Know Your Enemy – Why being ‘in your head’ is not all in your head

Side note: Apologies in advance for dropping this TED bomb – the premise of which this post leans on pretty heavily. That said, I think this is obviously relevant to what we do as improvisers, and something I think we could all be more aware of when we practice, play and talk about things in teams or with other players.

Improvisers have a well-known enemy called ‘being in your head’.  Generally speaking, this is a withdrawn and effortful state of mind that works against us being present or paying attention to others in the scene. Its characterised by a range of different on-stage behaviours, and has many potential causes and remedies. When you scratch the surface, however, its often our code for ‘being afraid of something’, ‘freezing up’, ‘cacking our pants on the sidelines’ etc. – because no one is comfortable with talking about fear. Fear is for pussies, right? YEAH, RIGHT. Now go put on your big-boy pants and act like a GROWN UP, you massive pussy.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Often, one of the first things an audience member will say to an improviser is something like “How do you DO that? I could NEVER do that, it looks TERRIFYING.” We’re routinely reminded of (and often casually dismiss) the fear inherent in the process that we struggle with daily – yet somehow we’ve developed a semantics that deftly sidesteps  honest conversation about that very thing.

As if to add layers to the irony lasagne, this canny euphemism is likely no accident, but a byproduct of our more general cultural fear of being perceived as vulnerable by others (sorry for TED bombing again, had a heavy lunch) – particularly other players whose support, respect and esteem (for better or worse) we often wish to garner or maintain.

People are weird, basically.

When it comes to the fear of public humiliation, improvisers could be considered extreme masochists who put themselves directly in the line of fire; courageous, foolhardy muthafuckers who take risks most would never dare to in pursuit of comedic genius.

Given it’s constant presence at the heart of what we do, its worth acknowledging the fear and understanding how best we can tackle it in order to give our best performances.

As noted in Mikael Cho’s animated essay on stage fright, being ‘in your head’ can sometimes be a primal fear reaction to the perceived threat of being thought of as an ‘idiot’ in any public or social situation. Its symptoms are part of the same fight-or-flight response that humans evolved from combating other (generally more immediate) dangers to our survival.

Crucially, it is a common, natural and totally acceptable reaction to a basic social threat. For improvisers, this fear and the associated response can manifest for a whole host of reasons – its constant presence is a vital part of what makes improv so challenging and exhilarating.

However, its one thing to recognise your enemy, and another thing entirely to fight it. Here are some things I think are really important to recognise when facing down the beast.

Rule 1 – Everyone has their own enemy; theirs matters as much as your own.

With the exception of a few super-brave solo improvisers, improv is a team sport. If you think of improv fear as something purely personal – that each person faces alone – you fail to account for the fundamentally social nature and context of performance anxiety. It always helps to have allies in a fight. Just as you can help or hinder yourself with the perspective you take on your fears, you can help or hinder others too – and they can do the same for you.

There’s a lot of talk in improv circles about supporting your teammates, ‘checking in’, connecting and bonding. What’s talked about far less is why this is so fundamental to great improv. I’ve often found that, without an explanation grounded in something close to reality, appeals to an improviser’s more caring and generous nature can be dismissed as hippy-hugging soft talk.

It isn’t – fear is a fact and what you do to support those you play with makes a tangible difference to how you all perform. Understanding what people are afraid of and why can help you to help them, whether in the moment or off the stage. It isn’t always straightforward, or easy, and it isn’t always within your power to deal with – however, sometimes just small dose of anti-fear can make the difference between a good scene or set and one that slays.

Be mindful of this always, and soon everyone you know will be dying to play with you – despite not quite knowing why they always feel more inspired and comfortable around you.

Rule 2 – The enemy is whatever *you* perceive it to be. Recognise.

Some form of performance anxiety haunts most improvisers – it would be abnormal for it not to (can you say ‘sociopath’?). However, while stand-up comedians and sketch actors can practice a piece again and again in order to build sufficient confidence in their material, improvisers live under the Damoclean sword of risk and failure. The road to crippling self-doubt can often be one misstep away – a ‘bad’ move, a ‘bad’ show, a ‘bad’ anything. All too swiftly you’re in Headsville (or Headlington-on-Sea, if we’re going to be British about this. Which we are).

Add to that the fact that lively forms criticism evolve for every form of art and entertainment – to which improv is no exception. Where there are audiences there will be judges – a very real threat in lizard-brain terms. Whether about real performance feedback or otherwise, self-criticism is often the nail that seals the coffin on your ability to stay present. Between considerations of intrinsic and extrinsic criticism is a line as fine as split hair – I fear what I perceive others perceive is bad about me, which must mean I’m really bad (‘Welcome to Headlington-on-Sea: Please drive fearfully’).

