Despite my intense apathy towards all things athletic, I find myself unable to stop playing sports. During elementary and middle school, my parents threw me into everything from teeball to horseback riding. In high school, I ran cross country. Finally, I thought I would find my solace in ultimate Frisbee, but even that turned sour.
As a freshman, I was the lowest on the totem pole and it was the seniors who led practices, showed younger kids the ropes, and were ultimately the arbiters of who would get to play. And if you wanted to play, then you had to respect your elders – a concept familiar to most sports teams.
Fortunately, improv doesn’t work that way. At least where I come from, no one cares how long you’ve been improvising, where you studied, or what teams you’ve played with. The most important factors that determine your success are how authentic and kind you are as a human being and how well you can support your scene partners.
But just because everyone shares a level playing field on stage doesn’t mean we don’t all have our idols. I first played with a few of mine at the Compass All Nighter in 2014 on a one-off group called Ladies Night. I was both honored and eager that they invited me.
When we got on stage, however, I froze. I became more deferential than usual. I felt nervous to make bold moves and let the more experienced players run the show, jumping in only when I felt incredibly confident in my moves.
When we get on stage with our idols, it’s common that we let our heroes run the show. After all, they know best. Do they even really need us?
The answer is, of course, yes. They do. On stage, age, experience, social status, all go away. It has to. The best shows are those where moves are shared equally among players. For the show to succeed, we have to treat one another as equals – on both sides of the spectrum.
“I have to step on his toes. I have to steamroll. Once I got through that wall, of being an asshole towards him and anybody who was a teacher that I then got to play with…you have to break down those barriers, not break down the respect, but break down that somebody is glass and what they say is glass and your instincts might be false.” – Jordan Klepper
I learned this lesson the hard way when my personal improv idol, Andy Sloey, joined my Harold team, Bluebeard. For better or worse, I am typically an aggressive player and am not afraid to put myself out there. But when Andy started playing with us, my style changed. I stopped making bold moves and I held back, looking to him for direction.
As he continued to play with us, I realized that, even though he was awesome, he was just another player. He didn’t want special status. He just wanted to be an equal member of the team. He wouldn’t have been playing with us at all if he thought he was too good for us (not that Andy would ever think he was too good for anyone).
Playing with my hero taught me a lot about improvisation and helped me grow as a player, but I also learned that no matter how amazing someone is, if we are sharing the stage, then everyone deserves to be there, equally. It takes (at least) two to improvise.
Off stage, you should be respectful to everyone – great improviser or hack comedian. But on stage, all bets are off. Be bold. Make yourself known. Because they need you to just as much as you need them.