“There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.”
– Bob Wiley, What About Bob? (1991)
The cornerstone of all improvised theater is the almighty two-person scene. In these scenes, it’s critical that both performers immediately establish who their characters are, how they know each other, and what they need out of the scene. The earlier they figure that out, the more time it gives them (and the audience and the other performers in the troupe) to enjoy the complexity of the scene’s relationships, ideas, and environments. It makes for more interesting improv, and everyone has a ton of fun.
The most amazing improv I’ve ever seen in my life was a two-person show with T.J. and Pete (remember those awesome Sonic commercials?) at the Phoenix Improv Festival in 2008. They were completely committed to their characters, they supported and played off each other perfectly, they knew exactly what the other guy was thinking and trusted the scene to help them find their way. They put on a clinic. It was brilliant.
On the other hand, some of the worst scenes I’ve seen show up when one person makes a cardinal improv no-no: he insists that he has the better idea, the more powerful or funnier choice, or the right idea. He’s trying to drive the scene, but it’s not an effective way to lead. There are so many elements that determine the scene’s success that are outside his control – his stage partners, their ideas of what the scene is all about, the stage, the lights, that one guy in the audience that keeps coughing…trying to control the uncontrollable is a surefire recipe for disappointment.
Collaborating with a client is just like an improv scene. Both partners enter the scene with little to no idea of what’s going to happen. Then, someone has to initiate. One partner makes a statement based on broad assumptions and puts herself out there to see how the other person responds. They’re figuring each other out throughout the scene, doing the delicate dance to heighten the story, and adding to the relationship one line or action at a time. During a project, neither the client nor the project team know exactly how the scene will end or how they’ll get there. All they have is hope for cooperation, acceptance, and group mind, a plan for where they want the story to go (which will probably change 100 times), and trust that the scene will work itself out in a positive way. However, if one person in this relationship, whether it’s the client’s superstar CEO or the agency’s hotshot creative dude, tries to control the uncontrollable or refuses to accept the other’s gifts or suggestions, it’s going to be painful.
Most projects are painful, aren’t they? Every relationship can be rocky. Very few business relationships are always perfect, always accepting and “yes, anding”, and rarely do we experience group mind during a client project. And that’s OK. The more experienced and stronger improviser on stage is the one that recognizes when things are rocky and immediately moves to support their scene partners, even if their ideas aren’t exactly what they had in mind at the beginning of the scene. Even if the client’s idea for a boatload of neon colors is a terrible idea, the stronger performer in the scene is the one that can turn those neon colors into something amazing and make the client look brilliant.
How can we designers, copywriters, and marketers find a way to make our client’s ideas look brilliant and amazing, even if we didn’t start out on the same page at the beginning of our project? Some clients are quicker to trust and rely on our expertise, but for the ones that insist on controlling or art directing the project, do you agree that the role of the “stronger” contributor is to accept and support the client even if their ideas aren’t all that interesting?
Photo Credit: Photo taken by Barry M (mullingitover)