Last night, Mandinka had a show at ColdTowne, our thirteenth. It was one of our best shows; Mia agrees. But why? What’s the difference between a “good” show and a “bad” show?
Part of it has to do with that universal determiner: attitude.
I have a tendency to overanalyze a show, focusing too much on its shortcomings and ignoring its highlights. Pro football players are fond of saying that they remember losses far longer than wins. I understand that. Even Nick Saban, coach of the the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, was quoted as saying that he enjoyed his most recent national championship for about an hour before he started scheming and planning for the next season. Thirty minutes is extreme; and it suggests that Nick Saban might be a secretly miserable human being whose obsessive personality has made it impossible for him to live in the moment.
But still, I get Saban’s point. As humans, I think we’re wired this way. After all, it is evolutionarily beneficial to spend our time improving on our deficiencies, instead of reveling in our successes. If we were mountain goats, we could spend our days strutting around the boulder proud of how powerful and thick our horns are; meanwhile, the mountain lion is creeping up, ready to devour us. If, instead, we focus on how to run and climb faster (because we know we need improvement) then perhaps the mountain lion won’t have us for dinner.
OK, that’s a tortured metaphor. My point is that we shouldn’t feel guilty for criticizing our improv performances; it’s hard-wired into our genetics.
But of course, we aren’t complete slaves to our DNA. We have free will, we have civilized brains. So we can choose not to needlessly critique our shows. (And whatever you do, don’t criticize your troupe mates. I become a stronger believer everyday that giving notes to your partner is a disastrous idea.)
The key is to find a balance between criticism and revelry. Enjoy your shows, and how lovely it is that you even get to do an improv show; but keep an eye for those bad improv habits that keep cropping up so you can dismiss them forever. Don’t sink into self-hate and don’t float away on your ego balloon.
So back to last night’s show…
Mia and I arrived at the theater about an hour early with fantastic attitudes. I was well rested, had had a productive day at work, and was well fed. Mia, meanwhile, was just returning from a trip back home to see her mom, and she had the usual boundless energy that is sort of her thing.
Another thing: we didn’t warm-up much. We sat in the green room and discussed our weekends in detail, catching up. We did some quick word-association. We did a couple of physical moves. And we lip-synched to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” in the parking lot with my car doors open. That’s about it. Just two light-hearted, healthy young white people being silly and friendly. Then we went onstage.
Let me preface my next statement with this one: I am 100% in favor of warming up. But also: I think each show needs its own warm-up routine, some of which are very short. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock fame) said that, if he has it his way, he shows up to the theater just as his show’s starting. He wants to be able to walk from his car into the theater and onstage without stopping.
Again, I think his approach is extreme for me. I’m not quite that “seasoned.” But again, I understand this attitude. If I’m already in a good, peppy mood, then I don’t want to spend 30 minutes doing a warm-up gauntlet. Instead, give me five solid minutes of my partner and I making eye contact, touching a bit, telling stories about our days and weeks, and laughing together a lot. Give me that and I’m ready to go.
Obviously, some shows demand a bit more formal warm-up. Shows with big casts, for example, need some more time to gel as a unit. But when it’s just Mia and I, I’m comfortable with a handful of minutes to check-in with each other. That’s it. That’s all I need. Too much warm-up can fry my brain and drain my enthusiasm. And it gives me more time to think and ponder. And if there’s anything I should be doing before an improv show, it’s not pondering.
As for the show itself: we listened like thieves to each other. Very few offers were abandoned (a problem we sometimes have). We had more call-backs than usual, including a pretty killer one at the very end of the show. We were more engaged with the whole show—-which translated into more pop-outs, more character swaps, etc. The energy was both higher and more focused. We told a nice little story with a touching ending, and we got some laughs along the way.
My explicit goal going into the show was: BE COMMITTED! The more I talk improv shop, the more convinced I am that “commitment” is everything in improv. If you are committed you will win, period. You will win improv. You will be crowned improv champ. If you half-ass, or even worse 95%-ass, something, the audience will hate you for it a little bit, and your show will not be as good as it could be.
So for me, last night was about committing and not abandoning whatever I created the moment an easy joke came along. And for the most part, I nailed this. My characters were realer, more down-to-earth. My physical movement around the stage was cranked up a notch higher than normal.
Mandinka is re-invigorated after a couple of middle-of-the-road shows. I think Mia and I can be a truly excellent improv duo, and each show moves us, somehow, in that direction. We’ve placed more regular, recurring schedules on our calendars. We’re lining up coaches here and there. And we’re talking a bit more about our specific goals.
It’s an exciting time to be in Mandinka. If you don’t already, you should go get a Mandinka of your own. I highly recommend it.