Asher: Notes on Notes
So why do we have notes? Why should you be forced to sit and listen as someone criticizes you? Good questions. After all, improv is about support and creativity, not criticism. Which is precisely why good notes are not about criticism. The goal of your instructor is to make sure you will learn the tips and tricks that will help you to develop and grow as a performer.
If your teacher stops your scene to give you a note, you must – and I emphasize this here, because it is important, you MUST – accept and understand that the note is not a criticism or an attack on you as a person. It is not that you made the wrong decision, or made a mistake, or just plain fucked up. Your instructor is giving you a note because he or she feels that you might benefit from another opinion.
When given a note, you are expected to do two things: think about the note, and give it a try. Your instructor does not expect you to change overnight, or abandon everything you believe in order to do what you are told. Rather, the idea of a note is to give you the benefit of a controlled, experienced, independent and objective opinion about your performance style.
When you are given a note, don’t be afraid to thank your instructor. Sometimes it’s just as hard to give a note as it is to accept one; for some people, it’s even harder. Once you have been given a note, think about it honestly. Consider the note, think about what has been said, without filtering through your own perceptions or beliefs.
If you find yourself thinking thoughts such as “Who is he/she to tell me what to do?” or “Why the hell does he/she keep bugging me”, chances are you are taking things personally. You should not be taking the note personally. The note has nothing to do with you as a person, but is directed at you as the improviser.
Once you have thought about the note (and this probably means after the class, when you have had some time to sit back and catch your breath), consider its pros and cons. Would the note help you improve your performance? Or would it do the opposite?
Regardless of your decision, next time you are on stage, try to take the note to heart. Pretend your instructor has told you that you tend not to make eye contact with other people in the scene. She has challenged you to pick a person in a future scene, make eye contact with that person, and maintain that eye contact throughout the entire scene. Even if you think the idea is silly, why not give it a try? If you do so, you might be surprised at the response.
So, we’ve talked about when it is time to receive a note. When is it time to give one? In my opinion, the only acceptable time to give a note is when you are an instructor or coach, responsible for teaching the individual in your class. At this time, it is your job to do your damnedest to make sure that you help the people in your class improve and grow.
But what about those times when you are outside of a class environment? Perhaps you are a seasoned improviser, who has just watched a rookie make a basic mistake. You’ve been where that person is now, and know what to do to help correct that mistake. Should you say something?
Perhaps one of your teammates is repeating the same phrase over and over, from class to class and show to show. The characters the improviser is portraying continuously say the same phrase and talk in the same way, which tends to dilute the power of their characters. Should you say something?
Mick Napier of the Annoyance Theatre has something to say on this issue, and I paraphrase him here: If you have a note to give to another improviser, don’t. If you think about it, and think the note is important enough to give to the other improviser, don’t. If you really, really think about it, and realize that this is a vitally important note to give to the other improviser … don’t.
If you still feel you should give the note, approach the other improviser and ask their permission to give them the note. If they say no, or demure in any way, respect their decision, and refrain from giving the note. Only if they give their direct permission should you go ahead with the note.
That puts things pretty clearly, doesn’t it. If you are not a person’s instructor/coach, do not give that person a note. Simple. Furthermore, even if you are the instructor/coach, there is a time and place for notes. When you run a class, you are expected to give notes. If you are in a production with people that you normally teach, you should not give them a note about that production.
The fact of the matter is that people are sensitive, and it’s easy to inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings. Why take the chance and give a note when you are running the risk of alienating a fellow performer? It’s just not worth it. You’re note simply isn’t good enough to run that risk.
Imagine you’ve just finished a show, and things have gone wonderfully. The audience was enchanted, you and your fellow performers were shining, and the theatre was filled with laughter and merriment. You are riding a post-game high, when Sam, a fellow improviser from one of your classes, approaches you.
“Wow, what a great show! Remember that scene where you were playing a jealous housewife? Bill asked you if you wanted to go out for ice cream, and you said no, you wanted to stay at home and organize your knitting patterns. You totally blocked Bill! You should have said yes, and gone along for ice cream.”
Chances are, your first thought is “fuck you”. And you’re right. No matter how valid or invalid the note, Sam had no right to give it to you. He’s insulted you, he’s harshed your buzz, and he’s pissed you off. And for what? Are you going to accept a note from someone who’s just pissed you off royally? Not bloody likely.
Now, I am definitely not telling you to tell Sam to go fuck himself at this time. That’s rude too, and no matter how rude someone is to you, that’s no reason to go and make things worse. However, you are fully within your rights to say something along the lines of “I’m not comfortable with the idea of people giving me notes outside of a structured learning environment. Please do not be insulted, but I would appreciate it in the future if you could refrain from critiquing my performance.” Or words to that effect.
In the end, a note is a chance to grow. Honestly consider the note, and if possible, try it out. At least go so far as to give the note the attention it deserves. If you like the new way, you’ve learned something. If not, you’ve honestly considered the note, without just throwing it away unused. Either way, you have given the note – and your coach – the respect they deserve.