That Guy

In a jam or workshop, a good general rule is to assume every player in the room is an artist, a poet, a genius. In this lovely ideal world, jumping into a scene with Stranger A is just as safe and potentially awesome as jumping into a scene with Stranger B.

But that’s not how it often works. Often, after the first round of scenes in a workshop full of strangers, I catch myself on the sidelines doing some mental math about how best to avoid being in a scene with that one guy.

You know, That Guy.

  • That Racist Guy who has only been in three scenes so far, but every one of them sounded, at best, like something your grandmother who still says the n-word would say.
  • That Wild Guy who doesn’t seem to know his own strength. He just started a scene by jumping into a scene partner’s arms, and the partner obviously wasn’t ready for it. It’s jolly and innocent, but you have no guarantee he’s not going to do the same to you, and you’d rather not end up with a back injury from a game of Freeze.
  • That Gross Guy who is sexual or violent right out the gate of every scene, saying things that wouldn’t make it onto network TV unless it’s by the criminal in an episode of Law and Order: SVU.
  • That Touchy Guy who is extremely touchy. Whenever he’s in scenes with women, he quickly establishes a romantic history and therefore feels justified being overly physically affectionate. He would do this even if you initiated the scene as his mom, his boss, or his niece.

The common denominator here is that That Guy is That Guy over and over again. It’s not a character he’s playing for one scene or set with teammates he knows. It’s that he has a pattern in workshops of treating players he just met like they’re garbage. If you jumped into a scene with him, you’d get stuck either saying yes-and and seeming to condone his That Guy-ness, or you’d bicker and risk being accused of denial, a cardinal sin of improv.

Most women have a radar for That Guy. When the teacher asks for volunteers, we wait until That Guy’s already had his turn. Or we wait until one other woman or guy-we-know-outside-class has volunteered, and then we jump up to be the second person in the scene. The result is that the men end up with a lot more stage time than the women.

We cannot take for granted that a teacher — even a really good teacher! — will pick up on that every woman in the class is creeped out by That Guy. At least, not of the teacher is a man, which is likely. The teacher will, instead, think we’re hanging back because we’re insecure. He tells the women to be more confident instead of telling the men not to be jerks. My theory is that this is part of why Level 1 classes usually have a more equal male-to-female ratio than Level 5 classes.

Earlier this summer, in an effort to relax about who I played with, I ended up in a scene with That Touchy/Gross Guy. (He’d already threatened to knife a woman in an earlier exercise with no provocation; I think she’d asked him to set the table or something.) His first line in our scene would have gotten him reported to HR for sexual harassment if we’d been coworkers, and I spent the rest of the scene shutting down his attempts to get physically closer to me. I dropped any kind of attempt at character. I think my second line of the scene was, “I am not going to allow you to touch me,” which backfired, as That Guy takes that sort of thing as a challenge. He got grosser, and I had to go to greater lengths to avoid being touched by someone I didn’t trust. I was 7 months pregnant, and this was neither funny nor graceful.

When the scene was over, the teacher didn’t give notes on it. He just moved on to the next pair. After the workshop, a different guy approached me and asked if I was alright. “That was hard to watch. It was not ok. I’m sorry you got stuck with That Guy.” This is the only time I’ve ever heard a male classmate say something like this. He later told me and some others that he had survived abuse and found that sort of scene triggering and Not Funny.

By the time I stopped in the bathroom after the class, all of the women were standing around the sink, talking not just about what a jerk That Guy was, but how unsafe they felt for the rest of class because the teacher hadn’t called That Guy out. I was not the only one affected. For the rest of the workshop, which we had all paid for, the women were too busy protecting themselves to get their money’s worth, and the teacher either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I wonder if teachers don’t call out That Guy because he’s often clueless, not malicious, and the teacher doesn’t want to distract from class. But that That Guy is ALREADY distracting from class, because all the women on the sidelines are manipulating the order of when it’ll be their turn instead of learning new things and taking risks. Not calling him out is privileging That Guy’s time and money over everyone else’s.

