Improv, Comedy, Women, Melbourne and everything in between.
“When an improviser lets go and trusts his or her fellow performers, it’s a wonderful, liberating experience that stems from group support,”
– Charna Halpern, Del Close, Kim Johnson in Truth In Comedy
The most important thing I have ever learnt about improvising (thus far) is also the most simple: listen and react.
“Well, DUH” – said a chorus of people who still say ‘duh’/are aware that listening and reacting is straight-up common sense and human instinct. To listen to something and then react like a human being is what being a functioning member of society is all about.
Alas, to an up-and-coming improviser this lesson takes a while to show itself. I remember the exact moment I learnt this lesson, it wasn’t on stage and it wasn’t in class…
It was before my last show with my first Harold team, The Reluctant Sergeants (who were indeed as reluctant as our name suggested). Before these shows I would get nervous three hours beforehand (this seems absurd to me now, but hey, that’s personal growth for ya!), sometimes I’d even wake up nervous on show-day. My anxiety came from a place of “what if my brain stops working on stage?” “what if I can’t pump out witty one-liners?” and “what if no one laughs at me?” – none of which are really relevant to good scenework.
Before my first level 1 show (one year ago), I was an 8 week old improviser sitting on a train, writing down a list of back-up characters, back-up initiations and even back-up scenarios that I could perhaps use if all else failed in the student showcase I was sweating about later that evening. I didn’t use any of it during my show. And it was a great show. Lesson: don’t pre-plan anything, just clear your head and focus. Listen and react.
An improviser’s confidence and skill works in a cyclical fashion. Sure, there are mistakes I made in level 1, 2, and 3 that I know never to repeat (ie. don’t do teaching/problem-solving scenes, quit making so many damn pop-culture references, don’t be a character that just asks questions, don’t sacrifice a good scene for a quick joke etc.) Yet improvisers fall in and out of grooves of confidence that can often be mistaken for losing skill. I personally like to call this experience “testing your fitness” (improv fitness).
Allow me to metaphor you. When you’re training for a marathon (something I have done), you’re aiming to build up consistency in your fitness. You’re aspiring towards sustainability and dependability within your body and mind. You start out with 3km runs that eventually work their way into 15km runs that eventually work their way into 28km runs and so on so forth. But when you’re training for a marathon, you don’t feel like you’re getting any fitter. Sure, your body is changing and you can now sprint to the train station if you have to (you’re also running distances you’ve never ran before), but you don’t notice your improvement when you’re always raising the bar until you run 3km again and see how far you’ve come.
This is not dissimilar to learning a new improv format or training with a new team.
When you start out in long-form improv, you’ll learn the Armando – monologues and scenework. A simple, pure form of improv. Then you work your way towards the Harold – the complicated daddy of long-form improv with life-lessons and reminiscing (call-backs) aplenty. Once you’re familiar with the Harold and you’re doing it every week, you’ll start reaching out to other formats (the Deconstruction, the La Ronde, the Movie etc.), you’ll start playing with improvisers you look up to and you might even start doing festival shows and you’ll be getting more notes because you’re more involved and all of a sudden, you’ll ask yourself, am I getting worse? This happened to me when I toured with my improv company to Perth Fringe Festival, and again during the Melbourne International Comedy festival.
Deep down I knew I wasn’t getting worse at improv, I was just pushing myself and setting higher standards for my work, but it’s pretty hard to keep that in mind when all you want to do is put on a wonderful show when you feel like you’re not succeeding. But still, even when my confidence is at an all time low, where did all my anxiety go? It went away when I learned to simply listen to my scene-partner and react to their offers.
Back to my original anecdote, the Reluctant Sergeants are standing in a circle outside the Dan O’Connell Hotel before our last Harold Night performance as a team. We do a round of Da-Doo-Doo (a simple task of word association), a warm-up that had brought me copious amounts of nervousness and panic where I would often use pre-planned words (‘Cat’ was my go-to word, as it is with many early students… I notice this because I now teach level 1 improv).
Standing in that circle with my team, I challenged myself. I thought, “just look the person next to you in the eye, take in what they say, and associate off that word LIKE THE GODDAMN HIGH-FUNCTIONING HUMAN BEING YOU ARE, DAMMIT” and I did. And in that split second, where I pushed everything from my mind and just trusted the fact that I could listen and respond to my teammates, I learnt trust. Trust in my team, trust in myself. My anxiety went away and it hasn’t visited me for a while.
Obviously I still get pre-show adrenaline nerves because, hey, I’m just a human who wants to feel it all, but no one should get that nervous before an improv show.
This post is part of an upcoming and continuing series of lessons learnt, lessons taught, mistakes being made and fun times had as an improviser in Not Sure If… Improv Notes or Life Advice.