Can You be Trusted?
Many improvisors and actors believe that being a great performer means that you have to blindly trust others, even if your gut is telling you not to. This is even encouraged by some teachers and directors. This leads many performers to allow others to encroach on their personal space, be touched in uncomfortable ways, engage in unwanted intimate behavior, or participate in scenes with subject matters that violate their ethics. Some will judge themselves harshly because they find it very difficult to cross certain boundaries and will label themselves uptight, inhibited, untalented, etc. The truth is, being compliant and allowing others to control you does not make you a better performer or more talented. On the contrary, ignoring or judging your feelings and instincts will inhibit you and interfere with your ability to express yourself authentically and fully.
Setting boundaries, trusting your instincts, and upholding your own personal and ethical standards is a healthy thing to do and will ultimately empower you and make you a better performer.
Boundaries do not suppress creativity, they actually encourage it. For example, a basketball player must play by a certain set of rules. What makes him or her a great player is the ingenuity that he or she uses to make a play while still following the rules of the game. Similarly, if performers understand what their boundaries are, they are free to find creative ways to stay within them. Agreeing on boundaries also creates mutual trust and understanding, thereby creating a safe environment in which to express yourself.
Some performers will be judgmental and try to pressure or shame others who are not willing to do anything and everything for their craft. Some will even try to force you into behaviors that you do not wish to engage in. These are the very performers that do not deserve your trust.
More commonly, though, other performers unintentionally violate your personal boundaries. Most people do not want to offend you or make you uncomfortable, they just don’t know how you feel or what you need. Rather than feeling helpless or angry, you can build a trusting relationship if you communicate honestly with others and encourage them to do the same with you.
Trust is Earned
No one automatically deserves your trust. Having a certain level of distrust is healthy and, in the “real” world, it can even save your life. Although it is true that we can all examine our own trust and intimacy issues, take greater risks, work on expressing ourselves more fully and freely, stretch our “comfort zones”, and test our boundaries, it is important that we do it in our own way and in our own time. If we feel safe, we are more likely to take chances and experience personal growth.
For example, I had a wonderful Orthodox Jewish student who was raised in an environment where she did not engage in any physical contact with boys. She wasn’t opposed to it, necessarily, but she wasn’t ready to venture into that territory. She found herself in several improv scenes that made her uncomfortable because they had romantic content or physical contact with male students. She approached me with this issue and I suggested she speak to the class about how she was feeling. I told her that if she made her classmates aware of her boundaries, I was confident that they would respect them. Although she felt a bit uncomfortable about doing this, she went ahead and told the class, and everyone was perfectly willing to respect her boundaries.
In the classes that followed, she very swiftly became more comfortable with the men in the class as together they navigated their improv exercises and scenes within her boundaries. Her scene work improved dramatically and she was much more relaxed on stage. Gradually, she even became physically engaging with them. She would hug them “hello” when class started and “goodbye” when class ended. In her scene work, she began to explore romantic topics as well as many other areas that were uncomfortable for her. Other students in the class marveled at her growth and were always eager to get up and do scenes with her. Her strength of character was an inspiration to others. It was amazing how quickly she blossomed as an improvisor after she took a stand and asked for what she needed.
Being someone who others feel comfortable, open and safe with is actually what makes someone a great improvisor. Most of us have experienced being on stage with someone who we feel totally free and open with. We find ourselves stretching our comfort zones, exploring new territory, tapping into new ideas and opening up emotionally. The reason we feel this way is because they are trustworthy.
What does it take to be trustworthy?
Trustworthy people accept you for what you are and not what they think you should be. They are authentically themselves and acknowledge their own flaws and weaknesses. They inspire you to take risks by setting an example and encouraging you, not by pressuring or shaming you. They respect your personal boundaries without judgment. They validate your feelings and your ideas. They are engaged and connected without being overbearing or manipulative. They are not driven by their egos or self-righteousness but by the desire to play and create. They can accept limitations and learn how to be even more creative and resourceful in order to stay within these limitations.
Trustworthy people are neither passive or aggressive. They step up to the plate and challenge themselves. They will tell you the truth if you do something that they disagree with, but will respect that you have different viewpoints. They can be very outgoing and expressive, or they can be reserved and subdued. What they have in common is that they are honest, authentic, empathetic and accepting of others and themselves.