Will Hines has probably the best advice for teachers about calling out That Guy, as well as how all of these rules change with context in a group of people who already know and trust each other and allowing for students to make honest mistakes. From his post, “Chivalry and Improv”:

Teachers should stop those scenes immediately, quickly note that it’s rude for a guy to do that to a girl and not allowed, and either re-start the scene or move on to two more people.

I don’t think a lecture is necessary there; it puts the male student on the defensive and asks him to be resentful. And students are allowed to screw up in class. Abruptly stopping, saying it’s not cool and restarting quickly saves time and send a simpler stronger message: just don’t do it. …

I like putting it in terms of the audience rather than the feelings of the female actor. The female actor, if she’s the type who likes improv, probably isn’t as easily offended as an audience would be, and probably doesn’t want anyone to fight her battles. It’s not fair for me as the teacher to presume what she feels and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about any one student as it is creating a standard of politeness for everyone for the audience to see.

Find people you trust and enjoy, and this becomes a non-issue. Circus Police doesn’t have That Guy. Most teams I enjoy watching don’t have That Guy. The better the players, the more you can relax and play without wasting any energy on That Guy.

One of my goals as a teacher is to nurture an environment where players don’t have to hang back on the sidelines to avoid That Guy, while also being a place for everyone (including That Guy, who I have to hope will grow out of his That-Guy-ness) to become better players. Any suggestions?

Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard

I signed up for Fireball Theory because Jill Bernard was teaching it, and I continue to use exercises and my notes from the workshop I took from her last year. What was Fireball Theory? No clue, but if Jill’s teaching it, I’ll give it a shot.

With the title “Fireball Theory,” Jill said she was thinking of action movies where, somehow, the hero/heroine/poppet/dog can always outrun the giant explosion. They can’t necessarily stop it, but they can somehow run so fast that they escape without even mussing their hair. We can’t just decide to make fear and doubt go away when we step on stage, but if we play fast enough, we can outrun it. The workshop was mostly tricks to get players to snap into a decision before we had time to judge ourselves for it.

The most useful/easy-to-pass-on exercise was Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d, my favorite variation of an exercise I’ve done before in other classes. One person enters the scene with a simple line (“It’s Tuesday” or “I bought milk”) and the other person responds with a huge emotional reaction.

Here is a way to to think about emotional intensity. I do not know where this image came from originally, but I found it via Rance Rizzutto.

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Even though all of those reactions are open to us at any time, when I introduce variations of this exercise by saying, “I want you to react at the most intense level of any emotion,” people tend to default to anger, for some reason.

Rather than leave this open to any reaction at all, Jill narrowed it down for us into four basic possibilities; most other emotions are combinations and nuances of those four. When we had that limit, we saw a greater range of emotion from players, not a narrower one.

Another thing that was different about Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d was that Jill let the scenes breathe, which means the initiator (“It’s Tuesday”) got to interact with the emotional player. Instead of defaulting to calming the other player down, it was more fun when the first player matched or added fuel to their emotions. The only response that was off the table for them was to discount their emotional scene partner by calling them crazy or asking them about what drugs they were taking.

To the objection, “But playing this way doesn’t feel realistic,” Jill had this response, which I loved:

“Bless your charmed life and all of the calm, reasonable people you know. I modeled this exercise after a family member I used to have who really was this volatile. It’s awkward and hard at Christmas, but much more interesting on stage. Also, you’re standing on a raised platform in front of people. This is already unnatural. Why are you drawing the line here?”

