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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  Generally speaking, this is a withdrawn and effortful state of mind that works against us being present or paying attention to others in the scene.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.

So, the fallow months of teamlessness have passed – I’ve ‘found my tribe’, as our iO teachers exhorted us (an audience of 40+ hungry, aspirational improvisers from around the UK and Europe) to do at the end-of-class Q&A.

Things have happened, are happening – moving at an almost startling pace.

C3467X are now hosting not one, but two monthly improv nights in London. Our ‘flagship’ night, Yada Yada K, has its inaugural outing next Tuesday. This, plus dates in Manchester and Dublin, and a slew of other London gigs before the year is out. Exciting times.

Last week I took my turn to run our weekly practice. I’d worked up some ideas I had kicking about from iO week in an effort to bring a focus I thought we would really benefit from – sharing and building upon each other’s ideas.

I’ve become increasingly aware that my group is not wanting for smart, talented players. If we need to do anything more, its to get used to working with one another in a way that allows everyone to fire on all cylinders.

The way I see it: build that connection up top, and the rest flows naturally.

The set below from iOWest team Trophy Wife, exemplifies this principle really well – a wonderfully fertile, generative initiation, where everyone pitches in or commits to what’s there. Their ideas flow organically from one to the next – a single train of thought coalescing from multiple minds.

The scenes that follow are not only wonderfully played, but the groundwork for them is all already in everyone’s minds. Both players and audience can recognise not only what’s happening, but can also probably remember where it came from. To me, this is improv doing what it does best.

Also, in terms of scene transitions, these cats look pretty slick.

 

So that’s my new bar… Now, how to reach it?

My practice session started with a bit of mirroring/mimicry work, followed by getting the team to assemble stage pictures of random objects together in increasing numbers. This built toward a structured opening called ‘the invocation’ – where the group builds a series of personal, symbolic and thematic ideas from the suggestion of a single object. We then ran scenes from what emerged.

My coaching technique clearly needs a lot more work, but overall I was really pleased with the results. After a couple of runs they were nailing it. Seeing how much my team could be inspired by each other’s ideas – and as a result be emboldened by that connection – was just superb. What’s more, the ideas generated seemed to me a lot more rich in detail and realistic than typically.

So, in summary, this is the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to understand and get into for years now. It’s great to finally actually be doing it.

So the first (annual?) iO European Intensive is (sadly) now over. Obviously, its been a blast overall.

Throughout the week we focussed primarily on different openings for long form pieces; ranging from individual and shared monologues, to stage pictures, to invocations and even combinations of these – and explored how these might translate into full pieces like the Armando and Harold. A lot to rattle through in a week, but it wasn’t an unsettling pace, and there was plenty of time to observe and reflect as well as play.

Between the Maydays long form course and working with C3467X, I’d encountered most of the forms before at one time or another. However after a week working with one of ‘Charna’s Angels’ (not their words), I naturally felt much closer to the source of these ideas. Having a chance to explore the underlying principles with an experienced teacher gave me greater confidence in things I had up to now only vaguely intuited.

Here are the big themes that emerged for me:

Physicality – One of my main weaknesses to date has been a natural tendency to avoid physical choices and moves – I end up in ‘elevens’ or as a talking head a lot. A great thing about this week was doing lots of group work involving physicality and seeing how dramatically it can effect the choices we make in scenes. Truly something you can only really understand by doing.

Connection – Getting connected with your team early on is vital and can be achieved in any number of ways. It’s also something that comes with no small measure of social discomfort – its rarely how we’re taught to operate in our daily lives, it looks intrinsically ‘hippy’ and is easily scoffed at from outside. For this reason alone, its worth doing anything it takes to break down these comfort barriers – if only to permit genuine connection both on-stage and at a conceptual level.

POV (esp. shared POV) – One of my favourite things to watch and be part of this week were invocations and shared ‘POVs’ from within a stage picture. It was surprisingly wonderful to watch the process of many individuals’ ideas gradually converging on a single point of view, or a single point of view being developed through many different minds. Also, in scenic terms, having a strong POV early on allows you to build and maintain more authentic and instantly relatable characters – which in turn enable bolder, more confident choices.

