I took a series of acting lessons over the three years after my marriage ended. It got me out of the house, stimulated and challenged me, plus, the classes were a heck of a lot cheaper than therapy, and way more fun.
I learned some important lessons regarding interpersonal relationships, both for my professional and my private life, that help build and strengthen relationships and foster teamwork and cooperation.
- Accept the Offer
In improvisation, we are taught to be open to the actions of others. When someone does or says something to “move the scene forward” it is considered “an offer”. It is crucial to accept the offer and cooperate in order to find a way to continue the action.
Scene: Two actors are crawling along in the sand under the hot desert sun, when Stan discovers a canoe. a.) Sue helps Stan pick up the canoe and carry it over their heads to shield them from the sun. Or b.) she jumps in and starts paddling down the sand dune.
Lesson learned? Remain open to the possibilities when approached by others.
Be willing to consider the suggestions and opinions of others. Open yourself to the possibilities their viewpoint brings. It’s not necessary to blindly embrace their idea, only to consider it and use it as a springboard or inspiration to achieve your mutual goals.
- Never Say No
In acting “no” is a block. If you are having a dialogue and moving along in a scene and someone says NO or outright rejects a concept, then the momentum stops, the action is halted, it just fails. There is nowhere to go (at least, at the beginning or unless you are working with actors skilled and experienced enough to make a recovery).
Scene: Bill and Barb are in a restaurant having dinner. Bill beckons the roaming violist over, drops to one knee, pops open the lid on the ring box he pulls from his pocket, and, taking Barb’s hand, looks up into her eyes and asks, “Will you marry me?” Barb says “No.”.
Lesson learned? Ask a question, ask for an explanation, ask for clarification, start a discussion, but don’t say no outright or dismissively.
In life, as in acting, “no” can be deadly. This little two-letter word is very powerful and should be used sparingly. It can demotivate, dismiss and derail ideals, proposals, plans and projects. While I am not suggesting, nor is it realistic, to always say yes, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the intended contribution rather than negating it. Can you perceive the “offer” in the suggestion or recommendation, and build on it or use it? Can you turn it back to the initiator as a challenge or an opportunity?
- Conflict Can Be Constructive
In improv, conflict is what powers the scene. You want to do or achieve something, however something stands in your way and you must overcome it to succeed . By sharing a goal that is fraught with stumbling blocks, you tell a story about achieving or failing to achieve your goal. Conflict is the driving force giving the scene direction.
Scene: Pete and Pam have a flight to catch and Pete has been pulled over for speeding. Pete tries to explain to the policeman that they are late for the flight that is taking them on their first vacation in 10 years. The cop is unsympathetic and unreceptive. He seems determined to give Pete a ticket. Meanwhile Pam starts yelling at Pete, telling him it’s all his fault they left late because he insisted on watching the end of the hockey game . The cop takes pity on Pete and escorts then to the airport in his squad car.
Lesson learned? Don’t avoid conflict, it can be a good thing. Try and use it for momentum.
In life while goals are often shared, it’s the priority, means and timing that are contentious. These are the areas of conflict. Sometimes the conflict is outside the organization. It may be the market, the economy, legislation, funding or another external environmental factor.
In life, as on stage, it’s important to recognize that conflict is vital. If everyone was always in total agreement, and there were no challenges to overcome, there would be little opportunity for improvement, change, progress and achievement.
It’s how you collaborate to resolve or overcome conflict that not only allows you to move forward but have a strong sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
- Actively Listen
You have to put a lot of effort into listening when you’re acting and especially when you are doing improvisation. It is vital that you pay attention to the others on the stage to get clues as to where the actor(s) is (are) going directionally and how the action can be moved along. If you’re caught up in your own thoughts, thinking about what you might do next, you’re not receptive to the constant cues that are happening and which allow the scene to build, grow, develop and conclude.
Scene: Liz and Lou are clearing up after dinner. Liz calls something out to Lou. Lou goes to the closet and starts putting his coat and hat on. Liz looks at him and at Laura, waiting just offstage to make her entrance. Lou heard “Please go to the store”. Liz’s actual words were “Please get the door.” to allow Laura to join the scene.
Lesson learned? Focus on hearing and understanding what people say to you.
Listening is an underrated skill. We are sometimes too busy, too preoccupied, and/or too detached to properly understand what others are trying to communicate to us. Our minds are somewhere else, we have a pressing issue, a deadline, a meeting, to pick the kids up after school. But the effort to hear what people have to say is worthwhile. What they have to impart may have an important impact on you.
Consider that when you have someone’s undivided attention and they are engaged, actively listening, how valued and respected you feel. You feel like you are making a contribution.
- Be in the Moment
A good actor completely embraces the role, suspending his/her personal reality and becoming the character. Each moment on stage is the exclusive focus as the actor lives the character’s life, IS the character. To be believable, you have to first convince yourself.
Everything extraneous must be ignored, blocked out. You can’t think ahead to the next line, anticipate the upcoming scene, or be thinking about your hot date after the show. You have to be totally in the moment, so you can genuinely live it.
Lesson learned? It’s important to be fully present in one’s life.
Life moves so quickly, is so full, complicated and fraught with distractions, multiple and simultaneous demands that we get caught up in the current of constant activity. We anticipate, look forward, plan, react quickly and move instantaneously. It’s all about what’s happening, what’s next, to the point where we look back and have little memory of what we did yesterday. Living in the present and appreciating what is happening right now can reduce stress and increase contentment.
- Stay Out of Your Own Head
The actor becomes the character. They go through a preparation process that involves creating a back story, like thinking about what the character’s favourite colour, or political leanings, or family situation is (background information not supplied by the script). This helps create a different reality that allows the actor to live as the character, rather than him or herself. Credibility is affected when you sip back into your own head and react in a manner that is “out of character” or inconsistent with the reality of the role the actor has assumed.
Lesson learned? Actively live life.
We get caught up in our problems and situations, sometimes spending inordinate amounts of time analyzing and replaying the things we should have done or said. Life is too short to spend our time in our heads over-thinking things. Deal with it and move on. Or miss out on other things that are happening while we’re otherwise occupied.
- Suspend Judgment
Some of the funniest skits I’ve ever seen have involved totally improbable situations, impossible elements and unrealistic assumptions. In improv, it is an asset to be able to suspend judgment, it makes it much easier to accept whatever offer, no matter how preposterous.
Lesson Learned? Accept people and things for who and what they are.
Everyone has different backgrounds, experiences and influences. Each of us brings different skills, talents and knowledge to the table. It’s more rewarding to focus on what you have in common and how you can work together than to be limited by how different we are.
- Monologues Are Extremely Difficult
Monologues are the most difficult scenes to play. The actor is alone on the stage. Any conflict has to come from within. He/she had a huge responsibility to stand alone, and by themselves, without any help or support, engage and entertain the audience, to be believable, to make them believe. The actor must power the scene, single-handedly moving it forward to it’s conclusion.
Doing monologues is probably the most challenging and intimidating thing I’ve ever done.
Scene: Robin — alone on the stage, the spotlight shinning on her — alone on the stage. (Can you hear her knees knocking together?)
Lesson learned? It’s really hard to go it alone.
Making things happen or achieving goals without any help, support or input is difficult, sometimes even impossible. Criticism and negative comments, while undesirable, are preferable to operating in a void. Accept the contribution and help of friends, family, even strangers.
Do I do all of this, all the time? I wish! But I do try.