06 Jul 2012

“Enough about me… What do you think about me?”

Making Your Partner Look Good

“Make your partner look good!” is a coach used in current improvisational training. The reason this coach is valuable is because it is based on the idea that there is more opportunity for good improv by being more concerned with your partner rather than yourself.

When you are focused outwardly on the idea of making sure your partner ‘looks good’, you diminish the self and strengthen the interplay of the group. It helps to make you care less about yourself and that is a good thing. But it’s a little vague.

How do you make your partner look good? How do you implement this idea? A sidecoach like “make him look good!” might put some players in their head, getting them thinking about what can I do to make him/her look good? Set them up to pay off a gag? Make them the ‘hero’ of the scene? Accept every offer?

On the one hand it’s a good thing. It is a reminder to pay attention to your partner more than yourself. On the other hand, how can you make them look good while improvising?
What about coaching “See your partner head to toe with your whole body!”
(which is part of the game of Camera) or
“Contact!” which refers to the game Contact which asks you to make a different physical contact with every new piece of dialogue. That gives the player a clear focus that will get you out of your head and focused on your partner by giving you something specific to do.

Taking a Leap into the Unknown

I’m going to use the game of Mirror Speech as an example. Viola Spolin had some extra rules she used in class as sidecoaches that she did not include in the game of Mirror Speech in the latest edition of her book. I remember clearly the extra rules and why they are key in making the most of the game. I will share them with you and discuss what makes them so important.

Here are the extra sidecoaches/rules that will help the players really take-off and go into new areas:

No Questions

No questions is almost a given in any improv situation although, it shouldn’t be a dogmatic rule, but it is good to keep a watch on it.

When we ask questions, we reveal a fear that we do not know what to say or do and a question may be able to keep us in the game by asking for information from our fellow players. Again asking for information is a trap for everyone. You stop contributing and you run the risk of making a director / playwright out of your fellow players. Playwriting comes from the head and will only serve to make the scene ‘talky’ and often contrived because information, no matter how clever or original, comes from the head (past) i.e., stuff you already know.

In mirroring speech, both are speaking the same thing and questions cannot be answered, only reflected. Rhetorical questions are ok, but on the whole, most questions signal a withdrawal from the adventure of the not-known. So, as a sidecoach, watch for it and coach your players away from it.


You are given a topic to discuss as a starting point for Mirror Speech. One thing to remember is to avoid making lists. List making is another form of using old information in place of pursuing a flight of thought.

This is a habit we picked up in our early education. We have been taught to make book reports in school – to take in information and regurgitate it back to see if we’ve understood it. Often when my students get a topic for this game, they remain stuck on the subject because of this urge to use every bit of information we know about what we’re talking about. It will keep both players earthbound and make the game less interesting and fun than it can be if the subject were only the launching point for a flight of fancy.

Lists are the most obvious thing to do when avoiding pursuing a flight of thought. If the subject were trees, the information about them is limited.

“Trees: Trees have leaves, they grow from seeds, they have bark, limbs, are often found in forests, jungles etc., birds nest in them, and so on.”

If your players start reflecting each other using lists, they will stay with the subject. Mirror may happen and that is fine, but there are new places and ideas to be discovered if you get off of information and use trees as a launching pad for more free association.

I can’t give you an example of a flight of fancy step by step, but I’ve seen a simple subject like ‘shoes’ lead to a fantasy about aliens waking on the surface of planets without feet. How did the players get there? They started with shoes and that lead to feet, which lead to the evolution of feet and other forms of life developing other ways of moving about. Neither player engineered the conversation but by switching leaders often, they followed each other’s ideas onto space aliens and planets. By the end, both players and audience were on the edge of their seat, watching this story unfold without knowing where it will go or caring. It was exhilarating to just be on the trip and we applauded the unbelievable outcome of the two players merging ideas in Mirror Speech. The players were also just as amazed as we were where it went. That’s true improvisation.

Avoid “I”. The Ego

The final caveat is Avoiding “I”. Why is “I” to be avoided? For the same reason as lists and questions: It is all about old information and is loaded with personal opinion (more old information). If both players start sharing their opinions on the subject, the exercise will not be about the subject but about them! This is the biggest trap of all.

If the subject is “Trees”, and one player starts by saying “I love trees, my favorite tree is…” (Switch!) “the apple tree. I like to climb them and once hurt myself by…” (Switch) “Falling out of a tree. I hate when that happens…” and so on. The story started with trees but ends up being about you and your opinions and experiences. It may be OK to mirror that and the game will still work as a mirror game, but “I” will keep it earthbound in a different way. It is a block to following the follower. (It is not a hard and fast rule, because I’ve seen players start with “I” and leave the subject by virtue of following the follower and getting really involved in the story they are co-creating, but more often than not, it just is a rehashing and sharing of personal experiences and opinions.)

“Opinions are in the head!” Viola would shout. “I don’t care about what you know or how you feel about it!”

If all you know is just information and what you feel about things, you cannot be outward focused and really see objectively. This will keep you from having a direct experience. Self-referential thinking is what stops you from exploring the unknown. Brining it all back to ‘me’ keeps the player earthbound and cut off from what is really going on. Filtering all your experiences through this lens will alter your perception of what is really going on. In the extreme, this type of thinking ranges from narcissism to insecurity all the way paranoia. Making everything about you is the ultimate trap.

It is a part of any discipline where the absence of ego opens the door to levels of awareness: Buddhism, psychology, theology and Zen meditation practice, to name a few.

Viola wrote a poem that embodies this notion. It’s funny and true. The title says it all.

The Lament Of The Abandoned Baby and Condemned Murderer
How It Happened We Lost Our Genius and Became Robots.

I, I, I, I, I, I, I,I, I

I, I,

I, I,

I, I, I, I, I, I, I,I, I

Iyaiyaiyaiyai! Iyaiyaiyaiyai!

Iyaiiii! lyaiiii!

Aie! Aie! Aie!

Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieee! Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieee!

©Viola Spolin from her volume of poetry “Excursions Into the Intuitive”