I’m an improv teacher, but from December to March, I took three months off to walk the South Island of New Zealand. Part of my job is helping people push past their comfort zones to find the absolute joy on the other side. I could have just sat there and told my students - from my comfortable safety zone - that it’s fine, get on with it, but it’s always good to walk the talk. Literally.
Firstly, it wasn’t just a walk, it was tramping, which is a long walk with a heavy backpack across difficult terrain. We climbed mountains (sometimes several in a day), we crossed big scary rivers hoping the water wouldn’t sweep us away and we met all types of weather. We were frozen, drenched, sunburned, bruised, injured and bitten in a cycle of adrenaline and despair. It might be a bit more physically challenging than improv (even more than an improvathon) but tramping and improv have a lot in common.
Here are some of the things I learned and re-learned about tramping and improv.
1. Getting ahead of yourself mentally makes you fall over now.
The first month or two at least had us walking on very difficult terrain. We needed to pay attention to every step so that we didn’t fall and hurt ourselves. When we did try and plan ahead to dinner, or think about life in London, one of us would inevitably fall over. Our attention was split and we were punished for leaving the moment: happily, never during a river crossing or sidling by a drop. It’s the same as an improv scene. If you’re thinking about your next move, or a future scene, it’s much harder to listen to your fellow player. You’re falling on your listening ass every time. Susan Messing put it perfectly “If you’re up in your head, you’re not here improvising with me”.
2. Push past your fears. Moving past your comfort zone expands it for the future.
I drove a car when I went to sixth form college and hadn’t driven since. The places I lived didn’t really demand one and I gradually built up a fear of driving because it had been so long since I’d done it. I took a couple of refresher lessons in London just to pretend to be prepared, but I knew I wasn’t going to drive. I injured my knee badly enough that even with three types of painkiller and a knee support, I couldn’t walk the next stretch of the hike. Accommodations – even hostels - get expensive fast, so we were left with one option. I had to drive. I stressed about how big my rental car was, about the fact that I was new to driving an automatic and that I’d never driven on New Zealand roads. Eventually though, it came to that moment.
I went to get the car on my own because I didn’t want my husband to see my fear. I drove the car five minutes to the supermarket where he was picking up our resupply. I parked. I was SO excited about what I’d achieved. I ran to him, screaming with excitement and jumped into his arms. A couple walked past and commented, “how long since you last saw one-another?”, I replied “about an hour!”
I drove one of the top-ten driving routes in the world. I felt like a Goddess. I thought about my newfound freedom, how my fear had held me back so much from a wonderful new world.
It’s impossible to know what it will be like on the other side of your fear, but I can promise you that it will be much, much better than the safety of the world you already know.
Does going on stage scare the crap out of you? If you opt out, how the hell will you know what you could have won? Say you do the worst show ever and all your friends hated it. The next big scary thing you contemplate won’t be nearly as scary and the likelihood is that you’ll love it.
3. You can climb the mountain; it just might take ages.
I cried. I’m not much of a crier in everyday life, but I stopped counting how many times I wanted to sit down and cry and have someone chopper me out of the outback. The mountains were steep and everything hurt. There weren’t many paths, just orange triangles nailed to trees and rocks. We were walking for up to thirteen hours a day because sometimes that’s how far apart huts or camping spots were.
I was only able to keep going sometimes because I knew there was no way out. If, six days into a twelve-day section, you decide it’s not for you; tough. It’s six days in and six days to get out. The thing is, you can take your time. Sure, you’ll have to take more heavy food if you’re going more slowly, but you can totally do that.
Pace yourself in scenes. It may seem hard, but you just need to take it slow. Listen to your environment, your buddy and see what absolute beauty is all around you. You’ll get there. AND you have a chopper in the form of an edit, so, lucky you.
4. Hike your own hike.
It’s okay if someone is faster and fitter than you, you don’t have to pack the same food or kit or be on the same schedule as other people. You have to make your own decisions. Ultimately, it’s your own life you’re risking when you cross that river in those boots, take one less day of food, or a colder, lighter sleeping mat.
In improv, you need to listen, respond and build, but you don’t have to play fast if you don’t want to and you don’t have to make cancer jokes even if your scene partner does. Improv your own Improv.
