t h e . d e p a r t m e n t . o f . p r o m e t h e a n . s c i e n c e

The Basketball of Improv

I've enjoyed doing a lot of reading about basketball in the last few years, and at some point I realized I thought it made for a nice metaphor for improvisation.

Improvisors have tendencies that lead them to approach shows in distinct and particular modes, and I see those tendencies informing types that map over to basketball positions.

There was a point where I was starting to get pretty pedantic about extending the metaphor into specific facets of basketball games and to what certain statistics corresponded, but that probably just muddies up the picture to spend too much time on an activity like that. The point, after all, isn't to match all the facets in one arena to the something in the other, but to have a useful analogy for how a team may work together.

The comparison is most interesting as a way to understand how people approach play, and from that point help understand the best way to work out those approaches in a way that could best help ensemble chemistry.

And I think it's important people shouldn't be pigeonholed into being encouraged to only play their type if a coach or director uses any kind of window like this to look at an ensemble. We should all be trying to broaden our skill set to be able to do as much as we can … I think examining improvisation in terms like these may be just another way to capture impressions in a fun, digestible, and, I hope, helpful fashion.

I think, like basketball, the positional range of improvisors can be viewed as a spectrum that at one end indicates agility and at the other power.

On the agility side, skill sets of individuals favor creating opportunities, maneuvering through circumstances to achieve group goals, and orchestrating a big picture view of how things work. Guard play in basketball, move making in improvisation.

On the power side, the influence of an individual is about impact, taking advantage of opportunities, and finishing. Forwards and centers in basketball, and response, emotional work, point of view, and strong character work in improvisation.

Going from there, I think it's reasonable to characterize the comparisons between types and positions in even more detail.

Guards in improvisation are move makers and originators of ideas. Or at least, set up and contextual ideas. Looking at the show as a whole is key, and much of what these performers are doing tends to be based on making "head" choices.

A pitfall facing improv guards is being trapped by ideas and stalling out shows by cluttering air space with too many dry concepts.

Because of that, I think it's pretty exciting to see a guard type demonstrate a real understanding of how to balance idea with play, and intelligence with emotion. The best guards steer shows and create resonant ideas without attracting attention to the fact that they're making things up.

I think effective improvisation comes from making people believe in what they're seeing and emotionally investing in the theatrical experience of it -- funny or not -- so having a lively mind here is ideally coupled with remembering to be a human being.

The position can further be delineated by the way a performer approaches how ideas are originated and initiated.

Point guards are show originators -- move makers that tend to create opportunities for others, and for the show in general. Point guards are active in openings, on top of edits, and initiate scenes that set the table for their partners to play with a great degree of freedom. They are savvy about buttoning games, scenes, and beats in shows without being heavy handed about steering segments of a show.

As for my personal taste, these performers are my favorite type. Or, at least, the type of which I am most envious, and I wish I was (in my honest assessment, I'm not, though). The pure ensemble play inherent to someone that approaches shows from this perspective with a high level of skill is really impressive, and anyone that gets to play with someone like that should take time to appreciate it.

(I'm going to pepper in some examples here from the people with whom I play; if that's not helpful to you, feel free to skip them.)

The best example of a point guard I know is Farrell Walsh. He's a guy that constantly has the overall show on his mind and as his number one priority, but still manages to play by touch. The result is that everything gets set up to succeed but nothing gets dictated. Playing with him feels like everything is going to get covered, but you'll still have the freedom to do anything you want to do and get your ideas and moves in there.

Shooting guards are situational originators, move makers that make strong initiations within the segments of a show to add ideas, direction, and energy. Whereas point guards create opportunities for the show, shooting guards create opportunities for themselves. Or, at least, opportunities that they then tend to drive, bringing the show along with them.

These players may be influential in openings, games, and transitions, as well as bringing a distinct and unique slant to either starting or responding to define the context to a scene. The best shooting guards will make moves that don't only benefit themselves but also pull a show along with them.

While conscious of shows, the single-mindedness of perspective of these performers I think creates a likelihood that everything they do manifests strongly through their personal identity. It's great to have a great shooting guard working because it does seem to bring tone, identity, and voice to a show. Unless, of course, it's a tone, identity, and voice that comes across as disenchanting to an audience.

As much as I may try, or try to try, to subsume my identity into my ensembles, I think this is where I land as far as type goes.

A better example of a more perfect shooting guard with all upside and pretty much no down I think is TJ Jagodowski. He has ridiculous touch for pushing things to the next level through making a powerful, unique emotional choice that not only gives him something to play but represents a huge move making choice for his shows. Apropos, I think, since he's widely regarded as the greatest of the community in which I perform -- TJ is our Michael Jordan.

Moving on to the next big positional group, forwards in improvisation are the reactors and heighteners of the reality of a show. They are in-the-moment players, and can be the heart and anchor for believability of the emotional reality of a piece. Or, respond to ideas and moves in such a way that the meaning of the action is revealed and filled in with the weight of the impact the performer provides.

