There’s nothing more I love about Seattle than seeing August Wilson at the Seattle Rep, and so I was excited to attend The Piano Lesson today. Every time I see a good show there, I’m reminded that there’s so much potential for theater that we improvisers lose when we stop growing as collaborative story tellers.
I’m in a lot of strong shows and I have the blessing to work with tons of great improvisers. That said, I’ve been in few shows, including successful ones, over the last couple of years where most investment in storytelling and stakes was immediately spent for a few laughs or to fill space when a performer wasn’t sure how to further invest in the story. I’ve seen a lot of performers advance straight through the most dramatically interesting parts of stories because we didn’t trust the moment. And I’ve seen a lot of disdain (or at least lack of appreciation) for performers who play the quiet roles, the slow stakes-building roles, the roles that simmer for a long time before they burst into flame. And so, as successful as these shows have been, it’s hard to see the potential for how much greater they could be.
August Wilson’s a great storyteller, so I don’t want to set too high a bar, but a lot of what happens in great plays could be achieved by a group of truly collaborative improvisers. The majority of the cast of characters in The Piano Lesson is in place to heighten everything around the central conflict, as embodied by just two characters. And all those support character actors are great! The best acting in today’s show came from those roles. Many of them spent large portions of the play offstage, or sitting at a table, reacting quietly and giving focus to the rest of the scene. When they did have focus, they were engaging and entertaining, but rather than heightening their own character’s story, they used those moments to reinforce the weight of the conflict, before handing all that investment right back to the main drama of the show. In the end, the weight all falls onto the two descendants who have come to own the piano and must decide what to do with it, so that at the end, the piano (and therefore the outcome of the show) has a full two hours of invested weight.
The best metaphor I can come up with is that every story has a piggy bank. Any time we expand long enough in an engaging way and the audience gives us their attention, we take that gold, and we have the option to spend it immediately for a laugh, or we can add that gold to that bank. When we have enough gold in the bank, the audience starts leaning in more. They give us more gold. Over the course of the story, you start spending some of that gold you’ve invested in the bank: characters have minor epiphanies, there are funny moments that arise out the story, etc. The gold left in the bank earns interest. You can measure how much you’ve invested by how much the audience cares about the outcome of the story. And at the end of the story, if we nail the ending, we hand that gold back to the audience.
Great. There are a lot of performers out there who have learned the audience likes it when you give them money. New improvisers learn to earn gold and hand it right back to the audience, and they enjoy the reaction they give. New improvisers who are greedy might learn to earn some quick gold at another performer’s expense and throw it right back to the audience by bluntly commenting or playing a character who doesn’t give a crap: both guaranteed ways to get a laugh and usually let the air out of the scene . Experienced improvisers might invest in expanding on a relationship in an engaging way and add gold to the bank. The best performers are engaging enough to save gold and also give some back to the audience as they do so. But experienced improvisers who are greedy start taking it on themselves to listen well enough to be able to take gold from the bank and spend it ahead of time, before the whole cast has time to grow that gold. Thus arises that performer who gets feedback from audience, students, and even other improvisers, but who collaborators don’t really enjoy playing with. The Janitor who already sang a song about advice, who suddenly jumps in front of the two lovers with another funny song, interrupting the big kiss the audience was waiting for. From that greedy performer’s point-of-view, the money in the bank is there for the taking, and the other performers just aren’t quick or bold enough to reach into the bank and take it. From the other performer’s points-of-view, they were trusting the other improvisers to allow the story to reach the point where the time was right.
Now, it’s true that there are also performers who are green enough, or haven’t learned the confidence, or aren’t listening well enough to take gold from the bank when it’s time to do so. But I think a lot of greedy, experienced improvisers assume that of their fellow players far too often, and start to believe their role is to spend the money on their fellow performer’s behalf. Eventually, performers who invest become disillusioned, and so they either join the greedier performers in spending the gold sooner, or they move on to other things. I believe this is the reason I rarely see groups of more than a couple of improvisers really transcend this pattern and learn to invest as a group, and only then, silently as a group, allow the appropriate characters to spend the majority of that invested gold.
I think improv directors and groups can spend a lot more time exploring and investing in these dynamics simply by paying attention to it, and letting it be part of notes and direction. Players who invest but don’t get a big laugh need to be appreciated and supported for what they do. Most of us were drawn to performing, at some level, by a desire for appreciation: the “funny” improvisers get theirs from the audience on stage. The performers doing the work behind the scenes need to receive their share off stage.