Thesis – This isn’t an idea that I’d developed much prior to this week, but it makes a lot of sense to me now. It is the idea that any of the more ‘performance artsy’ openings (i.e. not monologues) drive toward a thesis – a statement about life or the world that the following scenes will either prove or disprove. Whilst I’ve done plenty of these more ‘organic’ openings, the idea that seemed to be missing was that of a thesis – a central idea that emerges, shifts and settles throughout the group game.

So that, in summary, is what I got from this week.

I’m especially happy that I landed Tara DeFrancisco as a teacher. Her approach struck a really good balance for a mixed experience group. She explicitly encouraged the group to bond early – a trust which really helped us get the most out of what we did. Her comments and notes were incisive and well articulated, and she knew just when and how to gently nudge people out of their comfort zones. She’s also a big-hearted, wicked smart and funny woman – which always helps.

It’s been ace. More of it, please.

So…. Just got back from my first Edinburgh Fringe. Woop-doo!

Had a superb time, obviously (chiefly thanks to some particularly generous friends). It certainly felt like a milestone for me. On top of the expected seeing of many good things, I got some education in what it means to be part of the festival. As anyone who’s actually performed there could undoubtedly explain it better, I won’t elaborate at length – but here are a few notes, just for the record.

Its obvious that putting on and actively promoting a run of twenty plus consecutive daily shows away from home will naturally be a bit of a gauntlet. Arriving for the final five days, I saw quite a few Fringe-weary faces sighing, and regularly heard the mildly battered refrain ‘It’s been a long Fringe’. Stamina and strategy aren’t pre-requisites, but they definitely help.

On the other hand, as one comic pointed out to me, the Fringe offers an otherwise rare opportunity to those who make the effort. Beyond touring or getting an extended run somewhere (much less likely for those just getting into it), there aren’t many other experiences for performers as intensely focused as the Edinburgh Festival. Twenty odd audiences in as many days – all varying in number, tastes and expectations – an epic proving ground. Gaining similar experience in the real world could take a fair bit of time – particularly if you don’t perform regularly or for a living. All that condensed into just over three weeks means that you gain more simply by having so much in recent memory to work with and mull over. At least that’s the theory. Wonder if it works.

As for what was on – the sheer variety of it all, while great for me as a punter, slightly intimidated me as a performer. Seeing so many acts, with such diversity in subject, style and intensity, performing to wildly differing audiences at a range of venues was as exciting as it was mildly disorienting. However, I confess to wondering at several points whether I had anything worth adding to the innumerable voices, viewpoints, styles and aesthetics already proliferating at the Fringe. Of course, the correct answer to that nagging doubt is: it doesn’t seem to stop anyone else.

My week definitely gave me a better perspective on the kind of performer I’d like to be – or perhaps more appropriately the kind of outfit I want to be part of. It’s probably easiest to talk about this in terms of who I saw and what I got from seeing them.

The Beta Males and Cariad and Paul were like entertainment engines powered by synchronicity – one through slick and deft design, the other through amazing chemistry. The results were impressive and intensely entertaining. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as two (or more) people who clearly share a sense of comedic rhythm. Better still when it manifests as a sort of bone-deep, near-reflexive awareness of the other. As this apparently only emerges from long-standing creative partnerships – time together is key.

Who Ya Gonna Call (go team!), Beardyman and John Robertson’s gleefully cruel The Dark Room reminded me that I’d quite like people to have fun whilst I’m revelling in my own. Riskily self-indulgent? Answer: only if you don’t invite the audience to the fun. These shows were all fantastic at taking personal passions and translating them into something anyone could appreciate and be part of – a really beautiful thing to see. WYGC and The Dark Room particularly, with their knowingly (and literally) recycled aesthetics, convinced me that the key to really engaging your audience is ultimately just about respecting them. As most improv is based on some level of audience involvement, this feels like an important thing to bear in mind.