One of the reasons my student felt safe testing her boundaries was because the other students in the class were trustworthy. They accepted her completely and were willing to play within her bounds. They set an example by crossing those boundaries with other students who were more comfortable with it, and showed that it was safe to play with them. They understood that just because you engage in certain behaviors on stage, it doesn’t give you license to do so off stage. As a result, an atmosphere of trust and free play was created and everyone was able to learn, take risks and grow in their own way and in their own time.
By working on your own trustworthiness, you will find that you become more trusting. Fear of being cajoled into behaviors that violate your personal standards disappears. You develop confidence in your ability to handle whatever you are confronted with. Upholding your ethics and standards becomes more important than your fear of being judged or of having disagreements. You trust your instincts, and make choices accordingly. And sometimes the choice you make is that you do not want to work with a particular person or group.
Most people do not want to violate your trust. We are all carrying emotional baggage around with us and we are all struggling with something. This often affects our behavior and interferes with our ability to effectively relate to others. However, if we are willing to face our fears, interact with honesty and integrity, and respect and accept others, we will create more meaningful relationships which will ultimately be reflected in our improv work.
Dear Mrs. Crabby,
I have my very first Improvisation Show coming up next week! I am SOOOOOO excited!! And scared. I am mostly scared because I do not have anything cool to wear!! I moved to New York with just one suitcase that could hold my waiter clothes and a mechanic's coveralls, for the jobs I need to be able to live! I want to look very special for my first show, but have no idea what to do. I have about $3.21 left in my pocket after paying rent. Any ideas for me?
Hon! With $3.21 get yourself to a vintage store and buy a cool looking jacket. I would recommend plaid! Anything in plaid is going to look fabulous onstage and set you apart. If you can't find a jacket, then a lovely cardigan will work as well. You can wear this over your waiter pants and it will look great! I do not recommend wearing the mechanic's coveralls as the audience is likely to think you're a flasher or serial killer and become quite uncomfortable. Just a thought. If these things don't work and you are extremely desperate, then sneak in to a funeral home and see if there's a stiff your size you can pinch the clothes from. They won't object, and will probably cheer you from beyond. Just don't get caught. Though I don't like to recommend this because it is stealing and illegal and wrong and all. That's why I would want you to get the family's address to mail the clothes back when your show is over, with a lovely thank you note!
Hope this helps, hon! At the worst you'll have to shut up and suck it up and wear the waiter's outfit and pray nobody gives you a dinner order.
Here is another piece I wrote and performed at one of Mike Fiorito's Spoken Word events at Vox Pop. I'm sure some of you can relate.
Hot and Bothered
A feeling of warmth overcomes me as I walk through the door of the softly lit restaurant and I see you waiting for me. Smooth jazz drifts through the air. A white table cloth, a bottle of wine and a candle adorn the table where you are sitting. As our eyes meet, my breathing becomes heavier and I struggle to keep my balance.
You smile sweetly and your eyes widen as I approach you. My face becomes completely flushed and my heart begins to flutter. Perspiration drenches my skin as my body temperature rises. Dizzy and breathless, I steady myself as I make my way to the table and slither into the chair across the table from you. Unable to contain myself any longer, I forcefully rip open the top two buttons of my blouse exposing my heaving cleavage to the cool air. I lean on the table as I look you in the eye with mouth agape.
We both know exactly what’s going on here: menopause.
There are many styles of improv out there, and there are lots of opinions and judgements flying around about which form is superior, or true art, or real improv. I’ve seen many improvisors look down their noses at others who are doing a different style of improv than they are. I personally think it’s great that the art form of improvisation has branched out into so many different directions and I believe that all of the forms – long form, short form, musical and the myriad of subgroups within these – have merit and should be respected, even if it’s not your cup of tea. And I applaud improvisors who experiment with new forms or try out forms they haven't done before.
There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind. - Duke Ellington
I’ve seen wonderful and dreadful improv in many forms, and I’ve done dreadful and wonderful improv in many forms. I’ve seen Harolds that were just a series of recycled penis jokes, and I’ve seen Alphabet Scenes that were profound and told a great story, and vice versa. I don’t attribute the quality of a performance with the chosen form. I attribute it to the group dynamic, the skill of the improvisors and serendipity.
So in the words of Rodney King,
“Can’t we all just get along?”
Laura Merrill is a strong comedic actor and writer. She has recently contributed as a writer and performer to "The Beverly Bonner Show" at Broadway Comedy Club, and "In Transit" and "Something Outrageous" at the 45th Street Theater. She has experience in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and scenic design.
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