“Most people get work because their work is good.
They are easy to get along with.
And because they deliver the work on time.
And the secret is… you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine.
People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if you’re good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.” Neil Gaiman
As far as I’m concerned Neil Gaiman is a magical unicorn of light and wonder. He’s my favourite author and I’ve been fascinated with this quote ever since I saw his brilliant 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He’s talking about being a freelance writer but his advice is invaluable for absolutely anyone making art in collaboration with others. For those of you following along at home that means us.
That means improvisers.
Be good. Be reliable. Be kind. Here’s how I see that working in the context of our art form.
You can’t just click your fingers and get good. That applies to everything except learning how to click your fingers. In improv everyone has things they find easy. We all know that one gifted mimic who can seemingly do any accent or impression. Or that person who just instinctively knows what the game is and how to heighten it naturally. We all have our super powers. I, for instance, can jump over a normal-sized chair with no run up and a 90%+ success rate. You can’t teach that kind of thing. You’re just born with it.
But we can’t languish in our comfort zones if we want to become better players. In fact we have to actively seek out things we find hard or confusing and practice them until we get good at them. That’s how the performers you admire became the performers you admire.
If you’re naturally funny and dynamic, learn to play slow and emotional. You won’t suddenly forget how to make people laugh just because you showed some vulnerability on stage (you might even find you get more laughs as the audience connects to your character on a deeper level). If you can sing like a nightingale, make sure you also take some physical theatre classes, or join a freestyle cypher. Just because you know you can always bust out a song and take people’s breath away doesn’t mean you should use your gift as a crutch. Get some breadth.
In fact I honestly think we have a duty as improvisers to continue to get better throughout our performing careers. I can’t see a point in my life where I’ll ever stop taking classes. Learn new things — from your peers, from people in other communities and from different backgrounds, from new voices and new talents. Stay curious, be humble and don’t rely on a few tried and tested moves just because they were what got you the biggest audience reaction when you started.
We’ve all heard the old adage that organising anything with improvisers is like herding cats. The only difference is that cats will reliably appear if you open a tin of cat food. This doesn’t work with improvisers and it makes your rehearsal room smell like tuna for the duration of your practice.
My point is — don’t be the ginger tom licking his balls in the corner. Be the reliable one. Put dates in your diary or calendar app and confirm your attendance in the days leading up to the rehearsal. Make a note of any tasks you’ve been assigned, ask for a deadline if that helps you focus, and deliver on your promises. Answer your goddamn emails like a human being. And don’t back out of shows at the last moment because you got a better offer or a new season of Queer Eye just dropped on Netflix.
Please understand, I’m not talking about becoming a spreadsheet-toting killjoy here. It just takes such little effort to be substantially better than 95% of other improvisers who are all busy being carefree willo the wisps or performatively chasing a laser pointer around the front room.
People will ask you to play more if they know they can rely on you. If you’re not a headache to work with. If you don’t trot in half an hour late with a pair of bird’s feet clamped between your teeth when you’ve been assigned snack captain for the whole group.
Cultivate a reputation for being a safe pair of hands.
This is the easiest one. Or the hardest. I can’t decide. Maybe it’s both?
There’s no denying that making collaborative art can be difficult. It takes a lot out of you — physically, mentally, financially, emotionally. Temperatures can run high.
We’re extremely lucky that the improv community worldwide is genuinely packed to bursting with kind-hearted, lovely people but also … we all have our bad days. And however much joy improv brings us, there are times where we’d rather bang our head against a wall than hear our teammate lecture us once again on what makes a good initiation.
On days like this, we need to be kind. Kind to ourselves and kind to our fellow players. When it’s all going well, when improv seems as natural as breathing, then it’s easy to be warm-hearted and thoughtful. But when every scene is a struggle and the idea of actually making someone laugh seems like the unattainable dream of a lunatic — that’s when we need to double down on the kindness.
The key here is to extend your fellow improvisers the same courtesy you’d extend their characters in a good scene.
Listen to what they have to say. Be empathetic. Try to understand things from their point of view. Build on their ideas to reach a shared solution.
In fact, you should practice kindness as much as you possibly can. Go to people’s shows just to support them. Tell them when they do something brilliant, on-stage or off. Resist disparaging comments when they share a success on social media. Build people up and go out of your way to lift them even higher. Do it because it’s the right thing to do but also because we’re all one bad show away from circling the drain ourselves.
And, if I may, I’m going to disagree with Mr Gaiman on just one point in this context. Writers can shut themselves away and wallow in their own unpleasantness with very little collateral damage. No one is going to want to improvise with you regularly if you’re a dick.
Even if you’re the most talented and reliable performer in the world.
Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my website — take a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.