“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” — The Tao Te Ching
I occasionally tell students or fellow improvisers things that, I later realize, horrify them.
For instance, I’ve said that I don’t care about the audience. I don’t care what they like. I don’t care what they want. I don’t care how they feel. And I don’t care whether they like me or not.
On the surface, that sounds callous. It seems as though I’m doing improv solely for my own amusement, and I have no need to please people who’ve paid to see a show I happen to be in.
That’s not it. I hope the viewers like what they see. I hope they feel like they have gotten more than their money’s worth. It would be great if they were made happy, and if their cares and woes were diminished for awhile as a result of our show.
An audience member pays money. She has purchased the right to judge me and the rest of the troupe. She has a right to judge the quality of the refreshments, the parking and the air conditioning. The theater management has the obligation to take her praise and her complaints seriously. The director needs to make sure the performance is as good as it can be.
But I, as a person — as an improviser — cannot afford to stand on a stage and fret about how I’m being judged. Judgement is going to happen, whether I like it or not. I need to be oblivious to it. My self-worth cannot be affected by strangers. That seems to be a very high hurdle for many improvisers (and standup comedians, and musicians, and keynote speakers…).
The beauty of not caring is that it removes fear and doubt from the equation. And if you perform fearlessly, never doubting yourself, you put on a better performance. And if you put on a better performance, that’s good for the audience and for your teammates.
I do care what my director thinks. I care very much what my fellow improvisers think. I hope to justify their faith in me. I’ll be notified of my failures and successes when we compare notes after a show. That’s how we grow as improvisers and gel as a troupe.
On stage, I never know what I’m about to do. Yes, if we’re performing a particular format, I know what moves need to be made. But I have zero in my head (many would say that’s my permanent condition). I’m reacting to my teammates. The audience reacts to us. Yes, a great crowd energizes a troupe. But it’s not personal. It’s not about me. Good or bad, it’s not about me. Whatever direction I go, I will get where I need to be.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.