Friday, April 10, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

There will always be scenes we look back on and cringe a little. Whether they took place in the classroom or onstage, whether we’ve been improvising for a few months or a few decades, whether the show as a whole was outstanding or not, we often look back on a scene and play the “Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game.”

“I should have said yes to her offer to …”

“I could have listened better at the top of the show, and then I wouldn’t have missed the part when ...”

“I would have had a better show, if I had only …”

It seems to me that just about everyone gets the "shoulda coulda wouldas” now and then when a scene feels icky. So what shoulda coulda woulda we do about it? 

First of all, I hope we’re playing the Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game well after the scene is over and not during the damn thing. Judging the scene while we're actually performing it is a good path to Crapastic Land because we’re in our head being all judgy ‘n shit rather than in the scene where we should be. So, yes, let’s save the assessment until well after the show please, shall we?

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, 
concentrate the mind on the present moment.” 
- Buddha
Secondly, we need to give ourselves a break. We're learning! Improv takes years - DECADES! - to feel comfortable with ... and even then, many players never really feel confident every time they get off the stage. And certainly none that I know, even the best of the best, feel unbeatable. That is one of the most delicious Zen parts about this art form: We are always beginners. The only difference is that, after years of stage time, experienced improvisers become more comfortable with the fact that they're always beginners. (And if we ever forget it, the next show could give us a slap upside the face as a reminder.) 
Martin De Maat

Still need to pick at the scab after the scene? Ok, the best advice I have received about looking back on a questionable scene was from Scott Adsit, who said he was taught by Second City guru Martin De Maat to only "coulda" and never "shoulda." 

The charming Mr. Adsit was kind enough to summarize this lesson from Martin De Maat for me for this article (somewhat edited by me):
"This stems from Marty's view that there is no wrong move or reaction. What happens is what happens and we deal with what we have in each scene. When you're dissatisfied with how a scene went, to say "I should have done A" or "She should have done N" is in effect writing the scene. If that happens during a scene, you're dead. So, Marty wanted us to approach the work with that off the table. 
Photo credit: Pam Victor
Because once you start thinking a scene must go in a certain direction (yours,) you are in your head. And more importantly, you think you have to "fix" the scene in order to fit your personal game plan. I've seen more than one good, seasoned improvisor destroy scenes by forcing everyone on stage into the roles and motivations that he has mapped out in his head for them. Actually "correcting" his partners' statements. In effect, saying quite plainly and maniacally, "No." It's really obvious when it happens too. It's an ugly sight. Some are subtle about it and others are blunt. I've done it myself and I always regret it. Always ...
That's the result of "Should have." "Could have" allows you to release yourself from your own sterling brilliance and realize that the brilliance is in every move your partners make. That their misinterpretation of your initiation is a gift to be accepted, cherished, expanded and re-gifted... "

Thank you kindly, Scott. 

There is no “shoulda” in improv. We can't change the scene. It was what it was. We did what we did. But "coulda" we made a different choice? Of course. Could we or our scene partners have made lemonade from what we saw as a lemon of a scene? Probably. As Susan Messing says, “A mistake is your greatest comic gift.” So maybe what we really "coulda" done better was judge the scene as a gift rather than a mistake? Rather than picking at the scab (Damn, boy, that’s so gross. Stop picking at that thing!), after the show let’s figure out how we “coulda” turned that moment into a gift, whether within the scene itself or in a subsequent scene.

Charna Halpern and I talked about post-show assessment and judgment in our “Geeking Out with…” interview. She advised, “I definitely think folks can and should talk after a show to assess what went well and what went wrong. Absolutely. But keep in mind, it’s all in the semantics. You can say something to let someone know what you meant to do and not come off ACCUSATORY. It’s important to talk about what worked and what didn’t work and why, so you can work on the problem next time.” This is where “coulda” comes in handier than the pointy finger of “shoulda.”