Finally, there’s something about the power of personal truth or revelation in comedy. At almost opposite ends of the scale here were Tom Wrigglesworth and Al Lubel. Wrigglesworth’s was an intimate, charming and moving account of his grandfather’s lasting impact on him as a person. Lubel, by contrast, used all manner of revelations about his relationship with his mother to deliver an absurdly narcissistic, borderline loathsome account of himself. Both funny for completely different reasons, but both left me thinking: I can’t believe you just shared that.

So, the inevitable question – do I now want to take a show to the Fringe? Yes, absolutely.

Will I..?

If I can find three weeks lying around of an August – maybe.

The last month has seen another unfeasibly energetic lunge of improv activity.

Susan Messing. Nuff said.

Actually, not nuff.

I’d been in two minds about committing to the two-day Brighton workshop (mostly for financial reasons), had made a hash of booking it initially and only discovered my error just in time to rectify it. Meanwhile, everyone I knew was raving about how Messing was (a) a true force of nature; (b) unremittingly sweary; and (c) liable to tear me a new improv areshole. She was one of few universally praised by those who’d worked with her. I suddenly realised missing Messing was unlikely to be a good idea for me as an improviser. FOMO indeed.

Thankfully (and aptly) I got my act together and committed. The two days were intense – full of silliness, noisiness, anarchic disarray, daring physicality and (of course) bountiful curse words – with Susan at the eye of the storm; the gleefully insane conductor of an apocalyptic orchestra. Despite what seemed at times utterly chaotic, she clearly knew what she was doing at all points. The pace rarely let up, and the exercises (however uncomfortable, unnerving or just plain strange) often left me feeling like I’d crossed a threshold to some new, uncharted place internally. We barely did a ‘straight’ scene the whole weekend, and I think that was entirely deliberate. Straight scenes aren’t designed to test you, they’re the home you come to when the battle is over – but they shouldn’t be. The battle is never over.

Though she didn’t preface it as such, it was clear that Messing’s focus was on the improviser’s perpetual adversaries – fear, shame, lack of connection and, above all, commitment. Unlike most teachers, however, she understood it wasn’t enough to just talk about these ideas (though she did, at length – her oft-repeated mantras pummelling her lessons through even the thickest 4-ply skulls). No cerebral short-cuts on this joyride – Messing’s way was to nudge you into that dreaded awkward moment, make you recognise the tension it generated within, then say ‘fuck it’ and push through. Touch it, taste it, smell it, feel it AND fuck it – actually.

There were boat loads of exquisite moments that weekend, I couldn’t recount them all. But if there was a moment that will stay with me longest, it was the narrated lucid dream we created that, unknowingly, moved her to tears. I remember thinking – ‘Holy fuck, this shit is powerful’.

People I know (usually not improvisers) look at me oddly when I occasionally get earnest about what is effectively just making up silly shit. Besides being unapologetically passionate about this very thing, Susan (a) refused to put the process (or herself) up on a pedestal; (b) was serious enough not to let anyone slack it off; and (c) was enlightened enough to know how to make the inevitable discomfort fun. That was the Messing experience for me. It was terrifying, vivifying, embarrassing, emboldening and joyful. It reassured me that the difficulty of improvising that will always be there can always be overcome, provided you commit everything you have to it.

That, to me, is good fucking news.

_________________________________________________________

 

I went straight from Day 2 of Messing into my first show with my new team, C3467X (we’re named for comfort, not speed). This being a Crash Pad, the crowd was naturally very improv-friendly. Nonetheless it felt like a great first show. Everyone was on cracking form, and our synchronicity was high. With the spirit of Messing freshly distilled in most of us, I’d have been really disappointed if it wasn’t.

Since then, we’ve done a couple more shows, and had plenty of practice. Most of all its been really heartening to know how committed the team is to rolling its sleeves up and getting in there – not being tediously complacent or self-aggrandising. The hard work of a few in particular has paid off, with gigs now flying at us from all directions (and apparently countries). We’ve even got the opportunity to host our own monthly night in London. I’m massively excited about it all. Can’t. Wait!

