Why failing is okay but trying is still important

Why failing is okay but trying is still important

Failing is Okay

In improv we are taught that failure is not a bad thing, even something to be celebrated. The reason is that we want to overcome the fear of failure. Humans are naturally risk averse (thanks brain!) and this fear causes us to be cautious, and to count less on our fellow improvisers to catch us if we fall.

There are exercises designed to cause failure in order to demonstrate that failure is nothing to be feared, almost like a sort of exposure therapy. For example “Counting Frogs” involves counting an increasing number of frogs, how many eyes they have (two per frog), and how many legs they have (four per frog) and how many times they ribbit (one ribbit per frog). The results is something like this:

“One frog, two eyes, four legs, ribbit”
“Two frogs, four eyes, eight legs, ribbit ribbit”
“Three frogs, six eyes, twelve legs, ribbit ribbit ribbit”

The mental arithmetic alone is enough to defeat most participants (who cares, we all have calculators on our phones now). Even those mathematically agile enough are often thrown off by the relentless pace of the chant, and as such more than 5 frogs are rarely achieved, and failure is accompanied with lots of clapping cheering and genuine laughter.

Earned and Unearned Failure

Celebration of failure is all well and good, but if you play this game, you might find that failing before you’ve completed the first line isn’t that fun, and the celebration and laughter might feel a bit forced. You might find yourself internally rolling your eyes and thinking “surely that isn’t all you’ve got?”. Well, that might be all they’ve got, or it might be that this player has got the wrong end of the stick. There’s a difference between making a genuine attempt and celebrating an “earned” failure, and deliberately self sabotaging in order to skip straight to celebrating an “unearned” failure.

So why is trying and failing more satisfying that trying to fail? There’s something deeper at play here: a soft contract.

Soft Contracts

A soft contract is something struck between a performer and an audience. The performers’ part of the deal is to make sure what they say will happen actually happens, and the audiences part is to enjoy it when it happens. Soft contracts are most clear in short form games, where the rules of the game are explained beforehand. In fact, a reason why short form games can fizzle is that they haven’t been introduced fully, leaving improvisers frustrated that the audience aren’t appreciating their masterful game playing, and the audience unimpressed with what (without the knowledge of the game being played) could be quite a mediocre scene.

Honour the Contract

So, now we know about soft contracts, it’s important to play the game we said we are going to play. Let’s take “Story Story Die” as an example.

In this game a line-up of improvisers tell a story together, each of them narrating the story while they’re being pointed at by the conductor. If the conductor changes who they’re pointing at, the improvisers aim to “seamlessly” pick up where the narration last left off. If they stumble in picking up the narrative stream, or go “err” or “um”, the audience will shout “DIE”, the offending improviser leaves the line-up and the game continues.

Now, say there are three improvisers left, who have had quite some experience in playing the game and are skilled at continuing spoken narratives and picking up where the previous left off. They could go on forever, or at least until the tech pulls the lights on them. What now?

Brake or Crash

Picture three souped up hatchbacks racing down a mountain pass of the Kantō region of Japan in the mid 90s. They occasionally overtake when the narrow roads allow, but generally it’s neck’n’neck. One driver decides that it’s not worth the risk and pumps the brakes: they failed to win the race. The other pair continue, faster and faster, until one of them takes a corner just a little bit too hard and smashes into the guard rail and plummets into the ravine below: they failed to win the race. A sad day for the Japanese street racing community, but an excellent analogy for improv.

Our three improvisers playing “Story Story Die” could either self sabotage and bow out when they know they could keep going (brake), or they could play faster and harder until they genuinely are no longer able to keep up with the game (crash). It’s the difference between an unearned and an earned failure again.

In the case of “Story Story Die” the conductor can ramp up the difficulty by speeding up the rate at which they change the narrator, cutting them off in the middle of a sentence (or even a word), or pointing at two at a time and expecting them to narrate the story in simultaneous speech.

What about long form?

This can be applied in long form too. Soft contracts are less obvious here than they are in short form, but they’re definitely there. What the audience knows about and expects of the show before it even starts can become part of the contract. Offers given in scenes with the indication they will be explored later on form clauses in the contract. Think Chekov’s Gun.

Here’s an example. If a character mentions that they’re easily frightened, the soft contract is that the other players invent scenarios in order to scare that character. Unless the rest of the show is going to be about playing this game, the moves to get out of it will either be a “brake” or a “crash”. Maybe the character will “pump the brakes” find a reason for themselves to stop being put in scary situations, and the game will stop. Now the other players must work harder to invent something in order to keep the narrative going. Alternatively the game is played harder and faster until it “crashes”. Perhaps in this example the character could be so scared they have a heart attack. It’s simpler to see how the narrative can continue down the path after a “crash”.

So in general, when you find yourself honouring a soft contract and playing its game, try and play it until you crash.

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