Part One: The Audience
If you’re a student of improv, you’ve seen untold thousands of scenes. As an audience member, how many do you remember?
If you’re like me, you remember the really great ones. The ones you wish you were in. The ones that were so much fun, they burned into your brain.
And if you’re like me, the huge majority of bad scenes you’ve seen blur together into a fog of mediocrity.
Forget the scenes you’ve been in. Just focus on the ones you watched. How many really bad ones do you remember? What details stick out?
As a teenager in the 1990s, I watched “Saturday Night Live” religiously. I like to think I have almost encyclopedic recall of the scenes I saw. But today, I saw this…
What. The. Hell?
When I think really, really hard, I do remember this sketch, but only barely. I just remembered the concept. Didn’t remember the words. Didn’t remember the beats. It was just something really vague, buried in a swamp in my head.
The audience wants to see good scenes. They want to laugh. They want to be moved. When they pay money, they hope to be entertained. When that expectation is met, they’re happy. They’ll quote lines in the show’s aftermath. They’ll congratulate the performers. Those memories stick.
But every improv audience will sit through some clunker scenes. It’s inevitable. And somehow, our brains just discard those. When you think back on your life, you remember the highs and the lows, but the majority of days blur together. The majority of our lives is uneventful. (As is the majority of the improv you’ll see.)
Your brain is biased in favor of remembering the good stuff you’ve witnessed. It’s part of how we learn. We see something fun or great or enjoyable or life-sustaining and we want to seek that out again. But do we have the brain capacity to specifically remember all the stuff that falls way short of that? Not really. That tends to be discarded unless it’s really, really, really awful.
You will forget more than you remember. An audience does, too.
Part Two: The Performer
Did you read what I wrote above? That should feel like handcuffs falling off your wrists.
The audience forgets. The audience wants you to do well. And the stuff the audience remembers long-term is the stuff that they loved! You’re golden!
As a performer, I remember some of the awesome scenes I was in. And I remember some scalding nightmares on stage. But I’m experiencing all that in first person. My memory works differently from an audience’s.
I’m on stage. My performing “life” is at risk. The stakes seem high to me. My memory is hightened just as it would be if I were in a life-or-death situation.
When I’m in an audience, I’m a largely passive participant. Failure of the performers on stage doesn’t result in personal pain. It results in boredom. I tend to forget the things that bore me.
What if I could rewire my performer-brain to be like the audience’s? What if I could hit the “pleasure” button to deliver a dose of happiness? I would! All the time! And what if I discarded the bad scenes, rather than let them screw with my head for the rest of a show? I’d do that, too!
Performers are plagued by self-doubt. Have you ever seen an audience wrestling with that? No! They know what they like and what they don’t. So do you. Self-doubt cannot help you as a performer in any way.
That Shmee sketch is an unmitigated disaster. And I barely remember it. So you know that scene you totally bombed? The audience won’t remember that either!
Do the fun stuff. Be weird and silly and unusual. People will remember that. And when you screw up, forget it just as quickly as the audience does. They give you a fresh slate every time a scene starts anew. Attack! The stakes are far lower than they seem. And the rewards are greater than they should be. The odds are in your favor.