For all that, I want to get back to that place I was just after the Messing masterclass. The limitless place, where anything and everything is possible. Its actually the reason I do this, and its the only thing that keeps me interested.

Why the hiatus?

Honestly? Because I plain forgot this blog existed. Samuel Pepys I am not. I do see smoke coming from the vague direction of Westminster, though. Probably should tell someone.

I just completed ten weeks of longform and musical improv workshops with Katy Schutte and Jules Munns of the Maydays – which has been excellent for numerous reasons. I got to explore the Harold in more depth than I have before, which helped me understand it’s character as a form much better. I also got to flex the musical muscle too, which people were really quite nice about (perhaps not realising how much I’ve actually done before). On top of that, Katy and Jules are both great teachers with broad ranging experience, admirable approaches to improv and who know how to give concise, constructive feedback. If I could do it all again, well of course I bloody well would.

However most of all I’ve appreciated the chance to play with the same group over an extended period – to go through the process of consciously developing a group mind and sensibility over time. Knowing I ultimately want to be in a close-knit longform group, the experience has been really informative personally.

And in parallel, as if by magic (though probably more by gradually becoming part of the London improv furniture) I’m finally actually *in* a longform group. Woo! Basically, a bunch of London improvisers got fed up with not having a team and started one – et voila! Early days yet, but a solid bunch, some of whom I’ve enjoyed work(shop)ing with before.

That said (ever the eternal dreamer) I’ve still got my eyes on an ephemeral ideal.

Recently it struck me that I wanted to be part of a 3-4 person group again – mostly because of the epic (and sadly for me, short-lived) fun I had with Fisticuffs.

I don’t know if this is a common observation, or just my own ill-informed opinion – but in my mind there’s something about a small team that just concentrates the awesome. Twoprovs can be awe-inducing in that way – but they require a lot of effort, skill and versatility on the part of the duo to really work (of course I’ve seen it happen – the Sufferettes blew my brain to pieces on that front).

On the other hand, larger teams can lose their sense of common urgency easily unless everyone is totally focussed. I know there are countless times when I’ve ‘checked out’ because I subconsciously thought ‘someone else has got this’ (or, worse, feared imposing in case someone else had a better offer in mind – the classic psychic improvises). Usually you find everyone else was thinking that too. In the worst case, presence and commitment can evaporate altogether, and when that happens ‘panic improv’ usually ensues – with all the clichéd and slightly cringeworthy consequences that entails. 

By contrast, when there are two in the game and no more than two on the sideline, everyone is on that razor’s edge. The numbers force you to be there the whole time – shirking that responsibility isn’t really an option. While this is often incredibly nerve racking, I think its a place improvisers need to be to stand a chance of doing something truly spectacular.

I got both Truth In Comedy and Art By Committee for my birthday this year (ta Sis!). While the former goes over a lot of ground I’m already familiar with, Art By Committee is reaffirming a lot of my more recent thoughts about where improv is most likely to succeed (or fail) – particularly regarding truth, trust and connection. It’s all that ‘improv philosophy’ stuff that has some foaming at the mouth with excitement, whilst others roll their eyes cynically. In both cases sad, but true.

So, this may sound like bullshit, but I’ll say it anyway – I don’t do improv to be funny. I honestly don’t (I think I’m just addicted to pretending). It’s fun and really satisfying when people are visibly and audibly entertained by you – but I think I’m past seeing laughs as the only or best barometer of that. I think it’s a difficult thing for some improvisers to acknowledge or accept – because if you’re there to be funny, surely laughter is the ultimate proof of success, right?

Yes, and no.

The drive for instantaneous positive feedback is often an inherently insecure one. I find that for me its about context over quantity (‘quality’ seems a snobbish thing to say, and not particularly apt – people who consistently go for laughs often earn them). However, I want the context of the laughter not to be just ‘I managed to say a funny thing, and you laughed’. Stand-ups do that, sketch groups do that, theatre does it too – it’s not really the ‘unique selling point’ of improv (guh – did I just say that?).

