Don’t Apologize; Embrace “Mistakes”

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Introduction

Here are another 2 credos I like to preach: “Don’t Apologize” and “Embrace Mistakes”.

If what follows is <tl;dr>  just skip to the last section of this post to get to the yummy part of “embracing”.  (can you spot the “mistake” in the yummy image below?)

Mistake

Unhooking

Let me first introduce the term “unhooking” as I will need it in what follows: it means, as a character, to stop doing something.  There are 3 reasons why players unhook:

  • (Perceived) mistakes.
  • The idea that what they are doing is not good enough.
  • Inattention.

Examples include:

  • Losing a character’s accent or physicality. Player starts a scene with a Scottish accent and over the course of the scene the accent disappears. (either inattention of the feeling that their accent is not done well enough)
  • Player starts the scene as a character with a poor leg, and by the end of the scene the character (magically) manages to move about effortlessly. (usually inattention)
  • Player initiates a scene by sweeping the floor, is endowed by “being the President” and drops the action, because “a President is not supposed to sweep floors”. (perceived mistake)
  • I see unhooking most often when inexperienced players get to sing: they will start singing, then get self conscious, decide in their head “this is not good enough” and subsequently their singing sort of dies out – rather than placing a clear and strong ending.

We will ignore inattention for the remainder of this post; but “not being good enough” is in my book equal to “it was a mistake trying to do this because I suck at it”.

Allowing Mistakes

In improv, a mistake is only a mistake if you (as a player) allow it to be a mistake or acknowledge it as a mistake. By allowing/acknowledging a mistake I include: ignoring, acknowledging, apologizing and correcting the mistake. Let’s see what I mean by those terms.

Example: Wrong Name

  • Player A (husband) calls player B (wife) by the wrong name;
  • B: it’s Karen, not Cindy;
  • A: Sorry;
  • Scene continues.

Here we actually have 4 cases:

  • B acknowledges the mistake, simply by her reaction.
  • B literally corrects A by telling him what is “right”.
  • A literally apologizes (saying “sorry”).
  • Scene subsequently ignores that the mistake happened.

Ignoring could also be when the both characters simply brush off the mistake, not react to it at all and continue the scene as if the mistake did not happen.

Al that may seem obvious (it is) but things like apologizing happens in more subtle ways as well by means of non-verbal communication.  And it’s a big no-no in my book.

Apologizing

Let’s take this one first because it is the worst kind of a player’s reaction. Players tend to (subtly and usually unwillingly) apologize for 2 reasons: making “mistakes” and “not doing something well enough”.  First off, unhooking is kind of an apology.   But more importantly, very often unhooking goes hand in hand with pulling a disapproving face; players will unknowingly and non-verbally communicate to their audiences: I suck/I’m wrong.  As a result, the audience will (probably) conclude: she sucks or she’s wrong.

Apologizing is kind of breaking the fourth wall: it is a reaction of the player, not the character.  And it it the player addressing this reaction to the audience, not to the other characters (or players for that matter) on stage. And it is the player admitting to the audience he screwed up.  There is absolutely no need for that.

Some players manage to apologize in a playful way, and if they do it’s usually a very conscious decision. Which can actually be quite funny, or even charming when done in a playful, self-deprecating way.  I have seen players doing?saying god-knows-what, and then turn to the audience, throwing their hands up in the air, get a laugh, and then return to the scene.   In a comedy performance that can be harmless; if you are doing theatrical improv you probably don’t want to go there.

Apologizing as a player is also a kind of unhooking, because you (as a player) briefly stop doing what you were doing (playing the character).

BTW: An apology by a character instead of the player is not merely as bad.  And it can actually lead to embracing the mistake – see further for that.

And to conclude this paragraph, note that acknowledging a mistake does not need to imply apologizing. The sweeping President might state “Why am I sweeping here? I’m the President now. You sweep!”

Justifying Mistakes

Justifying is better than apologizing or neglecting. The Sweeping President might react along the lines of “Yes I’m sweeping, Jones.  I should not be sweeping, I’m the darned president. But it’s outright dirty here. The Oval Office should be squeaky clean – fire the maid”.  Definitely better than ignoring or apologizing.  But one can do better!

Embracing Mistakes

Embracing mistakes is more than justifying them.  In the previous example (fire the maid) the scene will probably continue with no further reference to the sweeping.  Which really boils down to “justify-and-forget”.  If you embrace the sweeping you try and consider the “mistake” as an (unexpected) gift, to be exploited to the fullest.  Not be be forgotten or ignored post justification.

Justifying a mistake is the “yes” in “yes-and”.  Embracing is the “and” part: accept what happened, make it bigger and make it important.  Turn the mistake into reality, and next answer the question: if this is real, then what else might be real?  What I mean is best illustrated by means of examples.

