Bigger Faster Stronger at Barcelona Improv Festival. PHOTO: Alessio Carone

I have a workshop about making bigger choices on stage and really pushing yourself into the unknown. The workshop is called Bigger Faster Stronger and, I realized recently that’s what it’s actually about is commitment.

That’s right: commitment.

Commitment matters. In everything you do. And if improv is a thing you do, it matters there too. If you’re a

basketball fan and you go to a basketball game, you want to see players dribble their hardest, shoot their most precise shots and play their hardest defense.

I’m not even a basketball fan, but that’s what I would want to see: people trying their hardest to do their best. Whether they’re professional or amateur is irrelevant: if they’re not trying I’m going to be sorely disappointed.

Audiences value commitment
You can substitute literally any activity for basketball. I’ll still feel the same way. Music, movies, opera, paintings, sculpture, computers, carpentry… anything.

You don’t want to see a roughly-hewn wobbly coffee table, or go to a concert where the band decides to play, like the first half of each of their songs, and the bass player doesn’t bother plugging in her bass.

And you won’t buy an album or watch a movie that doesn’t show 100% commitment to the product. The same is true for improv.

And all of this goes double for the really talented: the virtuoso musicians, the preternatural goal-scorers, the innate comedian who can make everyone laugh with an upturn of the mouth. With them, it’s worse; if they’re not trying, it’s a tragedy of squandered potential. And for those of us who don’t have all that raw talent? We’ve got little but our commitment to contribute to our chosen activity.

Learning commitment
When I teach improv to beginners, I sometimes have students who break in the middle of a scene, unsure of how to respond to their partner, or where to take their scene next, or how to incorporate the note I just gave. They often turn to look at me, possibly while giggling.

It’s a natural instinct, I suppose, to check with the teacher when you’re unsure about something. But it also makes the scene hard to play when you’ve given yourself permission to turn your way out of it at any time.

The answer is easy to say, though slightly harder to do: turn into the scene, instead of away.

In my younger playing days, I had two modes onstage – one being fully (probably intensely, and possibly occasionally terrifyingly) committed and high-energy. The other was a laidback feigned indifference; I’m so nonchalant that clearly don’t care what you think, I was telling the audience.

The mode of overexuberance is the most embarrassing to me now, but paradoxically the one I respect the most. The mode of nonchalance or indifference I regret completely.

It did two things for me, both negative: it insulated me against any criticism or negative reactions, so there was less risk involved, and it allowed me to hide from the audience. I could do jokes and characters that I came up with, but not actually have to present myself.

Handy, for preserving my sense of self. But if they couldn’t touch me, how could I possibly think that I could touch them?

It’s all process
In improv, it’s slightly different from carpentry or sport, because improv is a process-driven art form, not a product-driven one. There are no blueprints for a canoe to take you through the steps, nor a venerated trophy to compete for. So you can’t commit to the product. In fact the only way you can assure a good final product is to commit to the process. So do it fully.

Of course, you may be one of those super-talented people, who feels that they don’t really need to commit because their flippant comments and stock characters will carry them through: it’s not. Dig deeper and work harder.

Think of any person at the top of their field, and ask yourself if they got there by half-assed measures. Nope. And even though you may not want to be a professional improviser, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it professionally. If you’re just improvising around for fun, then commit fully to that, and just have fun: the most you possibly can.*

Go big!
Full commitment, doesn’t necessarily mean going full-speed bug-eyed boogie at the stage, like some sort of deluded maniac. But it does mean being prepared, focused and fully engaged in whatever happens. It’s about being personally invested in what’s going on and your participation in it.

It means risking yourself by giving over to what you’re doing, and seeing where it leads to. Stop worrying, and go for it. That’s all there is to it, just make the most of it. Here’s a couple tips.

Listen HARD
Concentrate INTENSELY
Care A LOT

*If you’re not really that committed to improv I doubt you’d be reading this post, let alone this footnote. So you, dear footnote reader, have just proven yourself as someone who does in fact care. So you should double your onstage commitment level. And while we”re at it, I’d suggest raising your offstage commitment by at least 25%.