As an improviser, when you laugh, I want it to be because I related a specific detail that emerged (spontaneously) earlier in the show to the present moment – and that detail was surprising (or absurd, or cruel, or pathetic) and thus (contextually) hilarious.

I want your laughter to come from recognising that connection I made between things that until very recently didn’t actually exist; from being caught off guard or slightly astonished at the seeming serendipity of it all.

Ultimately, I want you to forget that I’m there, because you’re laughing at the characters or the situation. It isn’t really about us, it’s about who we are when we’re in the scene. If you see me trying to be funny, I’ve lost the game.

“What about ‘mistakes’?” – someone might conceivably ask. I’m all for calling them out, incorporating them into the scene – but ideally not in a way that ‘breaks’ the scene. If the only way out is ‘meta’, so be it – but I think the tactic should be used sparingly. Sadly, the ‘mistake-meta’ can often be a lazy fall back for not wanting to be embarrassed by the quality of your scenework, or failure to concentrate/commit enough to your scene partner(s) to pick up on the details you needed to understand what was happening.

Anyway, I don’t know when this went from being a blog about my recent improv antics to a rant about what ‘good’ improv means to me – but most improvisers seem to have a view, and I don’t claim any exception.

My point is this: my ideal situation is being part of a team that’s connected, committed, trusting and focussed – not just on getting an audience to laugh, but to making the silence between the laughter feel just as worthwhile.

Shove that in your gaggle-hole and smoke it.

SO… Lots to catch this blog up on.

The class show went really well, at least from my perspective. We clicked enough and for once when I was up there I didn’t feel that sensation of ‘treading water’ I’m all too used to. I had a lot of fun, too and hopefully now have some great collaborators to play with in future.

The following weekend was Mark’s leaving party, which presented another opportunity to perform thaet was really enjoyable, this time an Armando off of some monologues from Mark. See? I do forms with first names now. Yeah.

This weekend I saw the delightful Project 2 (featuring Katy Schutte and Jonathan Monkhouse) and Premiere as part of the 2013 Improfest at The Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town. My MissImp colleagues and I played this festival last year – it was good to go as an audience member and really take it in. Also an unexpected treat to bump into the folks from Birmingham’s Foghorn Improv – who have been gracious improv hosts to me on more than one occasion.

Seeing both shows got me all inspired and  thinking about the sort of show I’d like to do, and I’ve got the seeds of and idea I really like that I can play with – so we’ll see how that pans out.

Now it’s all about the hunt for talented, enthusiastic players who have time, similar taste in fun and a penchant for big ideas…

Sometimes I don’t make things easy for myself.

I’ve got my Beltzmann class show this Sunday – my first in London, and only my second live longform. Nervous excitement is of course natural. What I’m most keen to know, though, is whether we’ve built enough trust in each other in these few short sessions to pull off something worthwhile. There’s clearly talent in the class, and toward the end of last Sunday we seemed to reach a tipping in working as an ensemble. I’ve never really experienced that in as big a group as this. Until now, I’ve been used to playing in mostly 2-3 player scenes – not a great deal of back line/side support. It’s been heartening, though. I want more of this. For reals.

Then there’s the other big question in my mind: having spent the time working toward ensemblehood, will any of us still want to play together after this? Will any of us have the nerve or inclination to overcome the Great British Reserve enough to say something like “Yeah, I kinda like your stuff – wanna do something later?” It’s difficult to say, but we’ll see.

Sunday will decide all – I just want us all to have a laugh.

I used to be a more generous improviser.

I think one of the most difficult things most improvisers struggle with is the need to be good. Who doesn’t want to be good at what they’re doing? Idiots. And people who don’t actually care about what they’re doing – who presumably are either relatively unfortunate (one would hope temporarily), or just plain stupid.

The need to be good isn’t thought detrimental to most other activities. What other form could the fire that heightens ambition take? It’s difficult to envision someone who has mastered an art without some motivation to develop and perfect the necessary skills and knowledge. How could it not be a positive thing?