Example: The Sweeping President

Let’s revisit the example of the Sweeping President: it’s perhaps unusual for a president to sweep his office’s floor.  But it happened, so let’s consider that to have meaning; accept the fact that the president sweeps, and find out what that reality might lead to.

Embracing the “mistake” might be endowing the president  with OCD about sweeping: this guy loves to sweep and must sweep – always & everywhere. Make it important to the character, make it matter, make it bigger. The possibilities are endless:

  • His staff does not want him to sweep – he needs to focus his attention to more worldly matters. So the president sneaks off in the middle of the night, sweeping the White House corridors.
  • Then make this bigger, turn it into a game : when the president meets with other world leaders (Putin? Kim Jong-ung?), his sweeping obsession gets him into trouble?
  • If you want to play word games, why not get him a “sweeping victory” in the elections? (of have his opponent beat him in an equally sweeping defeat).
  • One might exploit the “cleanliness” connotation metaphorically by putting the character in a position where he can only win the elections by playing it dirty. The character the faces a fundamental decision (the train is on the track) – either he sticks to his principles, or he doesn’t – and either choice may lead to his downfall, or not.  That’s a bit deeper – but improv need not always be jokey.
  • Or go real deep, and discover why the character has this sweeping obsession? Perhaps we learn about something unpleasant in his youth, something he is trying to sweep out of his memory. And perhaps the character, by the end of the story, comes to grips with that unpleasantness – and looses the sweep-obsession? (or not).

Example: The Wrong Name

Let’s revisit the example where player A calls player B’s character (his wife) “Cindy” whereas it had previously been established that her name was Karen.  Here are a couple of ways of embracing:

  • Player B starts crying: “I hate it when you refer to me by your ex’s name. Why do you always do that?”.  In my book this is and-ing, because B adds information to the mistake-situation.  She is also raising the stakes.  Plus she makes the “mistake” meaningful; B reacts truthfully – A’s “mistake” means something to her: it’s hurtful. (remember I like Sandpaper!).  There is nothing wrong with character A apologising, as long as player A does not. The player is not the character – see Puppets & Puppeteers for more on that.
  • Player A can then accept what was just added: his character “always” does this.  So turn it into a game: keep doing it and make it bigger, make it worse.  Why not repeatedly cook Cindy’s favorite meals for Karen?  Offer Karen a wedding ring engraved with “Cindy forever”?  Make it worse.  And of course Karen should keep reacting truthfully to the onslaught of insults.
  • That also has the added advantage that in such a series of scenes we have a Train on a Track and it can go only one of 2 ways: either B’s behavior will lead to a breakup, or B will turn out to really love Karen and deal with the fact that Cindy is no longer his girlfirend.

Example: The Poisoned Sword

An example I saw in a real performance: John is an archaeologist exploring a newly discovered Egyptian grave; Eve is his sidekick and lover. The are armed with a sword with a poisoned blade. Near the end of the performance, when both are ready to face an evil power (perhaps the spirit of the Pharaoh whose final resting place they are violating?), John hands Eve the sword, and she takes it – by accident – by the blade.

John’s reaction was priceless: “You stupid cow, you just killed yourself!” – upon which the Eve character died. John’s character reacted truthfully to the death of his sidekick/lover – cries, despair etc. And when faced with the spirit of the Pharaoh the character decided life was not worth living any more, and cut himself with the sword.

The audience found the reaction hilarious BTW.

Example: The Limping Knight

Here’s another example from a real, solo performance. I know what the actor was thinking, because he told me after the show:

Bert was playing a knight, and he was miming riding a horse. His miming was “odd” to say the least, and in him mind he made a “mistake”: he felt his character looked more like it was limping than riding a horse. So he became a limping knight.

And then he heightened by proclaiming that everybody in his homeland had a limp. When he found the love of his life – one with perfectly fine feet – they faced a dilemma: she could not marry him unless she had a limp, so he would have to take her leg. She chose love, and he decided that half a toe would suffice. Wonderful!

Takeaways

I actually started this blog post when I caught myself saying “Don’t apologize” rather often to my students.   We play theater, we create realities, characters that are not our own.  How can we expect the audience to believe these characters and realities, if we as actors, permit ourselves to show we ” “are not happy with ourselves” or “we are mistaken”?  It’s OK to catch yourself as a player making a “mistake”, but by all means, try and keep that realization to yourself, there is no need to share that with the audience.  By doing so you merely risk dragging yourself down – to yourself, and equally in the eye of the audience.

And further,  treat any “mistake” as a present from providence: embrace it, make it bigger, make it important. And it might lead you to situations you’d never have imagined otherwise!

Honor Your Mistake as a Hidden Intention.”

— Brian Eno

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