“What if it’s boring – or if it’s not boring, it might be too revealing, or worse, it might be too revealing and still be boring.”Lily Tomlin
Last week I had the privilege of seeing Lily Tomlin live. Ms. Tomlin lives in a category of my brian loving labelled ‘inspiring performers’. I remember as a child watching Rowen and Martin’s Laugh In and enjoying it immensely. At my age I was not aware of the sexual innuendoes or the political charged gags and sketches, yet I can recall vividly the characters, the relationships and many tag lines. The characters were living cartoons and Lily Tomlin’s characters of Edith and Ernest have always stayed with me. and that’s the truth!
I had no expectations of what a Lily Tomlin show would be like. No, that is a lie, I did expect her to do some brilliant character work and I expected to laugh a lot! Both of which were delivered amply. I just didn’t know what shape or form the show would be in. To my delight what I experienced was a very skilled performer who really knows her craft. The show started with her entrance in a forward roll, then was shaped by sketches, stories, quick one liners and clips of old routines. Her performance style was calm, slow, obvious. She didn’t push, there were no signs of fear and her material ranged from hilarious, to political, to poignant. Ms. Tomlin held the stage and audience for 1 hour and 45 mins., all on her on, with no intermission. I was thrilled. Did I mention she is 72 years of age?
Why am I writing about her in a blog that is supposed to be for impro musings?
The penny dropped at a moment where Ms. Tomlin clearly lost where she was. She stood there for a moment, no panic. Looked at us and said ‘I don’t know what comes next’ (or something along those lines I am paraphrasing). Then she looked up towards the lighting booth and said “Paul, do you know how I get back to…..?” There was no answer. “Thanks!” she said with a grin. Then slowly moved towards her water took a drink, then launched back into the show.
At this moment the following thoughts raced through my mind
“Always look like you know what you are doing.”
“Confident fearless performers move slowly on the stage.”
“Embrace failure with good naturedness and the audience will want you to succeed.”
“Don’t look scared, pissed off or hurt if a scene doesn’t work, the audience doesn’t want to worry about you.”
“If you don’t know what comes next, ask the judges or the host.”
Ok, the last line probably gives away where I heard these lines before. They are all Keith teachings.
Here in front of me was an icon of comedy in a one woman show. She has a successful career behind her which raises the audiences expectations, she has an immense body of work she is going to be compared to, and a sold out theatre waiting to laugh. I’d say the stakes are pretty high and they are all riding on her shoulders. Her handling of that moment did not make me doubt or fear her ability, instead I felt quite safe and in the hands of a pro. It also made it feel like anything could happen. Pretence and barriers are dropped.
It was a living example of the words Keith teaches that so many improvisation companies ignore as they are blinded by fear and the desperation to be good.
Out of all the impro discussions and debates I have had over the years, the one that seems to be the most challenging is the acceptance and embracing of failure and how we deal with that on stage. We know at any moment a show can slip away from the performer. That edge between success and failure can be as thin as a coin and as fateful as a toss of that coin. The acknowledgement and acceptance of failure is a big part of being able to improvise freely. As improvisers we are taught this but do we embrace this in our training and performance?
I would say the percentage of improvisers who are actually, honestly, truthfully ok with a scene failing is quite low. Many improvisers play grin and bare it with the concept of failure because they understand it, but secretly never want to experience it. Others nod at the logic and then do everything they can to never have it happen to them. I’ve even seen teachers teach the principals of accepting failure to be important, but also teach ‘word at a time stories should always end with -the moral of the story is….’ By giving people a how to always do…, is protecting people from experiencing failure. You tell them the concept is important, but reinforce how to be successful in application. This isn’t teaching impro, this is teaching regurgitation of impro.
The panic, tactics and devices impro companies will use to create a show that is guaranteed to be good is amazing. What they don’t see, or understand, or believe is these choices destroy and limit the improvisation. In essence the very same thing you are doing to make the show better is destroying the point of the show. By dressing up the show to make it faster, brighter, louder, trendy and funny all the time -you sacrifice the improvisation. You can dress it up, but it ain’t going anywhere.
We work so damn hard at being good that we don’t allow failure and that limits our ability to succeed. If you take a leap into the unknown you have to embrace the obvious reality that there are 2 possible outcomes – success or failure. If we fear the failure, will we leap? No, of course not.
The panic, tactics, dressing up, clever additions to the show – these are all clear signs that the director or players don’t trust the improvisation. At heart, you don’t trust the work and the ability for the improvisers to connect, play and create. You don’t trust the unknown, you fear it. You don’t want to see what can happen, you want to know what will happen. If we embrace the fear we remove the fear. If you fight the fear and try to be perfect you actually build more fear for yourself.
Applying Keith’s words that I mentioned above like “Embrace failure with good naturedness and the audience will want you to succeed.” will support the improvisers in their failure moments, and create an atmosphere in the room for inspired play.
These Keith teachings provide support for improvisers to take the leap into the unknown and know they can handle success or failure. It enables, allows and it trusts.
The truth of the matter is that for all the improvisers out there many still don’t trust themselves, their partners and the work. How can you embrace the unknown without that?
In that moment when Lily Tomlin blanked, I bet her mind was racing, her heart began to beat faster and she deeply feared screwing up the show, loosing the audience and being a disaster. She feared that failure and she didn’t give into that fear. Maybe after 50+ years of performance Lily Tomlin has learned to trust herself, her work and her audience.