I was part of a serious improv team a few years ago. We were a small group of five individuals who met at an established comedy theater while taking classes. We felt a natural connection with each other, the kind you develop when you’re part of a really good sports team. You know when for some reason everything just organically clicks, and somehow everything just flows? That’s the kind of spark we had right from the beginning.
Eager to harness this energy we held to weekly practices where we’d rent space, usually a dance studio, and for two hours we’d run scene after scene, breaking down techniques with a coach, and getting feedback as to how our scenes could get better. We began to book shows, and were performing four to five times a month, on top of weekly practices. Like any team we became close friends, and it showed in our performances as our characters mirrored the idiosyncrasies of each other, and we could anticipate each other’s moves. We talked about what we could do better. We began to think and work as one. We were a well-oiled machine.
After a time our weekly practices became periods of experimentation with new forms, a sort of trial and error of how we could continue to push ourselves. Not wanting to fall into a regular groove we made sure to set goals that were in our reach, but just out of grasp. We didn’t want to be one of those teams that was around for a year then tapered off and disappeared. No, we wanted to be staples in the improv community, to show that through the thickest and thin we’d still be around. It was about two years into our stride when we began to see flags.
We began to notice that one of our members was regularly missing our weekly practices, and at points going two months without attending practice, but showing up at performances. At first we didn’t pay attention to the new trend as the cancellations occurred as late as 10 minutes prior to the start of a practice.
Performances began to suffer because we’d be working on techniques during practice without the individual, and when it came to perform the focus was off, and habits we’d addressed in practice were sneaking into our shows. Team chemistry began to change as we dealt with the frustrations of a team member who was appearing to lose focus.
The issue became difficult to address. Do we address it as friends, or as teammates? How do we address it? Talking it out or in writing? We felt we were being taken advantage of, and that there were no consequences to the actions of this individual. We needed to confront this issue with a concrete plan. Being part of a team entails a level of commitment.
The remaining members and I developed a contract detailing the rules of the team. These rules regarding practice cancellations and missed shows were presented to the individual stating that this is the commitment we’ve all agreed to abide while being members of this team, if these commitments have changed we’d need to reassess our priorities and act according to how we feel. The contract was received well, however two weeks later, the individual resigned from the team stating they( the individual) could no longer abide to the plan set forth by the team, and could no longer commit.
As I reflect on this story I am reminded of the commitments we make with clients and ourselves. The relationships that develop in therapy between a client and counselors mirror those of a developing team, learning what each other wants and establishing goals. There are those initial phases of getting to know each other, challenging the other, exploring strengths and weaknesses, experiencing the high and lows, times when everything makes sense, and times when s*** hits the fan. But like teams it’s the commitment to each other and to the common goal that make it work.
Jaime Castillo is a counselor who works for a non-profit agency in New York City.