The problem, at least as far as longform improvisation goes, is that the need to be good often confounds those who can’t temper it with a more pressing need: to be there for your co-players – to be present with them and to make them look good at all times.

The need to be good as an individual naturally distracts you from finding common cohesion within a group. ‘It’s on me to be good,’ goes the need, ‘I have to do something amazing, right now’. Cue ignoring offers, flabby exposition, reaching for gags, attempts at wresting control and outright denial.

The sad, fatal assumption beneath it all is that you can do something amazing in improv all by yourself. Sure, moments of individual flare, even brilliance, are always possible – but sustained amazing does not occur in scenes unless at least two people are discovering something truthful at the same time. Discovery is the key – if one person starts trying to call the shots, the possibility space for everyone else drastically shrinks – individual excellence does not equal collaborative success.

When I first started improvising with MissImp I felt (like most beginners) utterly confused and out of my depth. I struggled with finding words to follow a simple ‘yes and…’, I asked lots of questions, I couldn’t make very strong characters. However, within three months of weekly jams I was invited to perform in my first show. I was massively flattered and also terrified. I didn’t feel ready – I wondered why other people thought that I might be.

I now believe my biggest asset at that time was having absolutely no clue about what ‘good’ was, or how I could be it. Without that confounding compass, my only available strategy was to try and make things easy for my scene partners, to give and to follow unthinkingly, to trust those around me – and to get pimped like a mofo and just deal with it. My lack of assumptions made me an effective, if unsophisticated scene partner.

These days, again and again, I hear the most experienced improvisers (at least those whose insights ring true to me) talking about trusting, making your fellow players look good, having patience, taking one step at a time not worrying about what comes next – a general abdication of the self and its needs in favour of supporting and respecting your co-creators.

Of course, as a long-term strategy this makes perfect sense. It’s ultimately the path of least effort and resistance – it allows multiple people to create spontaneously without the whole process being overly complex, arduous or scary. Plus, if everyone is doing it, trust is assured and no one can really fail.

That said – believing the above is one thing. Realising it is quite another.

I’ve just had my first workshop with Mark Beltzman, and one of the notes I got from him immediately gave me a clearer perspective one of my most personally irritating improv habits – trying too hard. 

I’m of the opinion that the most entertaining scenes often have an unforced, unhurried and organic feel to them. But when you’re on the spot, there seem to be a million and one different reasons and ways to contrive unnecessary details, bits of exposition or clever things to say – pushing the scene into more personally comfortable territory. Although it seems reasonable enough, in longform particularly this approach is as difficult to make work as it is ultimately futile. I think it’s primarily based on a fear of floundering.

I was a poor swimmer as a child (and probably a not a great deal better now). In particular, I remember how I felt when I was just starting to learn. I moved stiffly and used an incredible amount of energy just trying to stay afloat. When I reached the the edge of the pool, I’d clutch it tightly – exhausted, fearing I lacked the strength to make another full length.

The analogy with improv is pretty direct: if you feel your improv is weak, whether consciously or otherwise, you’ll automatically look for all manner of ways to find security in the face of the scene’s inherent uncertainty. You’ll spend lots of energy trying to compensate for your (perceived) weaknesses in order to feel more in control of the scene. Most of it will be wasted. Your technique is inefficient, resists the flow, looks inelegant and only makes things more difficult in the long run.

If you want to swim long distances, you simply can’t ignore these aspects of your method. You have to overcome the insecurity, loosen up, make the minimum necessary effort and trust that the water will hold you.

Don’t overdo it – just do it.*

  • What do you find yourself doing when you feel like you or your scene is ‘floundering’?
  • What are your ‘go-tos’ for security?
  • How do you go about ‘getting out of your own way’?

Today’s key ideas: discovering the scene at the same time as your partner and the audience, making your scene partner look good, talk about how your partner’s actions make you feel, getting out of your own way, attending to your partner closely, trusting and offering

*Yes, I’m aware that is also the Nike thing. Swoosh.
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