Make Your Partner Look Good

This is one of the first principles that really resonated for me as an improviser. In "serving the scene" or "supporting the narrative", I learned to constantly work to figure out what my role is as a part of the whole. Rather than the scene being about me, I aim to do what works to fit the scene. In being gracious and supportive of my fellow players...and what their characters need in the scene...I am supported and end up looking better, too. Funny how that works.

As a middle school teacher, I am constantly struck by how individualistic our society (and adolescence, in particular) tends to be. So many of my students are focused on either standing out or fading into the background. Sometimes the group needs the outgoing player to be a supporting character; sometimes a scene needs the timid player to be the protagonist. Sometimes a game requires a partner to throw the ball so that it can be caught.

I used to spend a couple of weeks developing rules, norms and expectations with my students. It was a beautiful, if often tedious and sometimes frustrating experience in that we were able to share what we knew about what does and does not work in a classroom setting. I must say, we all know what we should do...and a middle school student is impressive in her ability to tell you what you want to hear. I now introduce principles of improv as the basis for our class norms. Rather than reiterating what we all know and choose to ignore in the midst of group interactions, it's been interesting to offer students a new way to look at their choices and perspectives in the classroom. "Make your partner look good" can be a transformative principle-turned-class-norm.

Becoming an ensemble is not easy. It takes work to establish the group as a functional, supportive, successful entity, and it requires fine-tuning when difficult behaviors and interactions arise. Yet, stepping outside of writers' workshop and science labs--and into the world of an improv workshop--allows the group to establish new goals. In working together and helping our peers to feel and look successful in a game or a scene, we learn to be there for one another across contexts.

While nearly every game helps develop this skill set, I'll highlight a few here that can be used across grade levels. Side-coaching is particularly important. Consider offering the following verbal cues: "Support the scene." "This is something we need to accomplish all together." "This part is not about's about the game/group." "Go nice and slow so that your partner(s) can follow you exactly."
- Ball: I know you might be sick of reading about Ball, but I can't sing enough praises about this deceptively simple game. This one really doesn't work if the group doesn't work together. (See earlier posts for an explanation of Ball.)
- Physical Mirroring-: Warm up by having partners face each other a bit farther than arms' distance apart. One partner is "A" and the other is "B". "B" can start moving slowly enough so that "A" can mirror her exact movements. Call "switch" every so often. Sometimes, encourage partners to focus only on facial expressions or to switch levels or to explore something else that they may be avoiding. Encourage constant eye contact.
- Diamond Dance: The mirroring activity is the perfect warm-up for Diamond Dance. Prepare a collection of songs (CD, playlist, etc.) in different genres and at different tempos. Four players stand in a diamond on stage. They all begin facing forward, and the two on the side and one in the back mirror the movements of the player in the front. When he turns to the side, one of the side players is now in the front. The other three players now follow her movements. They keep dancing (moving slowly--non-traditional dance) throughout the entire song. As the song fades, they can all freestyle into a frozen pose at the end.
- Words of Wisdom: All players stand in a circle. One player says a word, and the next says the following word in the sentence, continuing until the group decides that the sentence is complete. When it is, the entire group says (with fingers touching and tapping together), "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." And another sentence begins with the following person in the circle.
As with the word-at-a-time stories, sometimes your word is exciting and sometimes your word is "a" or "the". What's important is that we say what comes next...that we support the sentence of the group...that we listen.

And listening is what I'll talk more about later this week.
Until then!

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