5. Stop talking about hiking all the time.
I heard so many people talking about how many ‘k’s they’d smashed in blah blah time and how light their [brand] pack was. Oddly, the more people talked about how far they’d walked, the less I cared.
Improv is interesting because it’s the truth on stage. Improv itself is fake and if you’re talking fake improv offstage, that’s not as interesting. Not all the time at least. Sure we like to geek out sometimes and I like talking about improv too, but there’s a point when it gets in the way of real connection. Talk to real people about them, about you. How many times have you been to an improv show or festival and known all about someone’s training or style and nothing about them as a person?
6. Get your feet wet.
One night we stayed in a hut and a family joined us. They had two young children with them. The parents were both outdoors experts who led training and expeditions for older kids. Even though we were near the end of our journey, I asked if they had any sage advice. The father told me that he would always make all the kids stand in the first stream they got to. He made them get their boots, socks and feet wet right at the beginning so that they weren’t tempted to boulder-hop. Boulder-hopping is a pretty dangerous way to cross a river (I know; I fell in when I was trying to keep my boots dry. Boy did I feel like an idiot. A very wet one.)
Get your improv feet wet. Get on stage early in the show, make a bold, stupid move. Now you’re committed and you won’t be scared of making other sock and boot-wetting moves for the rest of the show.
You don’t want to get an injury.
It’s also good to warm up your mind and connect with your chums.
8. Adapt to the terrain.
Sometimes you’ll look at the map and make a guess about how long it’s going to take you to get somewhere. Sometimes you’re faster and sometimes you’re slower. You can make a guess with your map, but you need to adapt to the terrain. It can be a Martian boulder field, a swamp, a track, a hillside scramble, a meadow or scree. You don’t know what’s around the corner and you have to travel according to what’s underfoot. Running through a bog is near impossible and crossing a river in flood can be fatal.
If this scene is a mapping scene, play that, if it’s slow burn, do that. Double-down on what’s already happening and don’t try to force something else. Go at the pace this terrain sets for you. There’s no use forcing a style or technique where it doesn’t belong.
9. Pack everything; but don’t over-pack.
There were so many things I wanted to pack and didn’t and maybe one thing I wish I’d brought. I did a lot of research before I went. If I’m going on an eight-day section I’m not going to take more than eight days of food (and a few emergency rations). I’d be a lot more tired and my pace would slow.
You only need to think about tonight’s show. What tools do you need for this style, this technique, this genre? Leave everything else at the door. You don’t have to show this audience everything you can do, just like I don’t need to carry three lip balms and a third t-shirt up a mountain.
10. Do it for you, not for the Instas.
Perhaps you saw the article and picture about the queue at the top of Mount Everest? The more we do things because we think other people will be impressed by them, the less self-worth we’re getting. I am proud and excited that I went on this journey, but I didn’t take as many pictures as I could have. I didn’t stop at each magical moment, each incredible bird or view or campsite and record it for everyone else. I took a little bit for my friends and followers and let the rest be for me and my husband.
If you’re doing improv because you need people to tell you how good you are, that’s not going to solve you at a deeper level. Make sure your contentment doesn’t come from kudos or a good or bad show. I’ve said it before; you are not your show. Do your best and sometimes you’ll get a great one, but don’t celebrate or commiserate too darn hard.
11. When your wheel falls off, make sure you drive again soon.
You know that driving I was talking about? I was going at 100kph and the front wheel bounced off the car. I did some great stunt-breaking and we were totally fine (apart from a bunch of waiting around and frustrating phone calls). In fact, a group of people immediately pulled over and put the spare wheel on the car and were more than kind. I hadn’t driven for maybe twenty years and this happened!? We picked up another hire car the same afternoon and I kept driving. A day or so later, I wasn’t even thinking about mechanical failures or horrific crashes any more.
If you have a bad show or a difficult rehearsal, you just need to get back out there. (Unless of course it’s a bigger issue that needs resolving.) We have ups and downs in our art form and it’s normal.
Go drive to Glenorchy from Queenstown and have a beautiful time.
12. Use your poles
Before I went I thought hard about whether I needed walking poles. Different people have opinions on both sides. We did a few shorter walks beforehand though and I knew they’d come in handy. It turns out I wanted to use them the whole time. They spread the effort through my body a little more so there was less strain in any one place, I could check river and mud depth with them, I could use them to stabilise jumps, scrambles and other awkward moves. Some hikers even used them as part of their tents. Any thoughts I had about looking like a dick were completely irrelevant in the outback. I definitely looked like a dick, but I helped my body some and avoided death or injury a few times because of them.
