1. Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about the fascinating podcast Got Your Back (http://www.gybpodcast.com/), which is a tremendous boon to the improv community and well worth your time if you’re at all interested in the art and science of improv.
2. Nor am I speaking of the actual act of supporting your fellow improvisers on stage, listening intently to their offers, making them look like rock stars, yes-anding the holy living shit out of them. That’s absolutely the way to play. All of the backs should be gotten, all of the time! I am in favor of this!
No, I’m talking about that pre-show ritual, which all too frequently goes something like this: with mere seconds before it’s time to run onstage, a group of improvisers hurriedly makes the rounds of slapping each other’s backs, barely making eye contact (if at all) when they do so, and muttering “gotcherback” while looking around frantically to make sure they get everybody, because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. This is what we hates, precious. This is the empty ritual that, to me, does exactly the opposite of what it’s intended to do.
And what is it intended to do?
It seems to me that the original purpose of the custom was two-fold: to remind players to support one another, and to reassure players that they will be supported. It’s a noble purpose! I love the purpose! I just don’t think it works very well, and even worse, I think it often produces the opposite effect.
What I most often feel, in the midst of that frantic ritual, is a sinking sensation that none of us there are actually in the present moment, that we’re going through this rote performance that is the very opposite of the spontaneous and genuine spirit of improvisation.
My faith that my fellow players will actually have my back plummets. My feeling of group connection (established through the warm-ups, and ideally even more so through hours of previous practice and play with these people) is broken or at least interrupted. It’s often frustrating and disheartening, and that’s no way to start out a show!
In fact, it’s my belief that there’s not much you can do immediately before a show begins to make sure it goes well. Once you’re onstage, there’s no time to be making thought-out decisions based on whatever you were trying to remind yourself of right before you went on.
Instinct takes over, instinct that you’ve shaped and developed through training and practice and the entirety of the life you’ve lived, but instinct nonetheless. If you don’t have it drilled into your bones and way of being to automatically support your fellow players, it’s not going to happen just because you said the words a few seconds ago.
If you don’t feel a gut-level assurance that whatever you do onstage will be accepted and supported, just hearing the words (especially when nobody is taking the time to actually MEAN them) is not going to give you that assurance.
Which is not to say that connecting with your fellow players the night of the show isn’t important! I think it’s HUGELY important. Just do it up right, is what I’m saying. Sometime prior to immediately before you go onstage, take time as a group for those individual player-to-player connections to actually take place.
Make uninterrupted eye contact, and say something to each of your compatriots in turn that tells them — with your voice and body even more than the words themselves — that you actually see them, that supporting them is a genuine desire you have, that you love and want what’s best for them, and that you trust them to feel the same toward you. Even if it’s just those same words — “Got your back.” — if you take the time to make it real, it can work just like it’s supposed to.
And best of all, I’ll get to stop hating the whole phenomenon! I hate hating! I’m a lover, not a fighter. Help me love, won’t you? PLEASE HELP ME LOVE!