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.