Some other notes, in no special order, I wrote down after this workshop:

  • Is this a day in the life of these characters, or is this the day when everything changes? (I think I’ve also heard Susan Messing ask this.)
  • When you react with a big emotion, you give the rest of your team permission to play with big emotions, too. What are you saving your energy for? You should always be exhausted by the end of a show.
  • Having a big reaction doesn’t mean you need to sustain that reaction at that level forever. It doesn’t have to be one long scream. It can be punctuation in the scene rather than the entirety of it.
  • If your scene partner is not giving you fuel, find fuel in your environment.
  • Some people improvise like everyone has a script but them. Go off script. There is no script.
  • Why are you worried about looking cool? We’re theater kids, so we don’t have to be the cool kids.
  • Improv is not a parlor trick. It’s art, and it can do anything theater can do. The role of art has changed in the last few generations, and it’s an artist’s job to remind the audience that they are alive. When was the last time we had an opera house riot?

If you live near Minneapolis, check out Jill’s shows and workshops at HUGE Theater. She’s one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve met, and the fun she’s having on stage is contagious.

 

Group Work and Getting Playful with Lyndsay Hailey

Of the three workshops I took this year at The Improv Retreat, Lyndsay Hailey‘s “Group Work and Getting Playful” is the hardest to capture in words. Like a lot of physical workshops, it was definitely a you-had-to-be-there thing.

Lyndsay’s focus was finding a nonverbal game (the kind you would see opening a Harold) and taking that game as far as it could possibly go. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s easy to heighten to a 7 or 8, but the game isn’t really over until you push through to 10. Editing before then feels unsatisfying and muddy.

As a class, I think we successfully heightened to 10 maybe 1/4 of the time. It’s something you develop an instinct for by trial and (lots of) error. Lyndsay was great at helping us see how to heighten what was already there instead of imposing new ideas of how the game should go.

A couple of stray notes:

  • We talk about improvisers being geniuses, artists, and poets. That does not mean that you need to put your energy into getting people to see you as a genius/artist/poet yourself; it means you should see those qualities in other people and treat them accordingly. This takes the focus and responsibility off you and makes you a more fun, supportive player.
  • In a group game, if you find yourself looking for something better to do, instead look for something deeper or more heightened. The trick is to deepen/heighten the game without letting any elements go.
  • The tighter the group mind, the more a single theme will emerge from a game. If you ask, “What was that game about?” and get four different answers, then the game was probably not heightened like it could have been.

I didn’t get to take Lyndsay’s yoga/Meisner class this year, mostly because it seemed like it might be a little more physically intense than my 3rd trimester self could handle right now. But rumor has it that that workshop was wonderful as well. If you took it, care to share your thoughts?

If you find yourself in LA, you should definitely look up Lyndsay’s shows and classes. You should also check out her interview with Jimmy Carrane on Improv Nerd from a year ago, right before she moved away from Chicago.

The Improv Retreat 2015: “I’d rather be here.”

I’m home from The Improv Retreat! I got home a few days ago, ready for one of my last hectic work weeks of the summer, when a bad vaccine reaction knocked me off my feet for a few days and FORCED me to rest up from camp. I’m better-ish now and have camp thoughts.

Much of what I wrote last year about the general feel of The Improv Retreat holds true again, especially this part:

[Tara, founder of TIR] reminded us improv has the capacity to welcome everybody, no matter how long they’ve practiced it, where they live, or what theater they call home. There doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. If improv welcomes everyone, we should, too.

This year, she emphasized, “Especially be this welcoming to the non-improvisers in your life! Your accountant friend needs to be treated with this kind of love, too.”

What was the same this year:

  • Campers were friendly and outgoing. Improvisers tend to befriend one another easily.
  • The counselors were fun and wise and supportive.
  • The shows were some of the best improv I’ve seen in awhile.
  • At least 2/3 of the campers were hypnotized at some point.

