Taking the Compliment and Taking the Criticism

The more improvisation I do, the more I notice about my own personal habits, my own instinctive reactions to things.

I tend to react badly when people tell me what I am. I don’t like being defined according to someone else’s opinion, no matter what that opinion is. Yet I’m far more likely to accept your opinion of me if it is negative than if it is positive. If you tell me I’m lazy, I will feel terrible, but I won’t dispute it. I’ll go away and dwell upon what a lazy person I am, possibly the most idle layabout that ever lived. I’ll lose sleep over every recent occasion when I was anything less than busy up to the eyeballs. I will over-accept that offer, and thereby forever train myself to become lazier and lazier.

But if you compliment me, being English, I’ll protest vigorously. “Me? Clever? That’s nonsense!” “You like my shoes? They’re old; I need new ones.” “You found my show funny? It wasn’t supposed to be!” This is, of course, an example of rudeness disguised as modesty. The correct answer to a compliment is actually “Thank you.”

In life, I accept criticism and reject compliments. When I am on stage, the opposite rule applies. Tell me I’m a brave and handsome space captain with an IQ of a billion and I’ll throw out my chest, jut out my jaw, and revel in the role. Whereas if you insult my character on stage, I’ll more often than not be mortally offended and deny, deny, deny. “How dare you? I’m not ugly!”

In improv there is joy in giving up the protection of instinctively reacting badly, and in allowing someone to endow you. Don’t say no, even to criticism. On a couple of occasions lately, I decided to go the other way. Luke told me – in a scene – that I was a repulsive, disgusting, slimy frog-monster. By over-accepting the endowment – by not only acknowledging that I was repulsive but taking pride in the fact – I took the story in a more interesting direction.

In another rehearsal, last night, my scene partner told me “You’re so cold and insensitive. Your heart is made of tin.” Simply by confidently replying “Yes, I am insensitive. I have a tin heart,” without even adding any new information, I found I got a big reaction from the audience. When it comes down to it, endowments of people are just as peripheral to the action of the scene as endowments of the space. We want to see them accepted and built on, certainly, but the scene isn’t about these details – it’s about how the characters actually react to them.

The scenes in which people dispute with each other about each other’s attributes, their characters, their appearance or even their emotional states – they way people often do in real life – can be as commonplace as scenes in which shop transactions take place.

If you have enjoyed this article, say so and I will go to the small trouble of thanking you. If you think it’s illogical or badly written, I shall endeavour to take your criticism on board and discover what lessons there are to be learned from it.


4 Comments on “Taking the Compliment and Taking the Criticism”

  1. Rowan Brook-Thompson says:

    This is an awesome article. I find that I almost exclusively accept/reject criticism/compliments in the same way as I would in everyday life which is frustrating as it seems to limit the story. I am really looking forward to seeing your show in Lancaster.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Rowan. I’m looking forward to seeing you, too!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have enjoyed this article, Michael.

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