As you grow up, you believe your parents are infallible. It’s only a matter of time before you realize they are just as screwed up as you are, if not more.
Similarly, your improv coach is just a person, complete with his own set of faults.
In my time coaching, I recognize I’m most frustrated by players who struggle with the issues that afflict me. “Why do you lead with plot?” I’ll ask them, then start a scene with plot in MY show.
Coaching is part self-therapy and part sharing of experience. When I give players a note, it reflects what I’ve encountered in the past. Whether my experience mirrors that of my students is up to them to decide.
In a recent show, I made a decision to portray former basketball star Shawn Kemp. I made this call for two reasons. 1) It had been established that there was a border patrol around Seattle. 2) Another character was upset she lost her fiancé Karl, so she was carving the letter “K” into everything. Kemp played for the Seattle Supersonics and his last name begins with K. It felt like a natural connecting move.
In response, my coach gave this note: “No one except three dudes knows who Shawn Kemp is nor thinks it’s funny you’re playing a black guy with seven kids.”
As a veteran improviser, I choose to discard this note.
If the only point of me playing him was to get a laugh from name recognition, or to try to amuse the crowd by playing a different race, his note would be fair game.
But my coach is attempting to intuit my intent behind that choice, and he’s wrong. If he wants to criticize the scene as ineffective, that’s also fair. Perhaps my character was weak.
I’m not going to spend the rest of my improv career wondering if someone is famous enough to portray. I can’t walk into a scene and say I’m Babe Ruth and stop acting. I have to show who Babe Ruth is and how he behaves. If it matches reality, fine. If not, that’s also fine.
Actors portray famous (and semi-famous) people all the time. Is it fair to criticize Ed Harris because of Jackson Pollock’s level of fame? No. You must weigh the merits of his portrayal based on how effectively he shows the character. (Whether the character traits are factual or not is irrelevant. We only care if he’s compelling to watch.)
I knew when I made the choice, not many people would get a Sean Kemp reference. But I felt justified in the decision. And I felt it could somehow connect a mourning woman and our locked-down Seattle.
You may make a move in a show that your coach criticizes. If so, listen to see if the criticism rings true. If so, accept the note. If not, your coach may be wrong.
Remember, your coach isn’t running your improv career. You are. So before you accept a note, make sure you agree with it. Be honest, and give your coach the benefit of the doubt. But coaches can be wrong, just as often as improvisers.
In fact, you may disagree with this blog. I won’t be offended. As long as the ideas bounce your way, I’m happy. Whether you choose to accept or regret my interpretation of the art is up to you.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com