One of the best things I learned at this year’s Gatlinburg Improv Fest is something that I had already learned about radio. Until Saturday, I hadn’t realized that it was yet another similarity between the two disciplines.
Consultant Valerie Geller has written extensively, both in her book Beyond Powerful Radio and in columns online, that radio hosts are either generators or reactors. As she described how to tell the difference, I knew instantly that I am a reactor. According to Valerie:
Generators have a lot of ideas and energy. They take huge risks and worry about it later. They have moments of brilliance. They sit alone in a room, and their minds overflow with ideas. [Reactors are] quick with a story, a memory, an imitation or a line for any topic you could give him or her. But you must lead the reactor by giving that first push, that suggestion, or a good opening. Reactors may do brilliant interviews, or pick things out of the newspaper that are unique, but they need some kind of initial stimulus to begin the process.
Generators are scarce. Most people are reactors. It is a little like being left- or right-handed. One is no better than the other. If absolutely necessary, right-handed people can adapt to use their left hands, and vice versa. You can certainly force people to improve in the area where they are weaker, but in most circumstances it is best for the station to take advantage of their natural inclinations.
I used to think that improvisers were reactors and that stand-up comedians were generators. In fact, there are generators and reactors in improv and there are generators and reactors in stand-up.
During the Improv Fest, I took a class from Ian Covell which focused on the Meisner technique and a class from Matt Stanton which focused on creating a story arc that used the basics of the hero myth. In the first class, I felt like I was using my strengths. In the other, I felt like I was working against my weaknesses.
In the first class my scene partner was professional actor Cylk Cozart. He and I used the lessons Ian taught to “get to the emotional core of the relationship between you and your scene partner” just like it said in the course description. It certainly helped me to be paired with a talented pro like Cylk. We were both able to react to the various scenarios in which Ian placed us.
During Matt’s class, the college improvisers from Lee University’s Shenanigans absolutely nailed it. They normally do long-form improv and create a story with a beginning, middle and end that is often as good as a scripted play. Matt was teaching them to do it in a shorter time frame but to still have a protagonist, antagonist, helper and hindrance. They easily generated material out of nothing.
Later I spoke to Ian about Valerie’s article. He said he had recently read an article about improv that classified improvisers as either innovators or responders. I immediately knew that I am a responder.
Knowing that I am a responder explains why I like to be the actor who is sent out of the room and has to guess the quirks of the others upon returning. All I’m doing is reacting and responding to their actions. It also explains why a game called Free Flow is not one of my favorites. The game works best when played by generators/innovators. When I play it, I like to chime in as a supporting player who reacts to the scene in progress.