You may think that because you’ve taken a lot of classes, you’ve transcended the rules. I often see experienced players deny or reframe or make any other number of rule-breaking actions. The thing with rules is that they’re there as an option, as stability, to feel your way along. When you don’t need them, you can pop them back on your pack.
13. Hang your food or there’ll be a possum party
Work out your own metaphor for that one.
The other things I learned on this journey were obvious, so obvious that you can’t even hear them when I say them to you now. Time off makes your art better, people are more important than work, nature is beautiful and bodies heal.
We often state how long we’ve been doing improvisation for in years as it’s a simple way of summing up our ability, but it’s pretty easy to tell how much improv someone has done or what level they are at in the first warm up game.
Brand new: Visibly worried about getting the game wrong, apologising facially or out loud. Telling other people off when they messed up the rules. Taking ages to pass a clap around. Laughing quite a lot as they play, part fear and part exhilaration.
Some improv: Broadcasting that they have done this game before. “Ah yes” or checking in with the teacher/coach about the version they know, ‘helping’ others get the exercise when they didn’t ask.
Intermediate: Playing the game to the best of their ability and not worrying too much if they get it wrong. Playing probably as fast/well as they can, but right on the edge because they know nothing bad happens if they miss a clap or drop the game ball.
Experienced: They can already play this game, or if they haven’t they’re quick to understand the aim and the rules. They are keen to have a go, not have it explained loads.
Pro: As with intermediate and experienced, but with the added extra that when they or someone else messes up, they automatically make it part of the game. They thoroughly enjoy the mess up and the fact that they’re being challenged.
It takes a while for beginners to dial down the huge part of themselves that is worrying about how they look when they get stuff ‘wrong’ in improvisation. After that stage, they have gotten used to being observed, but they miss obvious things in scenes like being named, where they are or what the relationship is. Once that’s nailed down (and it can take years) the next stage is subtext; what’s going on beneath the words, plus a myriad of game and pattern moves. After all that, pros are bringing their own selves to the stage, raw and truthful, confident in silence, 100% leaning into any offer from their partner without auditioning that idea and also having a ball.
There are many improv styles and groups in the world and each has it’s own relationship with female characters and players. From my many encounters, here are some things that I think we can do as women for women to help us all have a super time on stage. And by women, I mean those who identify as such.
Help other women be heard
Women in Obama’s Administration found that they could help one another be heard and acknowledged by ‘amplification’. Rather than being talked over or having their ideas claimed and reframed, they would repeat and credit one another’s ideas until they were taken on board by the other players.
Validate other women’s choices
We have learned ‘yes, and’ and you can push it even further with super agreement. If an idea is crazy or something doesn’t make sense, you can always justify it or reframe it in a way that makes your lady friend look like a hero. Instead of asking her to clarify or expecting her to fix it, help her out.
Write better parts for women
You are the writer of this improv show. Right now. You can pen the most perfect dialogue and strong, interesting, three-dimensional characters; no matter how they are framed. Get away from generic and make your ‘wife, mother, whore’ specific as all hell and probably a part-time scientist too…
Be quick to be slow
Sometimes the alpha in the room worries that you don’t have ideas or can’t make quick choices. Perhaps you’re the kind of player that likes character, emotion and subtext, which many need a second to form. That’s fine; start dynamically as if to say ‘I got this’ and then take your sweet time.
Play men you know
We have to pay it back too. Sick of men playing women by miming long hair, cupping their boobs and affecting a high voice? Let’s not do the same back. Cut out the ball scratching and instead play a man you know in real life. You know how he would be in this situation and then none of us are playing in broad strokes, we’re playing in nuance. A full character is not an accent, so why should they be a gender?
Challenge your own bias
You need to be a fire-fighter, astronaut or pirate on stage? Choose to play a female one. We have more female doctors than male, yet they’re often the male in a scene. Change it up.
Play named female characters in a scene that talk to one another about something other than a man.
Every improv theatre I know has been making a policy on Sexual Harassment to protect their students, teachers and actors; perhaps it’s time to look at our key improv teachings and reinvent or rephrase them.