Making progress in any discipline requires understanding areas of strength and weakness in your approach. However, over-focussing on what isn’t going well can turn fear into a disproportionately large obstacle, rather than helping to shift it out of the way so you can go be super-badass.

The protean nature of fear means whatever you perceive as being bad – simply by being part of the same all-wiring that creates your world and keeps you survival-fit – is more liable to trigger a fearful reaction, to keep you waiting on the sidelines looking for ideas when you need your mind to be out there listening to, creating or supporting them.

To fight this, you need to give yourself a sense of perspective. Talk about what’s bugging you with others whose opinions and judgement you trust (and who can give honest feedback without tending toward negativity). Try not to treat the less-than-ideal as characteristic, definitive or fatal. If you want real improv superpowers, try to do that most unintuitive of things: learn to love failure. The beauty of improv is in its inherent risk, and if you’re taking risks then you’re probably failing – a lot. Forgive (yourself and others), forget and move on.

Rule 3 – To master the enemy – prepare well, fight often and on all terrains.

Its self-evident that practice makes perfect – there are no two ways about it. However in many practical senses improv plays out more like sport than theatre, particularly in the sense that its ultimately emergent. Practice and preparation take on different meanings in this context, as do the fears they help to address. For improvisers, practice isn’t about recalling and repeating material, dialogue or stage direction – its about having a working familiarity with an almost dazzling array of techniques and structures, developing cognitive ‘muscle memory’ (which.. technically is probably actual memory, but you know what I mean… hopefully) and other useful habits of thought and practice. Add to this the fact that all of the hard work is done in the hazy boundaries between cognition, emotion and physicality – and you may rightly ask “WTF should I be practicing?”

1. Know your structure: Form, audience ask, opening, timing, close  – know these well ahead of the gig. Make sure everyone in your team knows and is familiar with these. If you’re a very experienced ‘old hand’, you may get away with turning up to the odd gig and deciding on the fly what you want to do from things you know well. For everyone else, the sooner it gets pinned down, the better. Minimise extraneous uncertainties and everyone can focus on the set.

2. Warm up: I’m a big fan of a good (that is to say, effective) warm up. I’m aware that some people hate the notion – and I don’t get why. Your personal blushes at doing slightly silly stuff for 5-10 minutes before a set (where you frequently do sillier stuff in front of more people) are a small price to pay for ensuring you and your co-players are ready and raring to go. What a warm up specifically consists of is generally personal/group preference, but ideally it should get you mentally and physically limber, connected with your co-players and exercise any skills that are especially crucial to the form/style you are playing.

3. Encouragement: Yes. This is a form of preparation – and one I don’t hear much about in the context of fear. I don’t mean fawning words of praise, or hollow pre-show platitudes – I mean genuinely looking out for ways to encourage the best in those you’re playing with. The emphasis here is on actively getting to knowing the other player – something that even in groups of enthusiastic improvisers is still often a challenge.

Knowing the ropes and doing your warm ups are both good and necessary – but they aren’t personal. Improv (particularly long-form) can draw heavily on personal beliefs, experiences and relationships. Ideally, your mind needs to be free enough from extraneous anxieties to connect entirely novel situations with your own thoughts, memories and experiences. Trying to spontaneously invent these details requires a huge investment of mental effort, likely better spent paying attention to the scene. Practice gets you there, but a small dose of personal encouragement at the right time from a co-player can also really help.

What counts as ‘personal encouragement’ in this sense is unique to every player – it can be many things. It can vary based on a host of other unpredictable factors.  It might not always be things you do so much as an attitude you cultivate and carry. Its a tricky bugger to pin down, basically. However, it inevitably requires knowledge of those you play with, which takes time together to build.

I’ve always felt the best approach to improvising is to be interested in those you play with – to be actively curious enough about them that knowing them better just happen. Play lots, in different places, under different constraints –  switch up the turf and observe the results. Be playful with each other. Share experiences that aren’t standing in a room making shit up (or watching people do the same). Find out what forms of fun they enjoy most beyond that. Have honest, generous and open conversations about who you are, what you’ve done and what you believe. It all helps.

Fear of uncertainty and failure is natural to us as human beings, and improv will inevitably bring it out by the bucket load, but there’s lots you can do to deal with it, and to help those around you deal with it too. All the best improvisers cultivate habits that help them fight these inherent fears. If you’re unconvinced by that statement, don’t just take my word for it – listen to this lady, or this lady, or this guy on dealing with the fear of failure.

Here’s to watching your enemies scatter and fly before you, and your trips to Headlington-on-Sea being brief and infrequent.


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