Earlier this year, a friend asked me where my blog on alcohol and improv was. I hadn’t yet written one. He felt like it was an essential question to cover as some of his troupe were ‘boozing before shows’ and ‘coming to rehearsal with a four pack’. So - many months too late, but maybe a little more timely because of the festive period - here are my thoughts on drinking and improv.
For me personally, I don’t drink before I improvise. But unlike me, the majority of people aren’t doing improv as a career choice. For me, every show I play is a showcase (often to students) and can lead to teaching, coaching, directing or corporate sessions. I want to do my best work every time. I need my brain and to drink anything will take my skill level down. It might lower my inhibitions, but I’m in a place where I’m confident enough on stage that my inhibitions are pretty darn low anyways. Some people drink to help with the nerves. The thing is, if you always drink to deal with your nerves, your sober nerves aren’t going to get any better, you’re just going to build a dependency for drinking alcohol before every show. That might even increase over time when the gigs get bigger and scarier. Also, if you get rid of the nerves before a gig, you are probably putting a damper on the high you will get afterwards.
For the majority of improvisers, improv is one of their chosen activities for downtime with their friends, where alcohol (in Britain anyways) is traditionally part of our culture. I’ll have a few beers when I’m playing board games or D&D (Nerd), so I can see why it seems to fit with a night of rehearsals or a low-pressure show. However, neither me or my friends care whether I’m good at board games and no one is paying to watch me play.
You’re an adult (probably), so you can make your own decisions, but know that your choices around alcohol will affect the people you play with on stage and your relationships with them off stage. If you’re slower and less physically aware, you make the other players work harder to support you and it stops being an even ensemble. If you’re a solo improviser, I guess it’s truly your decision. The audience is the other player for you. As a group player, there’s also the simple fact that it’s gross playing with someone who reeks of booze.
This all sounds a little preachy so far, so sorry about that. I confess that there are a couple of occasions where I do drink before (and sometimes during) improv. The first is New Years Eve. For the last few years, I’ve joined the Hoopla NYE party at the Miller in London Bridge. Lots of improvisers get really drunk and do a bunch of shows. It is ticketed for the public, but only nerdy improvisers go (and a few suffering partners). Because everyone is drunk, most of the improv is pretty self-indulgent. I find that when I’m plastered, the first thing to go is my spatial awareness; I crash into people when I’m editing or edited and I miss a lot of offers that aren’t happening directly in front of me. Also, I slur, so that means any verbal offers I make are hard for other people to understand. I believe at the time that I’m the funniest person in the room, even though I can’t hang onto a character or stop clowning around and breaking the believability of the scene. Once in a while and to an in-crowd, I think self-indulgent nonsense is pretty fun, especially when everyone is so pissed that we’re all in the same boat.
The other instance in which I drink is in the Living Room format. I do it because it was taught to me as a bunch of mates on their sofa drinking beers, jumping up and doing improv whenever they are inspired. Beers are for me a part of the form. It might lead us to play around a little more casually, to pretend like we are literally at home and enjoying one another honestly as we would do off stage. Even though I’m drinking beer, I don’t drink before the show and the Corona that I’ll take on with me won’t really hit until towards the end. So really, I’m cheating. I’m having it there as a prop and it won’t hamper what I’m saying or doing. Hopefully it makes our guests relax and know that it’s a casual (often late-night) show.
There are other formats where drinking is a part of the entertainment factor of the show. Where one character is drinking throughout and the others are taking care of them, or there are ‘live’ drinks on stage for a genre show, or there are challenges or bits where alcohol is built into the show. I’m fine with those as long as it’s mutually agreed and the audience knows that that is part of the gig. If someone is paying to see improv, they want to see the best show they can. If alcohol adds to the gimmick of the show and all of the performers are in agreement and enjoy that; cool. I’d be happy in the drinking role if I knew people had my back and I’d be happy to babysit if I knew that we got to swap around sometimes.
There are veteran improvisers that I’ve seen drink a lot before a show and maybe even get plastered all the way through a 30-50 hour Improvathon and it doesn’t seem to make them bad improvisers. Though I imagine they’d be better if they weren’t hammered. Also, how they hell do they get through an Improvathon whilst drinking? I would be asleep instantly if I drank beer in a 34-hour show.
There is no one I regularly work with that gets drunk before performing improv. I have a couple of chums that will have a pint before they go on stage and I’m okay with that. I suggest that a sensible limit is the same as it is for driving. If you can drive a car, you can probably drive yourself and others through an improv show. In jam nights, I would apply the driving limit rules and make that clear to potential performers. People new to improv can be a bit of a liability in terms of boundaries and trust anyway. If it’s a fun night out and we live in a drinking culture, it’s hard to ask people to be totally sober in an unpaid show.
If you really want a couple of drinks before a show or rehearsal, it’s good to check in with your group. If it worries anyone that people are drinking beforehand, come to a reasonable compromise so that everyone is happy. As for other substances, I think the above is probably true for those too. Experiment with anything you want if it’s part of the agreed show (depending where you stand on the legality and safety of that substance) and don’t give your fellow improvisers a bunch of work because you’re selfishly indulging.
Right. All this talk of beer makes me want a beer.
I’m off to get a beer.