take things seriously, to play scenes about things that matter and treat our scenes themselves as if they matter. Things matter when we decide they do.
But, at least for me, part of the delight of improv is a sense of lightness and delicacy. We never have to stand by what we say, or even repeat it. There are no decisions that are locked in and repeated eight nights a week. We try out an idea for one scene, see how it feels, shrug and move on, always learning.
Improv is a social act, a re-connection with simple groupish behaviour that we are taught is dangerously subversive. That is (some of) the fun of it. Just doing things together. There is such joy in losing oneself in the task, breaking down the boundaries of the skull. It’s the biotechnology that means a group of small, weak-limbed primates can take down a mammoth, raise a barn or play a test match. And working together often means being a little dumber yourself, trusting the iterative, piecemeal process and not trying to control it. You give up the luxury of individuality to be part of something bigger.
But. That means that the first voice can get to determine the tenor of the conversation. The fastest brain sets the direction of travel. If all we can do is ever agree, then we can waste our time on something we are all gradually losing our commitment to. Sometimes if something doesn’t work, you Warhol it and make the accidental wonderful, sometimes you say ‘hell, no’, discard it and remember that creativity is inefficient.
These three behaviours are tempting because, in smaller doses, they work. Be positive, sincere and agree and you will probably create some good improv together. For a night or two, even a year or two. It’s easier than dealing with the complex, ever-changing. But if you do not have the space to be cynical, to be flippant and to disagree, problems will grow underneath the surface. Not saying what you think pulls you apart from each other, makes the moments together less genuine, less together. Noticing and dealing with these three behaviours can be the thing that keeps your group together. Not noticing and not dealing with them, can tear things apart. Antiseptic stings, but sepsis kills.
I would love to end this blog with five simple steps (or better, three!), but doing so would miss the point. All of the above behaviours simplify and reduce. They make complex problems seem simple by erasing some of what we think and feel. There is no simple solution. That’s kind of the point. Acknowledging your own impulses and making spaces for others takes time, and sensitivity. Off-the-peg solutions don’t work.
Because I do enjoy openings, but I get that some people don’t. They can feel formless, pretentious, a task rather than a treat. So we talked through what the student might dislike about openings, and found some possible ways in, some places to start. And the conversation helped more than just her. I hope it made the next objection easier to raise. The next Harold was better. That’s the way it goes.