The effect of approval and disapproval on improvisation.

Approval and disapproval

I’ve been thinking lots about the concepts of approval and disapproval recently and their effect on improvisers. Inspired a bit by Viola Spolin’s book.

At the start of the workshop I got everyone to go round the circle saying their name. It sounds simple but lots of people mutter it, or pass it as quickly as possible to the next person, or avoid eye contact at all costs.

Even with the simple exercise of saying your name to the group there is a slight fear of disapproval, of getting it wrong, of making a fool of yourself that results in people not revealing themselves.

So I made up a new game around it. We went around the circle again with each person saying their name. This time however the rest of the group was to either loudly clap them or boo them. There was to be no middle ground, the group has to clap or boo loudly all at once, with them all making the same collective decision. It was important too that the decision was arbitary, so the audience response/approval was arbitary.

It was really interesting what happened. The first thing that happened was there was a lot of laughter in the room. Really deep, falling on the floor and rolling about belly laughs. Laughter often results from cutting the tension in the room and this exercise seemed to already have spotted one of the biggest tensions in a workshop envioronment – the need for approval and the fear of disapproval.

The people who got clapped looked relieved and cheerful. The people who got booed either found it hilarious (encouraging boos throughout the night) or looked a bit surprised. Even though the approval/disapproval was now arbitary and meaningless it affected people on an emotional level.

So we continued a few more times around the circle, saying our names and then receiving a response.

As it went on other factors came in to play. Some spoke without fear, without a care in the world, as they were no longer looking for or relying on approval and didn’t fear disapproval. Others seem to thrive on disapproval and playfully seek it. Others seemed terrified of the possible outcome, and still anxious in saying their name, even though it was repeatedly said the response would be arbitrary and meaningless.

Strangely enough some people got jealous of the people booed, because it had come a little ‘in’ game.

But basically the concept of potential approval/disapproval screwed with the improviser in the most simple of games (saying names) even when it was arbitrary and meaningless. I then applied the same responses to another exercise – three line scenes. Pairs of improvisers took it in turns to improvise three line scenes which were then greeted with united claps or boos on an arbitrary basis. Same as before, some freeze up, some are thrilled, but all are affected in some way.

The general point of the exercise became can you disconnect your own self worth from the need for outside approval or disapproval? Can you perform the same regardless of what kind of feedback you are going to get back. If I told the performers before the three line scenes that they would get a massive boo whatever they did, they would freeze up or enter the stage half hearted. If I told them they would receive a massive cheer whatever they did, they would enter with enjoyment and energy and relief.

As a teacher my job is often to provide approval and positive affirmation. When I do this people open up and become confident. But perhaps there is too much of this you can do. Some more experienced teachers provide no approval or disapproval at all, so the student’s journey is more about themselves and less about attempting to fit in with someone else’s personal taste. Jonathan Kay ends every single scene with a “thank you very much” with exactly the same energy and doesn’t comment on it at all. Relying on external approval for your own improvisation isn’t a good long term strategy.

A comment observation is that the improvisation that happens in workshops is much better than the improvisation that is seen in shows (obviously not all the time, but you get the idea). I think a large amount of this is, apart from warm up time, due to approval/disapproval. In workshops there is constant approval from a coach and other students. In a show an audience is looking for a reason that they have given up time to watch, and only approve when it is deserved.

Sometimes actors blame an audience for a cold reception, but the energy is the other way round from a workshop. There is a little inherent approval in a show, so the actors have to approve themselves and carry on performing and working and doing good impro until the audience catches up. The lack of initial approval should not lead to improvisers blocking and gagging in a panic, good impro should be carried out as that’s the only thing we can share and rely on.

So if the external approval isn’t in the room, what should we do? Give approval to our own ideas and more importantly to the other actor.

Saying yes and isn’t just a personal creative strategy, it’s a group philosophy. Caring less about you’re doing and giving more to approving the other actor and adding to what they say is an incredibly giving thing to do. As their ideas are approved by you they become more confident, more creative, and the group as a whole becomes greater.

Whenever an improviser is worried about external approval, for instance from an audition, reviewer, influential people or peer group in audience, they suddenly freeze up as they become concerned about themselves. So take the focus of yourself and put it onto your fellow actor, give them approval and let the group grow.


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