Etiquette & Empathy – Learn the Former, Strive for the Latter

Of all things, long form improv resembles golf, definitely not in terms of energy, pace, or any aspect of appearance. The two share a similar DNA of rules and etiquette. For example, in golf your tee off order generally pays respect to the scorecard, how you determine the order of who swings down the fairway and eventually at the green is based on respect for distance from the hole rather than just cycling through in turn.

Similarly, long form improv has a set of subtle rules that guide performers as they come off the wall onto the stage. These rules are so subtle that when you see a good improv team at Second City or UCB you may think it’s all just spontaneous comedy happening. The truth is there’s a lot of little etiquette guiding people on stage on top of the methods and science to finding game and developing humor.

I’ve started a third round of improv classes recently and after my second class I’m realizing that these manners work very much as they do in day to day life: you can follow the letter of them, but you need to have real empathy behind them if they’re really going to matter. I’ve talked before about “performative wokeness” and what I’m driving at when I call that out is that the people guilty of it are lacking true empathy but rather following a script to appear to be a thing rather than actually having the heart and true sensitivity/care to truly be that to their cores.

In improv, at the heart of making those rules work is empathy on the stage: you need to not only respect the “rule” that the first person out gets to initiate and say the first line to establish the scene, you have to actually listen to that person’s establishment- not just the facts of it (who, what, where), but the heart of it: how are they saying it? What does that imply towards relationship, mood, and dynamic?

At the end of the day, in life and on the stage manners as a set of edicts will carry us well enough. You’ll be able to amble through a scene effectively enough by following the flow chart of what to say and when. However, to really get at something special? That takes listening. It takes patience and understanding.

It only occurred to me last night grabbing drinks with my new classmates that I didn’t have as great a time in my second level class because there was no kinship in the class. While we could start scenes and follow the rules, we didn’t have the off stage empathy and fellowship that could enrich to our performances. Already with this third class we have that fellowship, we’re getting to know and understand each other and it’s leading to trust and sensitivity in our work in class that transcends those rules, it’s coming from a place of genuinely knowing, listening, and seeing one another.

Maybe you’re not overthinking improv or acting classes like I am, but I think it’s important to pause in real life just as we do in Improv scenes and listen. More than just listening, really seeing and feeling what the person is saying, how they’re saying it, and why they’re saying it then responding based on that. It’s how we move forward.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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