Antifragility, or What is a Show for?

The Nursery

By Jules Munns

I mention a lot of books when I am teaching and coaching. Sometimes too many. It can make me feel like all I am doing is rehashing other people’s ideas, but maybe that’s just what teaching is, passing on the ideas of people smarter than you. So I thought I’d do a few blog posts on books that every improviser should read and why I love them. They are in no particular order, but this one has been on my mind recently.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes three different types of system. Fragile systems are vulnerable to unexpected shocks. Like the banking system before 2008 and (to use Taleb’s example) a teacup in an earthquake. They do their job (making certain people rich, holding tea) until something unexpected comes along. Then they collapse with varying degrees of chaos: a global recession or a wet lap. Then there are robust systems. Robust systems are able to bounce back when that something unexpected comes along. They have more resources, more space for error, more flex. Like a bamboo building in an earthquake, they sway, but stand. Which sounds pretty good. Certainly better than the first type of system.

But some systems go a stage further and actually benefit from shocks. They treat them as new information, something to learn and grow from. These kind of systems thrive on challenges and become stronger by the act of being being used. Your immune system, for example, fine-tunes its responses by producing antibodies appropriate to the environment. And when you damage your muscles slightly by exercising, they grow back stronger.

Here is a passage from Antifragile which describes it beautifully:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.”

And humans are like that. In a rehearsal or class, under the right circumstances, discomfort and disagreement can lead to better understanding of other people and yourself. Too little challenge and we’re bored, too much and we are permanently scarred, but the right amount and we can explore and grow. People are smart and strong. They are resourceful, resilient and they learn from their mistakes and challenges. For me, that’s the point of improv. If I was never uncomfortable, I’d be doing something else. Improv classes shouldn’t be places where we trample over the emotional reactions of others in the group because “it’s funny” and nor should they be places where everything is puppies and rainbows. I don’t want to protected people from everything that challenge them in the slightest degree, but expose them to just the right amount of it that they benefit. Which is a very hard line to tread.

So how do you create an antifragile system? Or rather, how do you make sure that a show or team or class is one? The core of antifragile systems for me is an abundance of resources. If a system has just the right amount of resources to deal with the expected challenges, it will fall apart when there is an unexpected event. A black swan, as Taleb calls them. Antifragile systems have more resources than they need: more time, more people, more money, more space for beneficial discussion, more time, more exercises in the bank in case we need them, more biscuits and always always always more time. That’s hard in a generally non-professional art form like improv, but necessary.

Because we need to make shows and teams that are antifragile, that benefit and grow from the accidents that happen on and offstage, inside and outside the mind of the players. And I see so many shows that rely on a series of hoop-jumps to make them work. That need everything to line up perfectly in order for the big finale. And when a show does not accomplish that, we talk about the move in the show that would have got us through the flaming hoop. Why did I kill the king? Why did I make that character a mermaid? If only I hadn’t And I think that’s the wrong way round. Why not look for the error in the shape of the show, for the mistake in the system rather than the individuals?

Practicing a thousand times to pull off a specific one-in-a-million trick is impressive. Responding to anything the show gives you and folding it into the show is charming. And antifragile. Build a show that is well-nigh impossible and you’ll spend your time serving it. Build a show that can handle anything and it will serve you.


Jules Munns is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery. He is currently Directing ‘Happy in their own Way’, which opens on the 8th of February.