Process and Product

I recently coached a group that had been practicing together for a while and were trying to work towards performing. Before the coaching session, a number of comments I’d heard about process and product were swirling in the back of my mind. I’d heard two of them during the Annoyance intensive. Susan Messing had brought up improv shows as products at one point, and Mick Napier had talked about process and product during a Q&A, a sampling of which appears in one of his blog posts:

[T]he evolving and transforming continuous nature of long-form, with its edits and callbacks and tag-outs and self-reference and fluidity … often [makes it] difficult … to “package” the comedy into scenic product. Even that sentence may scare a typical long form improviser: “Package the comedy into scenic product”, but that’s exactly what sketch comedy demands… That is sketch on television, as well, and carries even more of that “product and packaged”, mentality. I have observed that the process-oriented, continuous, ever-connecting nature of long-form improvisation works against that in the performance and in the development of sketch material.

The other mention that I can recall was from Stephen Colbert in a recent GQ interview:

The final goal, the product, is beside the point. “The end product is jokes, but you could easily say the end product is intention. Having intentionality at all times… The process of process is process.” … The reason he loves Chopped is that it’s a show that is wholly about process, about creation within a limited range of possibilities.

The first excerpt describes how the same process used to create the product of a long-form improv show can work against extracting tightly packaged scenes from that show for the purposes of sketch. In other words, a single process may not always be equally effective at creating multiple products. The second excerpt is a rephrasing of the saying, “Trust in the process.” In other words, when one is going through a process, one’s focus should be on the process, not the target product.

In the context of improv, the first excerpt would imply that a team needs to be on the same page about their goals and what they want to create in order to start defining a process that will let them get there. The second excerpt suggests that once such a process is in place, the attention of the team should be to focus on the process. Given this, one role a coach can play is to work with a team to define or refine the process based on their goals. If the team’s process is clearly defined already, then a coach’s role might shift to drilling the team so that all aspects of that process become second nature.

Note that process doesn’t have to refer just to a format like the Harold but can touch every aspect of play, from how to interact with an audience for a suggestion to best practices in scene work to what happens to chairs on a stage after a scene ends.

Given this, I started the coaching session by asking the team what their goals were. We only scratched the surface, but I think we made progress.

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