Once upon a time, a brilliant workshop participant sidled up to me on a break and asked a question. "While I was watching someone on stage a few minutes ago," he said, "I had the impulse afterwards to tell him something that he could've done that would've been really funny. But then I was like, Is that good feedback?"
And I was like, "Great question, Brilliant Workshop Participant."
I think we've all spent a lot of time in comedy classes listening to our teachers or even fellow students give "feedback" in the form of This is the awesome thing that should've happened in that scene, but didn't. How useful are these awesome ideas after the scene is over? Can these ideas somehow dig up the corpse of that scene and resurrect it, Frankenchrist-like, into a fresher, more ferocious form of itself?
Unfortunately no, friends and lovers. That scene that just ended is totally dead, and we all know what happens when you try to resurrect the dead: you get angry psychopathic monsters or Christmas sweaters, and none of it's any good at all. Telling a performer what they could've done to make a scene better is not really going to help them. Because think about how people learn. People generally learn by being able to put new information into a file that's already created in their brain for that information. Into what brain file can we put This is how that scene would've been better, besides the brain file of Oh, this teacher or fellow performer is way smarter than dumb ol' meeee?
And that brain file is near to bursting, friends and lovers!
When it's time to give feedback, here are six concepts to consider, as both teachers and fellow artists-at-work:
1)First, the best feedback is not feedback. It's side-coaching.
For Satan's sake, comedy teachers, when performers could be better on stage right now, and it will only take a word or phrase from you for them to fix it, don't wait! Freakin' tell them now!!! Side coach side coach side coach! When a performer gets to experience a change from inside an improvisation, they learn very differently from just hearing something afterwards and nodding. They learn experientially, which is really the best way for anyone to learn anything. There are limits to this, of course; over-side-coaching stops the flow. Still, most classes I've been in, the teachers have mostly aired on the side of under-side-coaching. Which sounds sexier than it is.
2) Before you say anything at all, ask the person who was just on stage how they would evaluate what they just did. When we are asked to self-evaluate, we start to more carefully consider the different aspects at play in our work. Often, people do a really great job of self-evaluating, and when they don't, then it's easier to see what their particular blind spots are by getting them to talk first.
3) Define and reuse terms, and limit limit limit.If a concept has been introduced, and performers are trying that concept out on their feet, a great focus for outside-eye feedback is, how did the performer use that particular concept? Keeping terminology consistent can help us figure out how well we are understanding and applying what we're learning. And it may be that other issues beside the concept-on-the-table have come up for you as you watch, but consider letting those go. I know it feels so tough to not give particular gems of feedback, but let them go anyway. We don't need every last drop of your feedback brilliance every time, sad but true.
4) Look for patterns. Just like I am always accidentally buying myself a new striped sweater that looks like every other striped sweater I've ever bought, people make the same kinds of choices over and over again. Pointing out the pattern is a great way for a student to see what they're doing, and keep it in mind so that next time, they've have more awareness of their tendency toward stripes, and maybe make a decision to do plaid instead.
5) Look for the ROOT of your feedback.When we watch other people in a workshop environment, we're always "playing at home"—figuring out how we would do it if we were the ones on stage. So it's totally natural that we'd come up with ideas for what could've been different/better. But instead of telling a performer, "you could've done this," go one level deeper into your own idea, figure out the concept behind your idea, and pitch that concept to them, as just one more way to approach a moment. For example, let's say you're watching someone improvise and it seems like they should've gotten very excited at a specific moment, but didn't. Why did you come up with the idea that they should've gotten excited? Is it because you're watching with a lens of what makes characters tick?or maybe what is rhythmically interesting? Suggest one of those lenses to them, not the result of the lens. Give your students the pole, not the fish. Which, again, sounds sexier than was intended.
6) Keep feedback time short. Back when I used to teach high school English, I would watch my fellow English teachers in the faculty lounge covering their students' papers with comments. On one hand, I saw the value in that: it gave students the message that their words were being deeply considered; their words mattered. On the other hand, it was a lot of ink for students to absorb, and they usually got overwhelmed by it. My teaching mentor told me, early on, "Students don't read your comments; they just look at the grade." (He was adorably cynical, but often right.) He told me to give my students more writing homework, and comment less on it. I took his point. I'll say it again: we learn by reps. Fact: the more reps you give your students, the better. It doesn't matter how genius your feedback sessions are; they are still no substitute for reps reps reps reps reps.
More work, less talk, but more targeted talk—that's what makes us all happier, and also, ultimately—whooda thunk?—funnier too.