Am I A Steamroller?

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I had multiple conversations recently, with improvisers of varied experience (less than a year and close to 4 years) who expressed concern that they might be steamrollers. The fear that they might be steamrolling put these improvisers in a spot where they were performing timid and afraid to make moves.

Oh no! The dreaded Steamroller! For a lot of improvisers, being labeled a steamroller feels like having a scarlet “S” sewn into your flannel shirt. You get warned time and time again about it. You want to be a great partner! I can’t let my team down!

The good news is, if you’re even worried about this at all, you probably aren’t making a habit of playing that way. People who actually steamroll have no idea they are doing it or just don’t care. So hooray for you! You’re free from scorn. For now...

“Don’t steamroll your partner.” That note is rooted in an important lesson that all improvisers need to learn, but what does it actually mean? A lot of times that note is given in the context of a specific move instead of taking a step back to fully explain what steamrolling is and discuss the intention behind the move. If you are a teacher or coach and you’re giving that note without a deeper explanation, you might be messing with your actors’ minds. That specific scene we are noting, or getting noted for, will never happen again. It’s important to fully explore what is at the root of steamrolling instead of just giving the surface level note.

So what is steamrolling?
Most simply I see it as making a selfish move and/or being a distraction. A move that was premeditated, or just going for a laugh, or a negation that sacrifices the reality of what has already been created because it isn’t what YOU want to do. Maybe you are providing over aggressive side support that steals focus. Do we really need to provide the sound effects of birds chirping just because we are outside or of a keyboard clicking just because someone is working on a computer? The audience is smart enough to know we are outside or working on a computer without you stealing focus. Maybe you’re breaking the 4th wall to call out your scene partner to comment on the move they just made. Unless you know for sure that’s how your group wants to play (and it can be fun with the right group of people) that’s steamrolling and jerky. A steamroller only thinks about themselves, being the funny one, the clever one, and are not focused on building something together with their team.

What if I get the note that I steamrolled?
What was your intention? Maybe the true issue is you didn’t make your move clear so it came across as steamrolling. We can’t be inside your brain, so next time you get the note, talk about the move with your team so they can peek inside your brain and better support your ideas in the future.

You might in good faith make a move that is rooted in a solid premise, but perhaps it wasn’t delivered with enough detail to get your partners on the same page quickly. That’s OK, it isn’t steamrolling. I think intention is important. Your intention wasn’t to steal focus or force in a character or joke you’ve been wanting to make all night. You wanted to play along and create something with your partners, it just didn’t work that time. You can work on providing more detail and expressing your idea more clearly, even if it means literally walking into the scene and just saying it exactly as you are thinking it. Expecting everyone to understand why you are making your move might be getting you in trouble.

What steamrolling isn’t
Steamrolling isn’t taking care of yourself. If you walk out on stage and immediately are inspired to be a soldier entering a warzone, you just defined yourself and your surroundings. That’s confidence; that’s scene building and NOT steamrolling. Your team now has to do less work and can jump in and play with you without hesitation AND there is still room for them to continue to create with you and explore the scenario.

Steamrolling isn’t playing with big energy. A lot of times more confident players get reputations of being steamrollers when in fact it's just a team that deep down is getting intimidated or are not sure how to keep up. Learn to play with people who play big. Just get out there and support. Similarly, if you are playing big, recognize the impact it has on the team. You can play huge and still be thoughtful with how to include others. Bring your team along for the ride. Set them up for success. Give them a role; be detailed in what is going on and tell them what you want from them. It will make everyone look so good and be a whole lot more fun than stealing the focus.

So again, if you are worried about steamrolling, you probably aren’t doing it. Communication is key for any ensemble. If you make a move that isn’t supported, and you are afraid it might have been steamrolly (yeah that’s a word now), then just discuss it after the show and move on. Don’t let the fear of steamrolling hold you back. Make your moves. You got this.