Forwards can miss if there isn't a sense of scale, and reactions arise unglued from the context of a show. It doesn't help to play at a volume or range disproportionate to how a show has flowed, and if a forward doesn't have a sense of rhythm or touch there can be problems … and players can look like non-listening maniacs, or callous opportunists.

It's fantastic to see a forward fill a show out with a simple, powerful response to moves. Seeing a move slow down in a satisfying way because it has been accepted by someone willing to process and respond to it honestly is where the whole theater of the heart thing comes in.

Splitting it up further is interesting here too.

Small forwards are emotional responders. I see these performers as the purest improvisational actors. Every moment in a show is regarded and accepted as part of an emotional continuum that is assumed to have existed before a scene and heightened as a scene emerges and is played.

As these performers play through scenes, the natural trajectory is to build the emotional arc of a scene, and information arises as a byproduct of developing relationship.

Small forwards can be very funny, very sharply intelligent, and even very dry, but the point is to feed a scene relationship and make it real rather than to push concept exterior to the moment.

They're needed for serving the heart of a piece; they also need to exercise discipline about appropriate use of their skill set. Scenes should be believably emotionally engaging, and a player of this type should work to have range in the way they interface with the technique of their emotional perspective rather than to run at a too-much-the-same access point of tone to every scene they play.

Ryan Dolan is a great small forward that I believe truly feels his way through performing in a piece. His emotional response and engagement guides the way he plays shows, and provides his teammates with a substantive anchor. It's interesting and great to see him utilize this approach even in the way that he plays games and openings. He heightens and advances rarely through clinical action but rather through deeply felt gut reaction, which produces some interesting stuff and allows an entire ensemble to remember to tap into our subconscious assets.

Power forwards are impact responders. The way that they react to moves can be amazingly revealing, change the entire context of a scene, or alter the course or tone of a show.

These performers add massive amounts of identity and heft to shows by providing immediate meaning and weight to what passes in front of them.

Often purveyors of the unexpected, power forwards aren't making big choices from any intellectual space in order to be funny, but rather reacting through inspiration in a way that speaks to them. They provide the second step of an initiation, and often make that second step a giant leap into something no one could have anticipated.

The desired outcome of that is that it will get everyone on a team involved and engaged by being surprising, compelling, and a doorway to something new that couldn't have been anticipated. The responsibility of a performer of this type is to understand scale and use some patience and discretion in how often big decisions are made to change the course of a show. If a power forward constantly operates at their top level of impact, they can rapidly create a disjointed environment no one can navigate.

At the best, though, these performers clarify and push a show toward it's ultimate value by being willing to infuse it with their identity and interest.

Louie Saunders is one of my favorite people, favorite people with whom to perform, and a great example of a power forward. His playful and utterly committed responses to what falls in front of him in shows is a delight to watch and with which to engage. He really gives his teammates everything and a complete landscape in which to freely play just by letting an idea bounce off of him and responding in a way that he finds amusing. Which inevitably amuses his ensemble and fosters exactly the sense of joyful play that makes for good shows.

Finally, centers match to personality players. Players that influence the identity of shows through the distinct character of their play. That could mean a tendency to literal character-based play or the strength of the unique character of the performer. Performers that exist so clearly as themselves that shows flow toward them.

Centers are pivotal to shows as tent poles for the identity of the team and the show. They are eminently watchable individuals that provide a natural gravity to which other performers move or respond.

There is a certain sense that centers push through to a different level of being able to just exist. In order to be successful or have an impact, there may not need to be much show navigation through moves or specific reaction at all, they may be able to just engage through their natural performance voice.

For other types of players, centers can be great sources of inspiration and show momentum as they provide an energy unto themselves. Building a successful show may come about just from orbiting what a center can provide.

The danger is in allowing a personality to supersede the importance of an ensemble. If a center only operates on an island, they may become an entrapping liability rather than the foundation on which the rest of an ensemble may build.

Someone I'd call a center with whom I love to play is Pat Raynor. Pat doesn't necessarily default to playing a lot of heavy character (although when he does play character, it's always high impact and totally believable and engaging), but he's a compelling personality that can carry a team on his back by being himself and settling into playing. He just is fun to watch, and there's something that is always possessed of his particular charm whether he's playing someone close to himself or far away, and he's dynamite at working with teammates feeding into him in that way. On top of that, although I'm calling him a center here, he's an Olajuwon-style "small man in a big man's body" -- he got a complete set of guard-style show moves and the ability to execute on them but gives an ensemble a true compelling personality player with which to play.

Like basketball, people may be better or worse at executing in the position to which they tend, and some performers may fall in between positions. Or have skill sets that move between the positions, which is certainly a lucky circumstance. As a performer, too, I think it's important to understand where you have the propensity to fall, and work on skills outside of that area to increase your range. As we play with different ensembles, we may need to shift roles for the sake of an ensemble, and it's a great skill to still be able to be effective while "playing out of position".