When I started out in improv, Yes And was the first thing I learned (plus Listening and Commitment). I learned that no matter what was offered me in an improv scene, I should agree with it and add some detail to what was already being offered. Not only that but even if I felt uncomfortable, I should commit to the idea and make it look good. When we ask someone to ‘read that poem you’ve been working on’ or ‘do that dance’ we call it Pimping. Pimping is making someone do something they are likely uncomfortable with for the audience to enjoy. But now consent is front and centre of our work and in retrospect, both Yes And and Pimping feel a little icky.
At the beginning Yes And was literal. We joke about improv being a cult, but perhaps asking people to agree with whatever is suggested has something a little brain-washy inside of it. More and more I find myself ditching Yes And in favour of ‘agree with the reality’. And that means making personal choices in the setting your partner has suggested. You’re chained to a sex dungeon wall and not cool with it? Great. Have magic powers to melt your chains and destroy your captor. You are told to read a poem out loud. Read it in a made up language or pass it right back for them to read. Someone on stage is asked to do a silly dance and they look mortified; edit the scene.
Discomfort is often part of comedy and I like to live inside of it a lot of the time. I trust my teams and I don’t have many boundaries with them. However, I’ve seen too many improv jams where one inexperienced player (not always a man) is demanding sexual favours from their scene partner and fully expecting a Yes And. It won’t work in real life, but perhaps with our improv programming of Yes And, it will on stage? I know more than one person who quit learning improv because they kept getting creeped on in scenes.
We put caveats in there, we step in as teachers to make sure everyone is happy, we watch out for the sexual predators, but perhaps that isn’t enough. What if the coach, director or teacher doesn’t get it and pushes you to play the improv rules? Only the other day I heard about a scene where one man screamingly sex-shamed a woman and the teacher declared that the scene was hilarious without checking in with the female player at all. In fact, after a student offered their feminist opinion on the scene, the inappropriateness was put to a vote!
After years of improv I know that it’s fine to make ‘today the day’ when I decide not to be your sex slave anymore and leave this awful place. I know that choosing not to simul-fuck you is 100% in my arsenal and saying (in character) I’m not cool with this is a great character and scene choice that can lead to brilliant improv.
I’m not saying this because I want all improv to be vanilla, far from it. Some of my favourite shows have been full of taboo. I’m saying this because With Great Power… If someone wants you to suck their dick in a scene and you think it will be fun or funny, fuck yes, do it! If you think it feels gross and weird and you feel you have to because rules: don’t. Find a fucking awesome reason why in this same reality you just aren’t going to and then make a brilliant other offer that moves the scene on. If you’re on the sides and you see a choice that traps someone because they feel they have to Yes And, edit them.
After shows, tell people if you found something uncomfortable. Ask others if your weirdo move was okay. This is not to shut you down but to make you go further. I’ve been pimped to do a billion embarrassing or intimate things on stage. Sometimes I think it’s funny or good and I want to and other times it’s creepy or un-useful and I don’t want to. If it’s my ego or dignity or I’m just scared I’ll do it anyway and if it feels deeper than that, I’ll shut it down in a beautiful way that the audience won’t even see as a closer. I’m not hedging or editing or auditioning the scene, I’m enjoying my own boundaries and Yes And-ing myself.
I saw a show at a European improv festival where (after some character establishment) a male improviser stepped forward and asked which of the men she should choose to be with. As they were both (unintentionally) horrific characters and I was given the opportunity to voice my choice, I boldly declared ‘NEITHER’. I don’t know if I was the first, but certainly the rest of the audience rallied and shortly much of the room was bawling ‘BE YOUR OWN WOMAN’ and so forth. Looking a little shell-shocked, the male improviser returned to the narrative. I was excited to see what would happen. The lady forwarded her solo story, only to find that - driven by the male narrators - the ending was that she was ‘sad and alone in the middle of the woods for the rest of her life’. FFS.
Even the audience can make choices.
Yes And doesn’t have to be literal.
There are lots of different styles and forms of improvisation (as you already know) and one of those is telling a linear story. I’m certainly not the voice of narrative improv, being more Del Close in my schooling than Keith Johnstone, but I love and use narrative in some of the shows I perform. Without getting too bogged down in the Hero’s Journey and hitting story structure hard, you can use simple approaches in your improv show to create a narrative where you aren’t furiously trying to remember a lot of information or awkwardly struggling to tie everything up in the last five minutes.
