On the phone last night, one of my favorite improvisers accused me of being too competitive about improv. This was after I said I really want to win our Cagematch Semifinal bout tonight at ColdTowne Theater. She claimed that what mattered was having fun and putting on the best show we could, not some arbitrary “victory.”
She has a point. But also, she’s completely wrong.
On the one hand:
Back in 2004 I was a member of the Austin National Poetry Slam Team—the team of slam poets representing Austin at the National Poetry Slam, which that year was being held in the grossest large city I know, St. Louis.
That summer, as I and my four teammates wrote and rehearsed our poems, a documentary film crew followed us around. The resulting documentary is called Slam Planet. Here’s the trailer:
Thankfully, almost nobody has seen Slam Planet. “Thankfully” because I come off as a grade-A douchebag in the movie. Whenever the camera cuts to me, I’m talking shit about the other poetry slam teams we’re competing against.
In one scene, our coach is announcing to us the three other teams against which we’d be competing in the preliminary bout. As he lists each one—Providence! Albuquerque! Salt Lake City!—I smirk, shake my head, make that throat-slicing gesture with my finger, and basically say, “We’re going to beat them, no problem. Good poets can’t possibly live in those cities. We’re Austin. We win.”
Fast forward to our preliminary bout at the National Slam, and cut to us losing in spectacular fashion, even after a very sweaty me decides to use my surefire winning poem entitled “Janet Jackson’s Titty.”
Our team didn’t advance to the semifinals. And worse, we looked like a pile of dicks. Our swagger and cockiness, as swagger and cockiness often is, was shot down in a blaze of humility. With us out of the tournament, the documentary crew disappeared and began following the New York City team who had advanced.
When I think of that summer and of my attitude, I cringe. And when my improv-buddy told me on the phone last night that I’m too competitive, I flashbacked to those scenes from Slam Planet. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I shouldn’t have a sense of competition in improv.
On the other hand:
I can’t help myself! Here’s another story:
It’s 1997. I’ve lived in Austin a mere two weeks. I’m a freshman at The University of Texas. The world is opening up before me—girls, recreational substances, parties, freedom!
But above all of these, I was most excited about joining the UT Speech Team. I’d been a speech-and-debate nerd throughout high school. And while I was a terrible debater—e..g, during the final round of a major debate tournament on the topic of feminism, I referred to my competitor, whose excellent questioning during cross-examination was flustering me, as “babe”—I seemed to have a knack for the speech events. I was an actor, not a lawyer.
But the UT team was serious business. They had won the overall National Championship for seven years in a row. And the speech half of their speech-and-debate team pretty much dominated wherever they competed. Making the UT team meant getting to travel almost every weekend (for free!) and spending almost all of my free time writing, researching, editing, and performing all sorts of cool speech-y events.
But there were limited slots available. And plenty of incoming freshmen were auditioning. I wanted this bad, real bad.
The sense of competitiveness—of wanting to make a better impression than my fellow auditioners, of needing to rehearse harder and longer in order to be seen as one of the best—is what fueled me to spend (in retrospect, a ridiculous amount of) hours preparing for my audition.
And I made the team. In fact, the Head Coach of the team later told me that it was one of the most polished auditions he’d ever seen.
Over the course of my freshmen year, my competitive nature spurred me on. I worked on my speech-team duties harder than almost anyone, and it resulted in a fantastic performance at the National Championship Tournament—one of the best showings by a UT freshman ever.
The difference between my time on the slam poetry team and the speech team was simple: focus and hard work.
On the poetry slam team, I was resting on history. The year before the disaster in St. Louis, I was a member of the Austin Poetry Slam Team that had made it to the finals and placed 3rd in Chicago. But the year of the documentary I’d grown lazy and complacent. I stupidly thought that because I’d enjoyed some success the year before I would, naturally, see the same success this year. So I didn’t write or rehearse as much. I didn’t attempt to innovate. I didn’t show up.
But on the speech team, I was younger and hungrier. Sure, I’d be semi-successful in high school, but this was the big leagues, and I took that seriously. So I gave myself over to the speech team. I worked hard, hard, hard. Past success paled in comparison to the success I wanted to achieve in college, so my hunger grew. And I knew instinctively that the only way to satiate that hunger was to do everything I could to find an edge on my competitors. Because I’m not John Berrymore, I had to rehearse and drill. Talent alone, whatever meager scraps I had, wouldn’t carry me toward the Promised Land.
So what about improv?
On the surface, the Austin improv community has a very touchy feely vibe. Everybody loves each other! Everybody roots each other on! Nobody competes!
Except, of course, that’s not true.
Egos get involved. Stage time is precious. Opportunities to perform good improv in front of a full crowd are limited. There are hundreds of other people attempting to get their hands on that time.
Yes, the improv scene is chock full of kind, generous, wonderful people; that doesn’t mean we don’t want to out-perform them and be as successful as possible. For those of us for whom improv has become a real passion, competition is natural. When I get offstage, part of me hopes the audience thinks to themselves, “That guy was fantastic. I liked him more than that show after him.” Audiences have that kind of conversation all the time. When they leave a show, they discuss what they liked and what they didn’t. I wanna be in the former group. And wanting that doesn’t make you a cocky a-hole; it makes you a human being who enjoys success.
That said, being competitive is a delicate balance: Don’t root for others to fail. Don’t lie or cheat or steal. Honor your commitments. Treat everyone honestly and kindly.
But don’t abandon your urge to succeed just so you can appear like the “nice guy/girl.” Lean in. Seize what is yours. Rehearse more than others. Read more. Watch more. Do more. Make your improv as rich and polished and compelling as you possibly can. Take some pride in your achievements. If you do a good show, enjoy it. Don’t fake humility when others compliment you. Embrace a healthy dose of competitiveness that can serve as your fuel.
And if you come watch Mandinka at the ColdTowne Cagematch Semifinals tonight at 10 pm—performing our brand-new format entitled, simply, HATS!—please vote for us only if you think we deserve your vote. Losing is perfectly OK; it just means I’ll work harder next time.