How can I get better to accept ideas? The impulse to take control of a scene keeps coming back…

Accepting offers is one of the basic principles of improvised theatre. However, if you think that this is a topic (only) for beginners, you are mistaken. I am convinced that it needs a lot of practical training and that it is a challenge and even a life task to become really better at it. Why is that so?

Well, in general plans are a good thing. We don’t follow every spontaneous impulse, don’t drink another coffee, but pick up the children from the kindergarten as planned. We don’t immediately book the dream holiday when the TV commercial is on, but finish the report which has to be handed in the next day. Plans give us security and structure and prevent us from reacting immediately to all not-so-important impulses. That is why our brain is first of all designed not to reject a plan immediately and to accept the unexpected without further ado. However, plans often stand in our way when we adjust to new situations.

But… the magic of improvisational theatre (unfortunately) arises from the fact that we (have to) let go of our plans again and again. We go on stage to be the wicked witch and are redefined by our colleagues as the good fairy. We take a mimed ring out of our pocket to propose to the beloved one, but he jumps back and shouts: “Put the gun away.

In such situations there is a tendency to stick to one’s own idea. That usually sounds like, “No, I’m the wicked witch.” If the colleague can let go of their idea, there might be the answer: “Oh, I didn’t recognize you right away.” (If not, there will be a long argument about who is right.) So I have successfully pushed my idea through, but what has been gained? The winner is my need for security … and my ego.

The first one is usually easier to identify. It is about the moment in which we are seen in all our vulnerability. As audience we love that. But as actors, our entire internal security system sounds the alarm. The task now is to get to know, endure and maybe even love this moment. Not an easy task? Nothing against the second winner of sticking to your own idea: your own ego.

If I manage to bring my own idea into the scene, I have the good feeling of having been involved, of being visible. If my colleague pickes up my idea as well, it feels extremely good for my ego. It is like a caress for our self-esteem: “I am creative”, “I have good ideas”, “I am perceived”. The problem is that I do not give my counterpart exactly this feeling. So instead of concentrating on improvisation and the joint scene, I get a caress for my self-esteem. Understanding that and not attaching self-esteem to it, is the first step to banish my ego from the stage. To achieve this completely: a life-task!

How can I now become better at accepting?
The first step is to recognize the situations in which I expose my vulnerability and attach my self-esteem to my ideas. Even if I continue to cling to my ideas and cannot yet let go of them completely, I develop an awareness that and when I do so. The first step towards change is done.

Then, in these situations – not only on stage – I can consciously renounce to keep control and get involved.

If everything goes well, I then experience that it can be just as satisfying for my self-esteem that I have the ability to let go and to be responsive to my counterpart … and thus perhaps no longer have to attach my ego to my ideas.

You can practice accepting offers all the time. What if I won’t just go shopping, but I’ll take a trip to the playground, just as my daughter would like. But the safest way for practise is probaly in the protected setting of an impro-workshop. If I accept the fact that I didn’t want to marry my partners, but rather shoot them, the consequences are a changed scene and, if in doubt, not a whining child in the sandbox who doesn’t feel like shopping anymore.

A side note:
Unfortunately, the acceptance of an idea often fails because of one step before: noticing that my partner has made an offer. To be attentive enough to see and hear and fully take in my whole environment. We often describe this by “being in the moment”. But this is once again a topic on its own…

Nadine Antler

Why should I start an improvised scene positively?

There are several reasons why it makes sense to start an improvised scene positively.

Reason 1: Retraining impulses
From my experience, most people tend to react defensively or pejoratively under stress in order to protect themselves. As a result, 90 percent of all scenes begin negatively with impro newcomers (and not just with those). In part, the negativity is hidden, it’s little things that are wrong, that you or my partner are not doing right. “You are late.” is a much more common phrase than “Great, you’re here at just the right time.”

So when we start improvisational theatre, there are impulses that we have to “retrain”. To have a plan and not to let yourself be distracted from it can be very helpful in everyday life. For improvisation on stage it is rather uninteresting. To ask questions to people can signal great interest in my fellow human beings outside the stage, but on stage it very often shows insecurity. Because: We tend to ask for information in order to hand over responsibility to the other person. A similar impulse is the initial negativity. To protect ourselves, quite useful in everyday life, but problematic for the stage. Why?


Reason 2: The creative process

When we create a scene/story/situation together, we make ourselves vulnerable. I give an idea and with it a piece of me, and when my partner goes into it, we are in the middle of being creative together. If I now – subliminally or openly – always (re-)act negatively and critically, my counterpart gets the feeling that his/her ideas are not good enough. And automatically the other person suddenly feels uncreative. (An experiment, which by the way can be done quite easily).

Therefore: Being positive relieves my fellow players and helps the creative engine to get going.


Reason 3: Raising the stakes

Saturday night. At the club. All evening long I’ve been watching an attractive man with a stunning smile at the other end of the room.

Scenario 1: I dare to approach him and tell him that I can’t take my eyes off him and that I find him incredibly attractive. – He beams at me, answers me: “Wow, that’s great that you’re talking to me. Can I buy you a beer?” We were both positive.
The beginning of a story about you and me.

Scenario 2: I dare to approach him and tell him that I can’t take my eyes off him and that I find him incredibly attractive. – He laughs out loud and answers, that he doesn’t need to hear this from someone like me, then turns to his buddies to tell them how pityful I am to talk to him so clumsily. I was positive. He was negative.
The beginning of my story.

Scenario 3: I dare to approach him. I get cold feet on the way there, so when I get there I just say: “Hey you, I just wanted to tell you that your shirt is not buttoned up properly. – He replies, “Why don’t you mind your own business?” We were both negative.
End of story.

As soon as (at least) one character on stage behaves positively, he or she raises the stakes. If you make yourself vulnerable then there is something important to you. On the one hand, this makes you sympathetic and thus suitable for the audience to identify with, on the other hand it becomes easier to let something happen to your character and thus tell a story.

(But aren’t there also improv schools where people are taught to start in the middle of a conflict? Is that “wrong” then? – No. But that would go beyond the scope here…)

Nadine Antler