by Juwel Haque
Mochi is a person who has lived a life up to now. In that life, he has had experiences, thoughts and feelings. Gained relationships, knowledge, technical capabilities, physicality, a philosophy and values. Consumed media, food, drink and travel. All this and more, provide Mochi with a personal pool of inspiration that informs his improvisation, whether deliberately or unconsciously. The same is true for Dango.
Let M be Mochi’s pool of potential material, that is, the set of all things that make up Mochi. Let D be the same for Dango. Let S be the set of all these things that all people ever could possibly have.
Usually, improv is a team sport, so an improv team can benefit from the inspiration of each member.
Now for some notation from set theory, a branch of mathematics.
The symbol ?, is called “cap”, and is used to denote the intersection between two sets. So M ? D (read “M intersection D” or “M cap D” or “M and D”) is everything that belongs in both M and D, and nothing that doesn’t. That is, the orange bit in Fig. 2.
The symbol ?, is called “cup”, and is used to denote the union of two sets. So M ? D (read “M union D” or “M cup D”) is everything that belongs in either M or D or both sets. That is, the red and orange and yellow bits in Fig. 2.
When you put a dash after the letter, such as M’ (read “M-complement” or “M dash”), you are referring to everything that isn’t in M, known as the complement of M. In Fig. 1, that’s the white bit. In Fig. 2, M’ would be the white and yellow bits; D’ would be the white and red bits.
For example, let’s say that Mochi and Dango are from the same hometown. That’s something they have in common, so it would be in M ? D, the orange bit of Fig. 2. When either of them refers to their hometown in a performance of their duo show, the other already knows a whole lot about that, and they can both confidently play with that concept and explore it more fully.
On the other hand, let’s say that Mochi is an avid Star Wars fan, and Dango hasn’t seen any of the films, and may know through osmosis that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and not much more than that. So some amount of Star Wars knowledge will be in orange, but more of it will be in red. If Mochi refers to Star Wars in their duo act, Dango might feel unconfident in playing with that. He might gamely give it a go, or he might steer the scene towards something else, with which Dango would feel more comfortable.
In theory, we’d be able to enlist the full amount of inspiration we and our teammates have in our improv show. In practice, we tend to play with just what we have in common. We might call this group mind. We encourage this tendency. We try and “get on the same page”. We form troupes around shared improv training and technique and vocabulary, such as a Harold team, or around shared knowledge and interest, such as a genre-narrative show (signposting The Maydays’ own Happily Never After, which you should see, it’s a good show). We form teams with our friends, or the sort of people that look and sound like us, the sort of people we might have gone to school with, the sort of people that we “could have a drink with”.
I don’t think this tendency is wrong, despite how I’m about to talk about it. I do think it can be limiting, and it can mean we have less interesting shows than we’re capable of. I like improv shows that are interesting. I think it can make improvisers feel as though certain aspects of their being and experience are unwelcome in the improv context of their lives. I like improvisers to feel entirely welcome.
So how can we do scenes and shows that go beyond the intersection of our teams, and gain access to the richer and wider collective pool of the team’s union? How can we confidently offer up characters and scene detail that borrow from those parts of us that our teammates’ don’t know well; and how can we confidently receive those kinds of offerings from our teammates? How do we get comfortable playing with our complement, and how do we make that comfortable for others?
Mochi has real and good reasons for being wary of making offers from his personal experience that Dango may not know much about. He doesn’t want to put Dango in a position of insecurity; and he also risks rejection, a scenic response from Dango that amounts to “I don’t know what that is, let’s make the scene about something else”. So, from where does Mochi gain the courage to make that leap of faith? I’ve got a few suggestions for him:
- Lay the groundwork off-stage. Mochi can help Dango get to know him by socialising with him, helping Dango get to know him, and having more regular experiences with Dango. Frequent rehearsals are a great way for Mochi and Dango to practise on-stage vulnerability and generously receiving one another.
- Use more detail. It’s strange and counter-intuitive, but it seems as though the more specific we get, the more universal we get. We give our scene partners and the audience more opportunities to recognise and relate.
- Make sure Dango knows what meaning this offer has for Mochi’s character, thereby giving Dango more opportunity to connect and relate to the offer. So not just what it is, but what it represents.
- Accept the Dango might well deflect the offer in this scene, and that this doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on Mochi himself, that perhaps Dango is asking to be returned to a place of comfort for him. Mochi gets to be a good partner here and gracefully accept Dango’s change of direction.
Mochi might also be apprehensive about receiving offers from Dango that he doesn’t know what to do with. What if he gets relevant details wrong, or causes harm through ignorance?
- Pretend to know. Mochi can have his character also be knowledgeable about a topic that’s brought up, and join in with that presumption, even if he has to make up names, events and concepts to make it fit. He’ll give himself away to others in the know, but they’ll enjoy him trying.
- Alternatively, investigate curiously. In a scene, he gets to ask! “I don’t know what that is, would you tell me about it?” It’s a gift to ask someone, even an improv character, to tell you about something they know well and care about.
- Find how he relates. When Dango’s character tells Mochi’s about their specific experience of being an outsider, Mochi might not have the specifics in common, but he can probably connect over being on the fringes of a group, the isolation and disenfranchisement. Mochi can then share his own specifics of that broader relatable experience.
- Remember that the current scene is one of hundreds that he’ll do, that he’ll survive whatever happens in this one, and he gets to try again next time, whatever happens here.
The more improv we do, whether with the same people or those who are not like us, the more comfortable we’ll get with playing beyond our own strengths and experience, and in holding space for our scene partners. The way to union with your teammates is to share yourselves, share experiences, and learn each other.
If you liked that, here’s something else from me: We’re better than that: On self-deprecating humour.