1. Tell one story
It’s very tempting to have an A, B and sometimes a C story when you get excited. You can enjoy other characters you meet along the way without having to tell their individual stories too.
2. Make or discover your protagonist
The easiest way to keep it simple and tell one story is to make a that story fits around one character. Make it very clear who that character is and follow them. Maybe put them in every scene just to be sure.
3. Find a want for your protagonist
An emotional need gives us a very clear route through any story. Even if it's a physical object they want, there will be an emotional reason for the desire. What they are searching for will lead them to people and places.
4. Do it now
It feels like it would be fun to save the Prom or the Explosion or Getting the Diamond for the end of the show, but why do filler for 40 minutes and hope everyone else is on the same page for the ending? Do it now. Have the Prom in scene two and see what happens afterwards.
5. Be super obvious
To avoid confusion, state what you think is true and what you think is going on. If this is your father, call him Dad a lot, if this lady seems mean; tell her that she seems really mean. Keeping secrets or being subtle about an idea will have people drawing different conclusions.
6. Start recycling half way through
Once you hit the halfway point in your story you don’t need to add anything else. Pick up any character, location, object or idea that has already been mentioned and use it again. Think of your story in the shape of a diamond; wider, wider, wider, then halfway through you make it narrower again until it all ends in one point.
7. Weird shit will happen anyway
You’re improvising, not writing, so some odd things will happen in your story even if you try hard to stop them. You really don’t need to work hard to put in strange and interesting ideas. Be obvious. Do the next most obvious thing and justify oddness when it arises organically.
8. Let it go
The story may well go in a completely different direction than you thought it might. That is GREAT. Improv is art by committee; making a collective story that any one of you couldn’t have written on your own. Relax and enjoy the new journey rather than forcing your own story agenda.
Good luck and thanks for reading!
If you do want to get nerdy about story structure, my favourite structure nerd is Dan Harmon. You can find his story structure blogs here.
My book The Improviser’s Way: A Longform Workbook will be published by Nick Hern Books later this year. To find out more and learn about my classes and shows all over the world, join my (monthly) mail out here.
If you already improvise, I imagine you’re taking a bit of a break for the holidays, but you can always introduce games to non-improviser friends and family. Here are my three favourites!
I’ve played this with my niece since she was five, so I know it’s pretty suitable for everyone.
Stand (or sit) facing a partner. Both clap at the same time. Now choose one of three directions to throw your arms: left, right or up. You are not trying to copy your partner, just choose a direction. Now clap again (at the same time as your partner).
[clap] [direction] [clap] [direction] etc.
Once you’ve got that going, look out for the times when you both happen to throw your arms out in the same direction (like a mirror). When you do, clap like you normally would, then celebrate with a high-ten and go back to a clap.
[clap] [direction] [clap] [same direction] [clap] [high-ten!] [clap] [direction] etc.
If you want to play this game with a group, start in pairs, then if one of you ‘messes up’ by forgetting to high-ten or something, that person becomes a cheerleader for the ‘winner’ and they play another duo ‘winner’ until one person becomes victorious. Personally I like it as a collaborative game, where you just laugh and restart when it goes wrong, but either is fun.
This is a great game for the people in your family or friendship group that are thinky. It feels competitive, but is actually collaborative.
Think of a word. When you have one in mind, say “One”. Your partner thinks of any word and when they have one they say “Two”. Now you count together “One, two, three [word]” so your words are spoken on top of each other. Let’s imagine the words are Tree and Foil. Now you both need to think of a word that might make sense of both Tree and Foil.
Both: One, Two, Three [tree/foil]
Both: One, Two, Three [decorations]
When you land on the same word, sing a victory song, high-ten one another or celebrate in any way you want! It may take a while, or it may happen quickly. You only have to think about the two words that were just said, not the ones before that.
Playing in a group is just the same, where two people elect to play by shouting “One” or “Two” but after those words are spoken, anyone can play the next word.
This is a lovely game that works in performance too, so you can entertain people who don’t want to play, or take turns.
