I’ve only been doing improv for a little while, but I sure do think about it a lot. And something I’ve been thinking about with respect to improv in the past couple weeks is generosity.
A friend of mine who has almost no familiarity with improv came to my latest show. Completely unprompted by me, he said he could tell from watching the show that Kit FitzSimons is a generous improviser. (If you’ll recall, I called both Kit and Vinny Valdivia generous improvisers in my post, Beginner’s Mind and Advancing in Improv.) I said, “Yes, exactly!” and the more I think about it, I’m not sure there’s a quality I’d rather have in a scene partner or have someone ascribe to me than generosity.
We learn lots of rules and tips and tricks in improv; we learn the power of YES AND, of unconditionally affirming and building upon our partner’s offers. We learn to accept those offers; we learn to listen. We learn to let go of our planned ideas and follow the consequences of the things our scene partners are saying. We learn a lot more, a lot deeper, a lot broader, but these fundamental principles, I think, are mostly teaching us how to be generous.
We learn early to give gifts: to endow our scene partner’s character with a particular quality, to direct them to do something or avoid something in such a way that it’s clear that in the scene they should do the opposite of whatever we’ve said. If we’re playing a character game that’s been established ahead of time, as the Improvised Whedon Company does, we give them the gift of naming their character and identifying their game at the top of the scene, because it’s hard to do that yourself and it not feel like becoming the improv equivalent of a human pretzel.
I think when we learn to be generous in improv, we learn to be generous in other parts of our lives, too. In a scene, I can give my partner the gift of establishing our relationship and the stakes of the scene up top. Having done so, I feel more empowered to give people in my life the gift of making it clear how much I value their presence in my life, how much I see their strengths, how much I want to see them succeed.
I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning; one of the things I’m gathering about improv is that after you’ve been doing it for twenty or thirty or forty years, you’re still learning. And one of the things I’m still learning, I hope, is how to be a generous scene partner and a generous person.
In addition to thinking about generosity, I’ve been thinking about success in improv, and what it means to be to be successful. Success in improv for me doesn’t consist of moving to Chicago, New York, or LA. It doesn’t consist of making it onto the mainstage at Second City or UCB or even onto a DSI house Harold team or Mr. Diplomat or DSI TourCo. Success in improv for me means two things: 1. I get to keep playing, consistently, with fun people I adore. 2.One day, somebody says to someone who has been on stage with me, “Kimberly strikes me as a really generous improviser,” and then my scene partner says, “YES EXACTLY.”