I like to talk to waiters.
When you go to a restaurant a waitperson usually asks you a small portion of questions. “Would you like water? Does everything taste good? Would you like the check now?” And typically, people respond with “yes” to all three questions, and that concludes the whole relationship between that human being and the dining party. It is, as relationships go, horribly boring.
Why? I mean, the people who wait tables are often young beautiful people. They often are also artists, musicians, poets, comedians, activists or weirdos. My waiter the other day offered up, upon being asked, that she was a flamenco dancer and an opera singer. Another waitperson who served me this weekend had a wicked sense of sarcastic jubilation about being emotionally lost in her mid-twenties. Mossie at the Noodle House has a shocking picture of herself covered in dirt in a claw foot tub and performed in a Daniel Johnston musical. So why do we typically have a banal exchange of no lasting value with these folks? Because they are focused on serving us, and we are focused on getting served. “I want the food and to be left alone.” That is the script given to the restaurant patron. “I want to give you what you want and then go away without bothering you.” The waitperson’s script reads.
**Controversial Science about to be dropped in
Trying to serve the premise of a scene is just as boring. When two improvisers get on stage and one of them, a line or two into the scene, discovers that the first improviser has a premise in mind the second improviser will often drop her shit and start to ask “How can I serve this premise?” Suddenly the “serving” improviser is characterless, reactive, has a shallowness of emotional response, and will bring nothing genuinely unexpected into the scene. She is focused on not dropping plates (ie. breaking the game), rather than on being alive in the moment or embodying a real character. In scenes we always need to sit down to the banquet as equals. Let the table set itself, people.
I know this is a strange way of thinking. A couple years ago I remember someone trying to explain that at the beginning of a scene both improvisers should walk on stage with a clear perspective and an agenda – that the reconciliation between these things would be the scene – and at that time I remember thinking “Nuh Huh!” I was confused. Like crazy. I thought “If he thinks he is a roadrunner and that I am a coyote about to be crushed by a boulder, while I think I am a fancy lady upset at her maid, that is the recipe for wackadoo. I better ignore this advice and keep looking for what that other improviser wants me to do.”
Of course, I eventually got bored of this. It is tedious to ask yourself over and over what your scene partner wants. So I figured out how to be the restaurant patron. Come on loud and strong and your scene partner will often defer to you for the whole show. They will say “Madame, your coat” or “I hope you don’t break Aunt Beatrice’s Urn!?” or “Sir, your one thirty called to say he would be late.” But what they mean is “Here is your water, would you like desert, and can I say the blackout line – you know, for a tip?”
It is never supposed to be like this.
The idea that the beginning of a scene both improvisers should come on with a point of view, character, and/or emotion is, years later, to my mind the point of everything. To break the cycle of serving the premise, at the expense of truly being in the scene, both improvisers have a job and neither is intuitive or easy. Come on to the scene with something delightful. Something you find inspiring or moving. Always. Everyone of us has forgotten this. I have forgotten it several times in the last few days, even though the phrase is cycling through my brain like a tornado.
If you have a tendency to serve in improv remember to serve yourself first and sit down to the feast instead of standing at the ready. Talk about what you know. Give yourself gifts like mini-patterns or spacework that will fuel your perspective. It isn’t your job to guess what scene your partner wants to have. It isn’t. Don’t worry so much about that other improviser, she’ll still be here even if you focus on your character for a moment.
If you have a tendency to order around your scene partner it is harder for you. After all, like a restaurant, if you wait for the server to tell you who they are you might wait all meal. Unlike at a restaurant, you usually can’t just ask. When you get on stage resist the urge to pile on to the other person who they are, why they’re here, or what they feel. But, come from yourself. Flesh out what you feel. Be your character, instead of trying to be theirs.