Stand or sit together in a trio. Get a made up word from your audience, or suggest one yourselves if there is no one watching. Let's say the word is 'Koodle'.
Spell: From left to right in your line, spell out the made up word one letter at a time. “K.O.O.D.L.E”
Define: Again, going down the line a few times, define the word using one word at a time. “Koodle. Means. To. Hug. A. Friend. Who. Hates. Physical. Contact.”
Use in a sentence: One word at a time, go down the line saying a sentence containing the made-up word. “It’s. Christmas. So. I’m. Going. To. Koodle. You.”
Remember, it’s not about getting it right (there is no right), but enjoying your collaborative creativity and silliness.
Have a lovely Winterval!
Katy's book The Improviser's Way will be published in 2018 by Nick Hern Books.
Some improv students worry that their memories are not good enough to practise longform. They are concerned that character names, beats and all manner of details will fall out of their heads. The thing is, I also have a shitty memory. Yesterday I spent about four hours trying to remember the type of wool my jumper was made from. So how can this idiot remember character names, beats, games, where things are on stage and make callbacks? People that compete in memory competitions don’t necessarily have a greater capacity for remembering everyday things, they have just learned a lot of techniques in order to function in that context.
Names is the first and hardest memory trial in improv. I kind of buried my head in the sand about that for many years but now I enjoy the challenge.
Here are a few ways that I’ve found useful:
Card-counters and memory nerds use visuals to remember specifics (as above). If you have a list of ten things to remember, putting them in order in your brain seems like something you just have to learn by repetition, but you can create a Mind Palace like Sherlock Holmes and lay them on a trail around your home. Visual memory serves most of us better than just remembering a list of words. That works for beats in a Harold. My students did a Harold show last night. The first beat was broadly about ‘driving’, so I pictured a car, the second was about languages so I pictured someone saying ‘baguette’ in a speech bubble, the third was about ‘smugness’ so I pictured a smug facial expression. I can easily remember the beats today. The games, character names, and settings all come along with those one-word beat titles.
I know; it all sounds very heady and you also want to watch and enjoy the improv. The great thing is that if you put the work in, this stuff gets easier. Robots are pretty rubbish at catching a ball because of the millions of calculations they have to do to judge where it should be caught. Humans – for the most part – find it pretty easy and we don’t need to think hard about it. The memory calculations that sit right up there at the front of your consciousness will become second nature after time.
Use your own familiar living and working spaces as a template for improvised settings. If you’re in a bedroom on stage and you need to define a sock drawer, put it exactly where it would be in your bedroom. That’s less to think about. Equally, if you’re in a spaceship, there’s no reason you shouldn’t put stuff in the same relative places as you would at home. Instead of putting a cup in the right hand cupboard, stick your astronaut water bag and straw to the wall in the same place.
Merely deciding that you will retain more information is a great way to get better. Much like active listening, active remembering means that you are consciously applying yourself to taking in more information.
Start small and add more and more information, just like beginning with short runs in order to build up to a marathon.
In case you’re wondering... my jumper was made of Marino.
You can also see this blog featured on the Improv Nerd website thanks to Jimmy Carrane.
In having a chat with Stuart Moses on the London Improv Podcast a few days ago, I realised that I have recently been treating my improv like crop rotation…
Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar or different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons. It is done so that the soil of farms is not used for only one set of nutrients. It helps in reducing soil erosion and increases soil fertility and crop yield.”
This last year I have not read a single improv book, which is unheard of for me. I have not been on any intensives or taken any classes. I have been writing a book and I didn’t want to disturb the process of laying out my thoughts on different areas (or plagiarise) by introducing lots of new stuff. In contrast, last year The Maydays created our own weeklong intensive with our favourite teachers in Chicago, I did a week with Craig Cackowski, I took classes at Camp Improv Utopia East as well as numerous other workshops and being coached. It’s tempting as an improviser to keep learning with other people because it’s easy to feel and say that you are working hard on your art form, but what do you really need? At either end of the scale lie; personal atrophy where you have been doing the same kind of improv with the same people for aeons and – at the other end – hoarding, where you take every single class with every teacher you can so that you can say you are doing your best to be a good improviser.
Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row (Monoculture) disproportionately depletes the soil of certain nutrients.”
Only working in one style with one team or school (Monoculture), can feel like a strong decision, like doubling-down, but there are diminishing returns.
