Win by Losing

Sammy Tamimi just taught a rehearsal for my Playground team, Schnauzer.  He told us to explain the rules of the game “Tag” to him as if he were a space alien.  We did.  Then he asked us to explain “Red Light, Green Light.”  We explained other playground-type games.  Then we played them.  Those games had simple rules and were easy to play.

Next, he had us play games no one’s ever played before.  “Roger’s Ram.”  “Bunny Digs a Hole.”  “Sun Punch.”  He didn’t tell us how to play those games.  He wanted us to discover the rules while we played.

We learned the simplest games work the best.  Do this and you win, do this and you lose.  Here is the pattern.  We should strive to do that in any performance’s “game” slot or a “game-y” scene.  Make it simple and it’s easy for you to play and easy for the audience to follow along.  Everyone’s happy.  Everyone loves Tetris.  It’s just stacking blocks. You did that as a baby.

That was the main thrust of his lesson, but I pulled something else out of it: The Importance of Losing.

When we played “Tag,” the only way for the game to move forward is for someone to be touched, to accept that touch and to become the new “It.”  What happens if someone is touched and refuses to acknowledge that?  The game is ruined.  What happens if “It” is slow and can’t catch anyone?  The game stalls.

Why do argument scenes fail so frequently?  Our egos get involved.  “I didn’t do the dishes?  Well you never mow the lawn!”  The improvisers dig in, determined to prove the other person is wrong.  Where is this scene going?  The fastest way to advance it is by throwing the fight.  Just give in.  Lose.  No one in the audience is keeping track of who won an improv argument.

I love being in a group scene where someone says, “Who broke the cookie jar/ate my sandwich/farted/spilled paint on the floor?”  Nine times out of ten, the assembled improvisers will start making excuses about how it wasn’t them.  They want to get out of trouble.  But it’s only improv trouble!  Who cares?  The minute someone asks, “Who did X?” I raise my hand and confess.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  I’ll take the blame.  And it’ll be funny.

Bill Arnett says, “Idiocy is the logic of improv.” Too often, we let real logic dictate our behavior in scenes.  It’s true we want to give some reflection of reality in our work, but too much reality takes away our power.  We want to heighten reality and to live out fantasy.  In the old boss-fires-employee scene, how many improvisers get upset and beg for their improv jobs?  You’re not really getting fired.  Why not be the biggest disaster of an employee of all time?  Your improv girlfriend is improv-dumping you.  Why not show the audience all the reasons why you are worthy of dumping?  You’re in an improv gunfight.  Why not have your gun get stuck in your holster or miss your target and hit a bystander?  (In that case, you sure hope one of your teammates falls dead, don’t you?  They need to “lose,” too!)

Losing is easier than winning, right?  If I told you the object of Monopoly was to go bankrupt faster than everyone else, is that a more fun game to watch?  Real Monopoly takes forever.  Even winning that game is a chore.

I think losing is important for another reason.  The audience has an easier time relating.  How many gold medal Olympians do you know?  Not many.  How many of you have tried at a sport and had your ass handed to you?  All of us.  Misery, pain and failure are common to all of us.  That makes it a deep reservoir of connection.

In most movies, when the crisis is over, the movie ends.  The monster is killed, our heroes fall in love with each other, the lovable losers finally triumph.  There’s a little thrill when that happens.  But we only care because of the journey.  We relate to the struggle.  Face it – we all fail more than we succeed.  That’s why it’s important to fail in comedy, especially in improv.

Bad date scene?  Make it worse.  Parent yelling at kid?  Kid should do something to make the parent madder.  Bad doctor?  Be a worse doctor.  The lower you go, the harder you lose, the more you get the audience in your corner.  We root for Rocky because no one gives him a chance and he’s clearly overmatched.  And remember, Rocky doesn’t even win the fight at the end of the first movie.

So get out there and lose.  Lose as hard and as often as you can.  It’s one of the most powerful things you can do on stage.  And the audience will love you for it.

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