Taoblog: The Troupe-Killer

Did You Hear About John?

“In life, take a cue from improv. Say what you want.”   — The Tao of Improv

Dry rot and termites can quietly destroy your home.

Dry rot and termites of a different type can affect an improv troupe or theater, too. The dry rot I’m talking about is “gossip,” and the termites I refer to are “those who indulge in gossip.”

Show me a theater without gossip and I’ll show you an abandoned theater.

Is gossip a sign of poor morale, or the cause of it? Is it a disease, or just a symptom of a deeper disease? I don’t know. I think it differs from place to place, from time to time. It’s how some humans socialize. It happens and will happen. And, over time, it could eat away at what seems to be a perfectly sound structure.

It begins innocently enough. You stand in a parking lot or hang at a bar after a show or rehearsal, and you talk with a few of your fellow hanger-outers. Maybe it becomes more of a thing as time progresses. And, then there’s John.

He did some pretty weird stuff at rehearsal. Maybe he just doesn’t get how to do improv. Maybe he’s just weird. You know, he has a whole lot of ink and some pretty odd piercings. Why does he wear those odd boots? What’s up with him? What is his deal? Well, I heard….

Personally, I’d rather just ask John. But that means you’d have to actually confront the person you’re curious about or in conflict with, and that’s not what you’re comfortable doing. Or, you could just accept that John is John and say nothing.

But gossiping means you’re part of “us” instead of “them.” It’s a shared experience. It’s a comfy clique. It’s grass roots politics at it’s grassiest and rootiest. And it spreads and infects.

I used to run a men’s hockey team. There was one rule: you may not talk crap about a teammate who isn’t there. You can punch someone in the head if you like, that’s fine. But no gossip. And to enforce that, I let it be known that I (and a few anonymous associates on the team) would instantly report any gossip to the person being talked about, and would tell him who made the nasty comment. We would, in effect, be spies. So, gossip away, in the knowledge that anything you say will likely be heard by the victim.

The effect of that was like shining a light on cockroaches. The activity disappeared or went way underground. The team was extraordinarily tight-knit and long-lived.

Try it in your improv theater. Make it known that gossips will be outed. Get a few people to buy in. Be vague as to how many spies you have. And gossips: Take your problems directly to the source. Make yourself someone who can be trusted.

Improv is about trust. Even for John.


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