I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the improv community for a while now. I’ve been in a bunch of groups. I still feel very strongly about my first group, like a first love.
Others have come and gone in the meantime, too. And from time to time a newer improviser will ask me for advice. These moments are delicious to my ego, and I devour them like an ice-cream sundae. To say that I’m always proud to offer my opinion is an understatement. It’s fairly commonplace that they ask about something I know pretty well. There is some kind of tension in their improv group. They ask me what they can do about a disagreement that is threatening the future of their team.
It happens a lot in improv. Most of us spend valuable free time organising and promoting our teams. We tie up a lot of our feelings into our improv, and some people instil a lot of their hopes and dreams into the craft. This can make things all very personal when they don’t go well in some way, or if people disagree. My advice on the subject should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s always the same.
Sometimes I wish we could magically give a gift card to everyone starting their first group. On the outside would be the most amazing cartoon of that group photo you have with everyone in your group. You know the one; where Steve is making a face like a crow and Paul is looking the wrong way and Cheryl has hands like a dinosaur. But inside the card are the following words printed in bold letters:
Conduct yourselves with professionalism.
I can already hear your collective groan, dear reader. This statement is NO fun but so help me, it has kept me afloat. The reason why it is no fun, of course, is that it sounds like I am saying “behave like you are still at the office.” Of course, this idea is unappealing. For most of us, improv is our means to escape the office and provides a crucial creative outlet that most of our vocations deny us. We want improv to have nothing to do with the office.
And there are those of us that consider ourselves “professional improvisers”, but most of us don’t. For most of us, it’s a hobby and it’s not somewhere we would want to be told to behave like a professional. And it’s not like I’m telling people to give up their day jobs or treat improv like it is their day job. I’m just saying act professionally! I’m not saying wear a shirt and tie, on stage (though there is a strong argument I’ve heard from some that the audience, especially a paying one, deserves that effort), I’m just asking those people in those improv groups to consider how they interact with each other.
And because improv is more of a hobby to most of us than it is a profession, the people we interact within the community can feel more like our friends, rather than our colleagues. I consider some of my past teammates to be some of the best and closest friends I’ve ever had. And “acting professionally” can feel distant compared to the sense of community we feel with our improv friends.
If you break down the main and most common tenements of professionalism, it could boil down to this: respect other people.
- You respect their time enough to make sure you are not late and/or you’re not keeping them waiting for something. Whether this means you are on time for a meeting or a deadline, or otherwise keeping from wasting their valuable time somehow.
- You respect their feelings enough to be at least cordial with them and not be unpleasant or unkind. Be nice and don’t be a bully.
- You respect their boundaries so that they feel safe and comfortable in their environment. Don’t encroach on their space or their privacy.
- You respect their opinion, listen to each other, and respond without dismissing each other. If you can help it, you don’t take conflict personally and you agree to hear each other’s voices.
- When you do disagree, you do so in a way that respects each other’s perspectives and feelings, knowing that everyone has the best of intentions but that opinions will differ.
And there are a bunch more, I’m sure. Your workplace probably has standards of dress or hygiene or whatever, but the basic behaviour requested in the phrase “professionalism” boils down to showing other people the respect they deserve. But if we go back to the above list and look at the values of respect without applying the workplace to them, aren’t these ultimately also the fundamentals of a good friendship?
Sure, friends inevitably let each other get away with murder, but a good friend shouldn’t even put their friend into that position, right? No one actually wants a friend that always keeps you waiting any more than we want a co-worker that always shows up late to the meeting. No one likes having their time wasted. And the same is true across the board no matter how blurry the lines are between improv as a vocation and improv as a hobby.
And that doesn’t mean you don’t get to have fun! Playfulness is key to improv! It’s so fun for you and your audience to be playful with each other just as it is in almost any relationship. You probably don’t want to get too playful with your proctologist, but being playful with your pal playing the proctologist on stage is part of why I keep coming back to improv.
When you really trust your scene partner, you’ll have earned a lot of freedom to be playful with each other knowing that you have each other’s best interests. But you’ll probably earn that trust in the first place by observing these fundamentals of respect. It basically demonstrates to your improv group that you are not selfish and that you won’t let them down. And hopefully, they take that example and do the same. There are no guarantees there, of course, but you can’t control other people either. You can only change your own behaviour.
So respect each other, trust each other and then let your hair down and have fun. Demonstrating this professionalism can avoid so much turmoil. It also protects 90% of your own feelings when conflict does occur because part of professionalism and compassion is acknowledging the perspective of others. When we are in conflict, act with that professionalism and find that understanding, we can often discover that we don’t have intentional ill will. We learn that we share more common ground than we realise. And if we act with professionalism prior to conflict, then we’re making as safe a space to be playful as we possibly can.
There is nothing that kills the fun of an improv team like in-fighting. It will happen. It’s inevitable. We care about these things too much for them not to happen. Ambition demands it (which is a whole other blog). It’s going to happen with me too, by the way. For all the ice-cream-sundae preaching and holier-than-thou verbiage I offer, I’m just as likely to fall into that trap as anyone. This has all happened before and it will all happen again (“so say we all”). But I hope the next time it happens that I will conduct myself with professionalism. It only helps.
by Ed Fargher