With rotation, a crop that leaches the soil of one kind of nutrient is followed during the next growing season by a dissimilar crop that returns that nutrient to the soil or draws a different ratio of nutrients.”
Having different ideologies and inputs allows you to grow without depleting yourself so much. Switching between one team of heady technicians and another of hippy organic improvisers keeps your artistic nutrients more balanced.
In addition, crop rotation mitigates the buildup of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one species is continuously cropped, and can also improve soil structure and fertility by increasing biomass from varied root structures.”
Break your dirty habits and go-tos; remember that improv is about being present and flexible and having fun. By rotating your styles and teachers as well as having downtime, you are more artistically fertile. ‘Varied root structures’ are the forms and styles at your fingertips.
Having a fallow period for your improv is extremely valuable. Whether you’re going on holiday, doing scripted work for a while or just enjoying rehearsing and performing with your regular teams, it’s a good idea to rest! Improv should be super exciting, never a chore or a habit. We are seasonal; there are times when we can take new information and times when we just need to stop, process and recoup to recover our creative fertility.
Jon and Chris are both taking time off from my three-person team Project2 which initially made me feel sad and like it might be the beginning of the end, but after not doing a show with Chris over the summer (because I was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) we just did a fantastic show in Bristol. We both felt self-assured and did exactly what we wanted and had a great time. In many ways, we totally fucked a lot of the guidelines of improv, but we absolutely didn’t fuck over the high level of trust we have with one another and that made all of our risky choices excellent.
I used to notice the need to do less but just ploughed on (sorry) anyway. This year I deliberately haven’t read any improv books or taken classes. I’ve been rehearsing and performing regularly, but that is the harvest.
Now I’m busting out shows I really like and I’m ready to be challenged again!
I have written an improv book called The Improviser’s Way: A Longform Workbook. It’s available on IndieGoGo for just few more hours if you’d like to pre-order a copy!
This blog came out of a conversation I had with Stuart Moses on the London Improv Podcast. Here is that podcast:
I notice in teaching longform that some students are resistant to learning things that are slightly different to what they have learned previously. For years when people used ‘impro’ rather than ‘improv’ I would flinch because I learned with Del Close graduates and they had learned from the Keith Johnstone school. I imagined that what I had learned was way better because it was about emotional choices and making the other person look good rather than competition, status and narrative. It’s weird because we’re in an art form where we literally train to be able to drop ideas, adapt and say yes, but when it comes to Bunny Bunny with different gestures, we freak out.
Bill Arnett of the Chicago Improv Studio is the spirit animal for my longform company The Maydays and he suggests that we need to focus on adapting for the style we want to play in in any particular show. If you’re playing in a fast-paced gaggy show, you’re going to be edited before you explore the subtext in a slow burn style scene. If you wheel out a pun in a realistic show, it had better be a part of that character’s personality or it will take all the air out of the scene.
Baby Duck Syndrome is a type of imprinting that happens when people have learned a particular computer operating system and they judge all successive systems based on their formative experience. We are absolutely a slave to Baby Duck Syndrome in improv, so I constantly tell my students to learn everywhere, with as many teachers as they can. I’ll recommend another school I think is good, whether they ever recommend their students to me or not.
Let’s be freer. We have learned to be adaptive and creative in many different ways. If your director/coach/teacher asks you to pass the line of a song when you are used to organically choosing when it is time for you to do so, drop your imprinting. It’s great to agree on stage about how to play.
Having said that, it is great when different approaches collide. In Finland and Greece I had the pleasure of watching Patti Styles and Joe Bill play together. They were trained by Keith Johnstone and Del Close respectively and their shows were phenomenal. They weren’t questioning every move the other made against an internal checklist, but rather they were reactive and engaged. They allowed the rules and guidelines of their craft to knit them together, not to check the validity of one another’s choices against their training.
I guess what I’m saying (to you and to me) is; if the warm-up or the philosophy is different than the one you’ve imprinted on, go with it. The point where we are ‘done’ in improv is the point where we atrophy.
For some people, improv is the scariest thing they can imagine. There is literally something called the ‘actor’s nightmare’ where the dream entails being shoved in front of an audience without knowing your lines or what on earth you are doing in this show. Welcome to improv.
