How Improv Can Help the Very Helpful

Are you a clown, a caretaker or a ninja? This was the question posed.

I pondered it as I put down the pumpkin cheesecake I’d baked for rehearsal in case anyone got hungry.

If I could just have a sign…

I already knew I wanted to be a ninja; it sounded the coolest. But the truth be told, I’d never been particularly cool. I wasn’t really sure how.

“Am I a caretaker?” I asked around the room tentatively.

Was everyone else okay with that?

Some years later and I now realise this original question, of what kind of improviser are you, had confused two theories of improv styles. Ninja had sneaked in stealth-like from Bill Merritt’s theory of Pirate, Robot, Ninja into the types of Clown, Thinker, Caretaker from Katy Schutte’s The Improviser’s Way.

Still, whichever theory was being used, my answer would have been the same: “I want to be the best, so which one’s that?”

What I actually wanted was for everyone to think I was the best to play with. And that is at the fundamental core of what made me a caretaker in the first place. Because once upon a time how other people felt about the experience they were having, how they felt about themselves, and how they felt about me, most specifically, mattered more to me than anything else.

“Caretakers avoid freedom. On paper they are the perfect improviser, doing whatever is needed. And though you’ll get a good solid show every time from a Caretaker, it won’t be a life-changer. Caretakers avoid just fucking around. They want to know what is needed and how they should do it. They don’t take enough risks or ever really surprise themselves.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

I took a risk in improvising. I still surprise myself for doing it at all. But when it came to the improv itself, I craved rules and structure. I wanted someone to tell me: do it like this and you’ll be safe.

And no one could, because it doesn’t work that way. Nothing really does.

If I had stayed embedded in my caretaking ways, I don’t think I would ever really have been able to push into the territory I have with my improv. I would have undoubtedly stayed in groups where I wasn’t happy. Improvising would have felt too much like work.

Caretakers really do have some great skills to offer improv. They are flexible, adaptable, generous and as Katy Schutte puts it, “They see what a show needs and they step in selflessly”.

‘Selfless’ stepping in might sound saint-like. It may really serve the show. But caretakers can get rather caught up in service and forget to express themselves.

Caretakers tend to look after things. Extreme ones look after everything. They may not initiate as much or drive things forward. Instead, they say: “I see what’s going on here and by hook or by crook, I’m going to look after it.”

“Bad caretakers do too much. They see a scene going on and they want to get in there, as a walk-on, as a scene-paint, as another character. Sometimes scenes need it of course, but bad Caretakers overdo it.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

The truth is that when I found out I was a caretaker, I was disappointed because there was a part of me who didn’t want to look after others anymore. A part of me didn’t want to be taming or tame. A part of me resented the implication.

I’d grown rather bored with how well I could take care of things. All the things. Everybody else’s things.

For a long time, I couldn’t help myself… because I was too busy helping other people. Or I thought I was. All the other people.

What I know now is that when you are a person who can already take care of yourself, it’s actually pretty annoying when someone else keeps trying to anticipate your every need and take care of you. Caretaking looks kind. It looks thoughtful. But I say this with all the love in my heart for my past and recovering caretaking self: caretaking can be controlling.

“Caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires incompetency on the part of the person being taken care of. We rescue “victims” – people who we believe are not capable of being responsible for themselves. The victims actually are capable of taking care of themselves, even though we and they don’t admit it.”

Melody Beattie, Codependent No More

I’ve had to train myself quite hard at acknowledging other people’s capabilities. When I feel I might be being invited to a rescue, I remind myself that the person in question is a grown-ass grown-up and they’ve been on Earth long enough now to know how to handle themselves.

Beyond the beacons of distress, in improv, we caretakers can find the people we are drawn to help most are the clowns. Their wild, carefree showboating sets our nerves a tingle. We can feel we have to interpret them or harness their chaotic energy. We can feel the instinct to tame them. And when that doesn’t work, there’s another instinct; the one to follow behind their most destructive behaviour with a mop.

When we really lose ourselves in rescuer roles, we see clowns everywhere, like we’ve stepped into an exhausting haunted fairground where it is our assignment to exorcise every damn tent.

That is not our job. Let the clowns be clowns. Let them be.

Some clowns doing their clown thing. Just look at them being all clown.

But it’s not just clowning that can set us off. Anything that feels dangerously uncomfortable can, including deep dives into emotional territory, unsettling power dynamics or intense relationships. If it feels out of control, extreme caretaking says – reign it in.

The clown says: let me be wild. The caretaker says: careful now. And the thinker says: don’t forget, my massive brain is also here.

Improv has really helped me to understand how I caretake, how I reach out to help even when it isn’t asked for, and how I hustle. And improv has helped me to start to change those habits in scenes and also in real life. Improv is a safe space to practice doing things differently.

“How wild it was to let it be.”

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

When you close your eyes and think of a helpful person, what do you see? What about a nice person? A kind person? A good person? A worthy person? A caring person?