One of the most important assessment questions we can ask ourselves is, "Did we learn from that so-called lemon of a scene?" If so, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world after all. If not, we’d better figure out the fucking lesson, buster, or we’re going to be sitting in this particular shit ditch again real soon. Chances are, the lessons we need to learn from the stinky scene revolve around the twin orbits of “Being a Good Stage Partner” and “Fear.”

Let’s look at Being a Good Stage Partner first. Here is where lettuce comes in. (Finally! A blog post with lettuce!):

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

Let's put that lovely Thich Nhat Hanh quote into the improv translator machine. We when improvise, if it doesn’t go well, you don’t blame improv/your scene partner/the show/the audience/yourself. You look for reasons why it didn’t go well. And the answer to why the scene didn’t go well might be about how we failed to take care of each other in that particular moment. Because if we know how to take care of our scene partners, they will grow well. Like the lettuce. Rather than blame the lettuce after the scene, perhaps these questions might be more helpful: How could we have better taken care of each other in that scene? How could we have made each other look more brilliant? 

Furthermore, debriefing after a scene is not about blame; it’s about learning to be the best improvisers we can be. And beating ourselves up about how we/he/she/they/you “fucked up” that scene is probably not the best path to becoming a better improviser. To this end, compassion, for yourself and others, might be another useful ingredient to the de-briefing stew.

Now the other common cause of wobbles in improvisation: Fear. Oh boy howdy, could I talk about fear for a long time! But I won’t, I promise. I’ll just say that, chances are, fear was the demon in that shitstorm. To quote my own damn self and my damn co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi in Improvisation at the Speed of Life, “Succumbing to the fear, which causes us to react without integrity and grace, is the true archenemy of good improvisation.”

Fear. It’s a bitch. But again, we gotta cut ourselves some slack here. It’s hard to dive headfirst into the unknown. It's also hard to be vulnerable. But often, that's exactly where we need to go. Vulnerability yields lots of wonderful material. As Del Close said, "Follow your fear." (I'm a quote machine. Very annoying.) To that end, here are a few more hopefully helpful de-briefing questions: Where was the scene going? If you were to take the oars out of the water – not allow fear to cause you to fight against the current and follow the scene where it was going - what would have been your character's most natural response? When you look back on a scene, you would know best where the moment was honestly taking you. (And if you don’t know, then it might be good to work on the skills that allow you to pay attention to where the honesty of scenes can be found.) I find that paying attention very, very carefully to all the clues helps us know the most logical and honest response. "Who are we to each other? How do I feel about this person?" Those are the most important questions that help me, personally, find the honest, most ease-full path. Hopefully.

I’m going to leave you with this thought – and I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to yell it (lovingly) because I want to make sure the people skimming this article pick it up: When playing the Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game, THINK ABOUT THE SCENE FOR NO LONGER THAN THE ACTUAL LENGTH OF THE SCENE. Was it two minutes and thirty seconds of putrid shitstorm? Fine. Have a super fucking ugly pity party for two minutes and thirty seconds of rage, tears, snot, chest pounding, clothes rending, and cursing. 

Ok. Time’s up.

Now let’s ask ourselves again: Did we learn from that scene? If so, since the object is to become a better improviser, then we made a good choice in the scene! Well done.

What next? Let’s get out there and do it again. More improv, more better. More practice. More practice. More practice. Some lemons. Some lemonade. More lemons. More lemonade. And one day, we might be lucky enough to realize we know nothing at all.
“Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces
you might enjoy this related piece:

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Charna Halpern yelled at me,

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

1 comment:

  1. Great post -- loads to think about, and lots that resonates. The thing about the Coulda game is that you can equally well play it after a dcene that goes phenomenally well. We could ALWAYS have done X instead of Y -- sometimes X might be funnier, sometimes Y might be. We only find out afterwards , and we only see one half of that Sliding Doors scenario, because there are no do-overs. It's not about making the best choice, it's about making a firm choice FIRST and THEN about making the most of it.