One of the most useful lessons that improv can teach you is that things go a lot better when you decide to like the person that’s in front of you.
It’s a lesson that stems from another improv gem, backed up by years of Adlerian psychology and Stoic philosophy: emotions are, in large part, a choice. Their impulse may be involuntary, but the way you use them is in your hands.
An emotional impulse is frequently generated by the actions of another person. If you were to take a person and place them in stasis, floating frozen in a blank room, what would your opinion of them be? Let’s add the caveat that they have no past actions to judge them by; they are an object of only the present. Would you have any reason to be mad at them? Sad about them? To have a problem with them? I don’t believe you would. Any way that you feel about them will be entirely your own choice. Why not make your choice a positive one?
This person floating in blank space is, in essence, the beginning of a scene. We always have the options of choosing to begin a scene from the point of caring about the other character, to begin from a baseline of genuine loving interest. From there, any emotional reactions to each other’s behaviour will be deviations from a positive norm, rather than the norm itself.
We often speak of building a relationship in the early moments of a scene, but this can be confusing. It implies the construction of something from nothing. If you begin a scene having decided that a positive relationship already exists, what you do from then on is merely exposing a relationship, using relational word choices to imply the nature of the relationship (siblings, lovers, colleagues, friends), having long since understood the more important part: the relationship is a good one.
You are then far more likely to explore the quirks in one another’s behaviour if you are confident and comfortable with the fact that your relationship is intact; it will persist no matter the intensity of your reactions to one another’s unusual behaviour. This framework calls to mind a proverb borrowed from Christian theology, Gandhi’s autobiography, and the mouth of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the hit musical Hamilton — “hate the sin, love the sinner”.
By all means, go to town on the things a person does — on the actions they take and the things they say and the effect they have on other people — but from the irreducible core of your being to theirs, choose to love them. You won’t believe the amount of fun you start to have.
Take inspiration from the Buddhist discipline of loving-kindness meditation (metta). Look into the eyes of your teammates and think “may you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you live a life of peace and joy and ease”. Remember the distinction between the improvisers and their characters, then apply the same practice to the latter. Uncomfortable? Good. That means you need to do it more.
I got to see this on full display recently, in a Level 1 class that I was privileged enough to be assisting with. During a string of free-form scenes It was remarkable to see how, in the face of literally unlimited options, human instinct will choose negativity. All it took was the suggestion of liking one another from the moment a scene began to find the next few minutes exploding into life, the performers into their grooves, and the room into laughter. Take that note as if it were your own. “Learn from the mistakes of others,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, because “you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”.
Take that note to the stage, and to your life. First choose to love, and then see where that takes you.