Of course, improvisers don’t come to the stage unprepared; we have loads of skills, training and other performers to help us through, but for some, the actor’s nightmare still resonates.
I am certainly no stranger to stage fright and nerves. I first got stage fright at the age of eight when my school play won a huge national competition and we played in a massive London theatre. I was so excited to perform, but when the curtains opened I had no memory of the speech I should have been doing about Guy Fawkes. My body was frozen and I stood there for what seemed like forever. The spell eventually broke and I hobbled through my speech, finally freeing up and remembering the rest of the show.
Over the years I’ve had some heart-stoppingly scary gigs like News Revue and the Treason Show where we performed topical sketches and songs that were sometimes written on the same day. Backstage before my first News Revue we all kept rushing to the toilet and agreed that it would be better to die than go on stage. We lamented being performers and not listening to our parents’ advice about having a ‘proper’ job. Of course, the show was excellent and every other night – though not easy – was ridiculous fun. The best.
Here, then is a list of thoughts and techniques that I pass onto my students when they are about to go on stage; especially when they are new to performing, or trying out something different for the first time.
Nerves Aren’t All Bad
If you get nervous, it’s not a bad thing. Sure, it can feel horrible, but adrenaline helps you focus. You’ll be able to listen better and make decisions more quickly.
The Higher the High
You get nervous? Lucky you. That means you get a real high afterwards. It’s nice for the calm ones, but they don’t get such a big pay-off.
Rebrand ‘Nerves’ to ‘Excitement’
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Hypnosis have excellent techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety. I recently had my arachnophobia cured by Creature Courage and a lot of the tools are totally transferable. I really think I’ve managed this rebrand over the years. Not every time, but mostly I get a kick out of the scary stuff and I want to push forward into it, not run away.
By standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes, you increase the testosterone and lower the cortisol in your system so that you are more relaxed, braver and ready to take to the stage. See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.
Warm Up Properly
Remember the first ten minutes of improv classes? That’s often the most sticky bit, the bit where everyone is a little uncomfortable and still in their day-to-day mind-set. If you don’t warm up before a show, you are performing in that awkward ten-minute headspace. Get to a place where you are ready to play!
Reach Out, Not In
Improv is a collaborative team game; if you’re nervous, remember to connect with your teammates. Eye contact and physical contact with your team before the show is invaluable; it’s a reminder that the show is all about them, not you. That’s where your inspiration will come from.
You’re probably trying to run imaginary scenes in your head for every eventuality that might come up on stage. If you’re nervous, I’d recommend doing less, not more. If you’ve warmed up and connected with your team, now is the time to have a little quiet for your brain; get receptive and open.
Water is going to help you function and you’ll get a dry mouth on stage if you’re really scared.
The times when I have been super scared before shows (like the Funny Women Final or my first Knightmare Live show) I could NOT eat food and that made me light-headed and even more scared. Have a massive lunch knowing that that’s probably your last meal for the day. Don’t eat right before you go on, you’ll be all sleepy and your comedy brain will be busy digesting.
Don’t Be Gross
Brush your teeth! Wear deodorant! You don’t want to be distracted by your own nervous sweats, or scared of getting up in someone’s face on stage for fear of halitosis.
Do It Regularly
Stick with performing and do it regularly, because I promise it will get easier. If you don’t go running for a few weeks, the first run back is harder. Improv is a muscle and it will atrophy if you don’t practice.
It’s Not a Big Deal
We practice failing in improv all of the time; it’s kind of our superpower. If something does go wrong; you fall over when you walk on, you get a name wrong, you miss someone else already making your joke; it doesn’t matter. Your team will make anything you do look good; they will all fall over, they will justify both names, they will repeat the joke a third time. Failure is funny. Embrace it as your muse.
We’re All Going to Die Anyway
So you’re still scared? How long are you going to be on stage? Fifteen minutes, an hour? In the grand scheme of things, that is such a tiny part of your long life that it can’t really matter. So what if it is the worst gig you have ever done? So what if you make a tit of yourself? It’s over in the blink of an eye. Get back on the horse. Your glorious, wonderful best show ever will also be over in no time. Enjoy the shit out of both.
That pint on the other side of a scary show looks to me like Indiana Jones treasure. What is a good reward you can promise yourself?
Break a leg and I’ll see you on the beerside.
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