Community-True Words

It was with great delight that I came across this gorgeous and thoughtful post by renowned improvisor Jill Bernard. She’s an exceptional talent, a truly warm and welcoming presence, and a leader in her field. If you’ve never seen her perform and you get the chance, don’t miss it.

She wrote about community building, specifically improv community, but I think her words ring true for any community. Our modern perspective on business is the financial bottom line, yes? Get your brand out there, crush competition, gain and hold market share. And I understand that model, but I don’t think it’s a humane or life giving one. It assumes a culture of scarcity, and it pits people and ideas against each other. Much better to, whenever possible, behave collaboratively and constructively and to help buoy each other up.

(Of course, one might say that if Coke had acted that way with Pepsi…and I’d say, that we don’t really need all that much soda (just think of the issues with obesity, tooth decay, hypertension, and the effects of all the aluminum cans in the environment (and mining)…)

I get it though, and I get that most of us, myself included, don’t know even how to imagine a world where it isn’t about competition and bottom line, fame and “credit” but service and community. This piece really hits home for me and I’m so glad I caught it today. I owe a great deal to improv and to the community here in Austin for their support and skill and playfulness. These are important words and I hope you read and share them.

Jill Bernard:

An improv community does not spring out of the ground. It takes a lot of aggressive effort.

Whoever the average businessperson would call your competition, walk across the street into the lion’s den and find something to collaborate on. Share students, share performers, share chairs and lighting designers and spreadsheets. Miracle on 34th Street this, refer customers to each other. A secret is it doesn’t even matter if their style of improv is not your cup of tea. You don’t even have to like them as a person, although it really really helps.

You are going to bump heads, there will be hiccups. There will be ego-clashes. You’ll find a way through if you want it badly enough.

Please don’t make your people be exclusive. If you let them cross-train and play elsewhere they’ll come back stronger. If they don’t come back, that’s natural too. If your attitude is, “I taught them everything they know and now someone else is profiting,” please don’t have actual children, the ROI is even worse.

There will be people who don’t want to be in a community with you. You can keep asking, and you can also make sure everyone in that organization knows you have your hand outstretched. If they’re badmouthing you, be perpetually classy about it, spread the truth without pointing fingers. There may also be people who don’t even recognize community, because they’re very focused on their own space or philosophy and have no regard for anything else. You can still find ways to include them and those around them. Alternately, you can let them be. They can eat Thanksgiving dinner alone in their room if they want.

Please know that if someone doesn’t come to your show it is not a guarantee that they hate you. Often its because we all schedule our shows and rehearsals on the same nights of the week because there are only seven of them.

People love being treated with respect, they love when their contribution to the history of the art form is recognized. Give them the status. You don’t need it. Honor your mentors and your elders. Also honor your youngers. It completely feels like they invented improv six months ago, let them have that thrill. Ask for help and share ideas in both directions. The best lessons can come from the most unexpected teachers.

The aphorism “A rising tide raises all ships” completely applies. You should not be afraid when some other theater gains attention, it will only raise the profile of improv in your city. You should not be afraid there is not enough audience to go around. There are so many people who’ve never even heard of improv who would love it. Don’t go after other people’s audiences, breed your own. Additionally, if there’s some show idea or marketing angle unique to a particular group within your community, let them have it, let it be proprietary. Don’t steal other people’s thunder.

It isn’t easy. There are a lot of cities that have worked really hard and buried a ton of hatchets. I would recognize Kansas City, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and my own beloved Minneapolis as just some of the cities that doggedly pursue making their partners look good and yes and on a civic scale.

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