August Newsletter Article: Strong Choices Are Generous Choices

It can seem counter- intuitive, but strong choices are generous choices.

I give that note all the time in improv class. Here’s usually what happens right before I say such a thing: a scene is taking place and an improviser doesn’t want to step on other people’s toes. They don’t want to “ruin” the scene or the idea that someone else has. They want to be fun to play with and be thought of as a generous player. So what do they do? They get shy. They defer. They hang back. They don’t add anything to the scene for fear of ruining it. But what happens? They end up ruining the scene with their wimping. In an attempt to be generous, they aren’t giving the other player anything to play against and the scene falls flat.

Instead, we have to remember that the best way to be generous to our scene partner is to make strong choices. And what are strong choices? Specific ideas, clear ideas, inspiring ideas, or emotional ideas. These give our fellow players something to play with. They challenge, delight, and inspire them. They bring out the other person’s best performance by keeping them on their toes and in the moment, which is usually half the reason they are doing improv in the first place.

Say you enter a scene bearing flowers for your scene partner, thinking this is a great way to start your blind date scene. Would you rather they say:

    A) “Flowers. Thank you.”
    B) “Flowers. You remembered our anniversary, how sweet.”
    C) “Flowers. If you think that can make up for what you did last night, you are sorely mistaken.”

Maybe answers “B” and “C” totally threw off your idea, but you probably still find them more inspiring than “A.” They give you something to react to, information about your character, and a reason to stay present in the moment.

This “strong choices as generous choices” model has many applications in real life. You know those people who refuse to have an opinion or even a preference about anything? The you-can-pronounce-my-name-any-way-you-want kind of people? The people who add insightful conversation pieces such as “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

By trying not to impose, these people actually become a great imposition. It’s hard to move forward on plans, a project, or a conversation. They think they are being thoughtful and nice, leaving space for the other person, when in fact they are grinding things to a halt. Often, true generosity comes from sharing yourself, your ideas, thoughts and wants. Or at least keeping quiet if you don’t have anything to contribute.

If you add the magic ingredient of kindness to your directness, you’ve hit the jackpot in improv, a business meeting, or a date.

So have an opinion. Have something to add. Make it clear. Make it specific. And make it strong.

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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