Monthly Archives: November 2014

“Should I quit improv?” Part 2: Are you getting better?

Earlier, I wrote about how quitting improv might be the right choice if you’re not having any fun.

You can read part 1 here, but here’s the quiz I wrote:

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You’ll notice that a “no” to “Are you having fun?” doesn’t automatically lead to “Maybe find something else to do.” Because sometimes, if you’re working hard on getting better, you’ll go through a not-fun phase, and that is the exact wrong time to quit improv.

Riding a bike with training wheels is easy, but taking the training wheels off is hard. It feels like you’ll never be able to really ride a bike. How does anyone balance? And brake? And turn? And shifting gears while pedaling sounds like witchcraft.

Now riding my bike around the park is so effortless I don’t think about the mechanics of it anymore. I needed the training wheels for a little while when I first started, but now they would get in my way as I maneuver around traffic.*

Sometimes getting better at improv isn’t the most fun thing, but doing hard work now is an investment in the enormous amount of fun you are going to have down the road. Improv will get more fun as you get better at it.

I found this very true when I went through iO’s training center. Levels 1 and 2 were the most fun ever. Levels 3 and 4 made me feel worthless, like I was never going to be good at this, and maybe I should stop trying. Something shifted in Level 5, though, and improv was once again a magical thing I would love forever.

At the time, I thought this was just because I liked some teachers more than others — my Levels 1 and 2 teacher was Jet Eveleth, and my Level 5 teacher was TJ, and they are both just the best. While I do think clicking with my teachers was part of it, it was mostly because, after the Levels 3 and 4 teachers started taking away my training wheels, it took me awhile to find my balance again.

Jimmy Carrane, who creates the excellent Improv Nerd podcast, recently posted about the impulse to quit improv. He’s a good writer, and you should read the whole post, but here’s my pull quote:

There is this incredible hokey saying, “Don’t quit before the miracle,” which really applies to everything, especially improv. In improv you never know the day, time, or year when you’re going to get good at it.

It happens slowly. And you’ll never know where it will lead you.

In a classic blog post, which you should also read, Bill Arnett created this chart:

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“For young improvisors: relax. You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope.”

I find this graph encouraging when getting better feels too hard. (A couple of years ago, it inspired me to create my own chart about how Flash Fiction came together.) It’s not really a plateau, it’s a gentle slope, as long as you keep going forward instead of sitting down and camping out.

So don’t quit improv because it’s hard. Fun is on the other side of hard. Quit because you don’t care enough about the fun to put in the hard work in practice.

 

*Where I ride my bike, “traffic” means “scary geese.”

“Should I quit improv?” Part 1: Are you having fun?

In the past few weeks, I’ve run into some practices and shows that made me wonder why one or more players in the room were doing improv at all.

While teaching a workshop with a team I didn’t know well, I asked them what about improv is most exciting to them, or what they most want to work on. I got dead-eyed stares in response. Maybe that was just shyness, but it made me want to ask, “If you don’t love this, why are you here? Why aren’t you picking up a part time job, or working on your grades, or going on dates? Why are you choosing to spend your time in this way if you’re not excited about it?”

And at an indie show I attended recently, a player (as themselves, not as a character) opened the performance with, “I really hate doing this kind of show.” Really? Then why are you asking us to watch you do this thing you hate? Why are you on stage if you don’t love it? If you’re not having fun, how dare you expect us to have fun watching you?

So I have created this quiz, a helpful flow chart entitled, “Should you quit improv?”

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(For a related quiz, see also: How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun. Also, if you have stopped enjoying things you usually enjoy, that’s a different thing; see: Depression and the Discipline of Just Showing Up.)

Most audiences will forgive anything as long as the players are having an enormous amount of fun on stage. If you don’t enjoy playing, why would they enjoy watching?

One of my favorite teachers and performers, TJ Jagadowski, answered the question, “When should a player quit improv?” for Whether the Weather:

“If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not into it, you’re not feeling some degree of passion for it, you’re not helping anybody. Not just you, you’re not helping the people you’re going to be playing with. If you don’t want to be here more than any other place in the world right now, then you should go to the place where you want to be more. Not only will it not be helpful, but it could be hurtful. …”

Jen Dziura would say, “If it isn’t extremely productive or extremely pleasurable, just stop.” I think that applies here.

(For more about the “Are you getting better?” box of the chart, stay tuned for part 2.)

Westside Improv!

There’s a new improv venue opening up in Wheaton, and I couldn’t be more excited. Jeff Ash and Brendon Culhane have leased a space for Westside Improv.

The biggest challenges I’ve encountered doing improv in the Chicago suburbs have been:

  • finding a physical space. I know all you need is people and chairs, but lights sure help, too. So does a neutral wall to play in front of, as well as a location that’s easy for your audience to find. Out of necessity, Open Source has held shows completely in the dark, on the set of Sweeney Todd, under garish fluorescent lights, and in places that are so hard to get to that I’ve gotten texts after the show from audience members who gave up looking and went home.
  • keeping up energy from one show to the next. It was only practical for Open Source to hold shows once a month, but that’s too far apart to use the momentum from one show to feed into coordinating and promoting the next.
  • connecting with new improvisers. Going to The Improv Retreat helped me with that this year, but as a whole, I mostly ended up performing with, coaching, getting coached by, and recruiting the same people I played with in college. I want to broaden my circle.

Westside is solving all of these problems. 123 Front Street is easy to find — it’s walking distance from the Wheaton Metra station and the parking garage. The space itself is something between a black box and a cabaret, seating 60ish people. It’s designed for long form, but the layout is flexible enough that short form, sketch, and plays with minimal sets could work, too.

There will be shows every weekend. Shows every weekend! In the suburbs!

Classes and workshops will be a good entry point for new and new-to-me improvisers.

My team, Circus Police, will expand and become a Westside House team. That means we’ll get an outside coach and have regular performance opportunities we haven’t had before. I’ll also be teaching beginner improv classes — the Tuesday night class will be free! — and helping out around the theater.

In related news, I’ve stepped down from leadership at Open Source Improv. Open Source and Westside look like they’ll have a great relationship, and Open Source getting to use that beautiful new space means it won’t need the same kind of constant administration it needed when it was mobile.

You should click here to get on the Westside Improv mailing list. It is going to be the best.