Trying to live up to those ridiculous ideals in our heads will more often than not lead to failure. You might even be forced to go around sacrificing every darn part of you in order to uphold this image that validates your existence. So do yourself a favour and start telling a different story about yourself. It probably won’t happen overnight. It didn’t for me. But I started making a conscious effort to catch myself whenever I thought of myself as a ‘helpful’ person. I would catch myself and replace the thought with a more firm: I am a person. Sometimes I am helpful. Sometimes I am not. Sometimes I am good. Sometimes now, because of my new story, I am a frickin’ badass.

Sometimes I’m even a ninja in improv. Foremost now I’m an improviser. Sometimes I caretake. Sometimes I clown. Sometimes I think.

Sometimes I’m even quite good at it.

Improv has taught me I am not responsible for everything, that I must trust my own instincts and resist the urge to caretake consistently. I love to watch typical caretaker types mess about or play mean. There’s so much power to be found in being carefree.

I was once given this advice in improv as an antidote to my helpful improvising… from time to time, go wild.

In The Improviser’s Way, the wonderful creative force that is Katy Schutte lists some other experiments for type caretaker improvisers. Here are some of my favourites of her notes:

  • Fuck around.
  • Strike an unusual pose.
  • Be an object or animal that can’t speak.
  • Make your scene partner laugh.
  • Say a line that has no reference to anything.
  • Do a scene with noises instead of words.
  • Break the rules.
  • Be selfish.

I think one of the funniest, most fun and most memorable things I’ve done in improv was to lead a chorus of operatic chickens. It was gibberish. It broke the brief we’d been given, and came out of a hive-mind move to all sink to the floor and play chickens during a story song. I saw my chance to lead the chorus this way and took it before anyone else could. It did feel selfish. It almost felt like cheating too. It was so easy to do. But I loved doing it and it became an infamous hit.

In her wholehearted book Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living, Glennon Doyle tells us the story of Tabitha, a cheetah at the zoo trained to chase a toy and then return to her cage.

“Tabitha. She was born into captivity. The only visible order she’s ever known includes cages and dirty pink bunnies and weak, bored applause. Tabitha never knew the wild. Yet Tabitha knew the wild. It was in her. She sensed the pressing of the unseen order like a relentless hunch. Perhaps for us, as for Tabitha, the deepest truth is not what we can see but what we can imagine. Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality but where we go to remember it. Perhaps when we want to know the original plan for our lives, families, world, we should consult not what’s in front of us but what’s inside us. Imagination is how personal and worldwide revolutions begin.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living

Those who have been trained to take care of others really have so much to offer the world and also the world of improv: our acute awareness, our sensitivity, our mix of bird’s eye view and attention to detail POV, our honed listening skills, our ability to identify the needs of a show and to give our scene partners the gifts they need to shine.

And our imagination.

Perhaps clowns are as bothersome to us because sometimes we’d like to be more like them. Perhaps we’d like to wear the bright clashing colours with abandon and let ourselves be random and run free. Perhaps we’d like to wear noisy shoes and express our emotions decidedly on our faces. Perhaps we’d even like a red nose every now and again or to be crammed into a tiny clown car.

Here’s the secret, dear helpful improviser, you can. And you can start today.

You know that voice you get leaping up inside you sometimes telling you what to say, the one you suspect is ridiculous; yeah, that one – try saying it out loud. Yes, it’s dangerous I know, sometimes that voice will get it wrong but practice in a safe space with improvisers you trust and in time you might even notice that voice is onto something. I think a big difference between caretakers and clowns is clowns don’t police that voice so hard, sometimes they don’t at all. I think that as a caretaker, that can make us a bit grumpy on occasion. But I think those grumps can tell us a lot about how we really feel. As much as we’d like to deny it, we have a clown inside us too and it wants to play big time.

In my early improv days, the ultra-talented Jen Rowe from The Maydays gave me a secret note that read, “Make yourself big and bold. Big characters. Big choices. Big reactions.” I still have that note. I’ve popped it into a box with other special things and looking at it now makes me smile.

I knew she’d seen me. I was rumbled. I was playing it small. For me, caretaking was hiding. I wasn’t really following my fun. I wasn’t yet free.

One way Doyle suggests we get out of the cage of control, out of caretaking and people-pleasing, is to stop using the language of indoctrination. Drop the ‘good’, the ‘should’, the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’. When you’re inside a show or act, you haven’t got sight of those judgments anyway. You’re biased.

“We are all bilingual. We speak the language of indoctrination, but our native tongue is the language of imagination. When we use the language of indoctrination – with its should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad – we are activating our minds. That’s not what we’re going for here. Because our minds are polluted by our training. In order to get beyond our training, we need to activate our imaginations. Our minds are excuse makers; our imaginations are storytellers. So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful?”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living

What is true and beautiful in improv? What is true and beautiful in your improv? What is true and beautiful in you?

I’d bet money on it being a lot more than you think.

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