What was different this year:

    • It rained most of the time, which meant fewer outdoor activities and more indoor discussion times.
    • I haven’t had camp withdrawal since coming back like I did last year, because I have a regular place to play and teach now. Westside Improv didn’t exist yet last year, and now it does, and it makes improv more accessible for people who don’t live near Lincoln Park. (A mini-highlight for me was when someone said, “Did you say you live in the suburbs? You should check out Westside. I live in Chicago so I haven’t been out there yet, but I’ve heard good things.”)
    • I carpooled with a friend from church/work instead of people I barely knew. I liked those guys I barely knew! I got to know them over the course of the trip! But it was nice to have a friend from my everyday life around camp, even if we didn’t take the same workshops.
    • There were more familiar faces. It was comforting to see campers I recognized from last year as well as players from Westside.
    • Because of the whole my-third-trimester-started-while-I-was-at-camp thing, my energy was Very Limited. I reserved it for workshops and shows and sat out most of the jams and games. This also made me the loser who left the campfire around midnight after a s’more or two. (It seemed like the rest of camp was going to bed between 2am and never.) So I missed out on some improviser bonding time. However, everyone was gracious about offering me a chair or an extra serving of food when there was one to be had, and one of the lovely camp interns who read my last blog post even saved a bottom bunk for me ahead of time. I wasn’t ever made to feel out of place.

At one point on Saturday, I ran into Tara, who has shared publicly about her ongoing, scary-sounding health battles, and asked how she was feeling. She said, “My body would feel the same way at home as it feels here. Where I am doesn’t make a difference, so I’d rather be here. This is where the awesome, positive people are.”

Exactly. I’m not at all equating pregnancy with illness, but that holds true for me, too: I was going to be exhausted and uncomfortable no matter where I was. I don’t think being away from home for two nights made it any worse. I might as well use my energy to play when I can.

I’m so glad I went. I’m also so glad I’m home.

You can read other people’s camp thoughts by searching for #TIR2015 on Twitter. (Though, just like last year, if you go back much past last week, that hashtag refers to the Texas Independence Relay.) The other official camp hashtag is #muppetarms because of reasons.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing the notes I took in my workshops. If you took different workshops or just different notes, you should share those, too! I want to see!

Packing for TIR 2015 WOOOOOO!!!!!

The Improv Retreat is coming up! If you want to know what it was like last year, I summed up the workshops I took, the Q&A session, and my general experience of TIR2014 here.

I’ve agonized over and finally signed up for my workshops, found a carpool buddy, and let my workplace know that I won’t be answering my phone or email over that weekend.

Last year, I was glad I brought:

  • Bedding (pillow and sleeping bag)
  • Shoes (comfortable walking shoes, flip flops for the shower)
  • Sun protection (sunscreen and hat)
  • General toiletries
  • Notebook and pencil
  • Flashlight
  • Warm weather clothes for the day, plus a jacket for night

 

This year, because I learned my lesson last summer, I will also remember to bring:

  • Ear plugs (as there will be a snorer in every cabin)
  • Serious bug spray (because it’s the woods)
  • Protein bars (kosher, to comply with campsite rules)
  • Chocolate (for s’mores; chocolate supplies were low by the time I got to the fire pit Saturday night last year)
  • Refillable water bottle

When early registration started for camp, I didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. I might not have signed up if I’d realized. And even after I found out, there is the scary-but-statistically-probable reality that being 1 month pregnant in December did not necessarily mean I’d still be pregnant by the end of May.

By the time my doctor was 100% confident that this pregnancy was going to stick, the deadline for cancelling my camp registration had passed me by, and I decided I didn’t care. I am going anyway, regardless of physical challenges, because who knows if I’ll be able to go next year?

Also, if our camp director Tara can run the whole shindig while undergoing a stem cell trial for her heart, I sure can handle playing while tiring easily, needing a lot of snacks, and occasionally getting kicked in the ribs.

So, as I’ll be entering the third trimester of my pregnancy while at camp, I’ll also need:

  • Giant, ridiculous, but TOTALLY NECESSARY HOW ELSE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE WITHOUT WITCHCRAFT pregnancy pillow
  • To arrive early enough to claim a bottom bunk
  • To take it easy during the more physically challenging workshops
  • To be as gracious as possible to people while still firmly defending my personal space. Improvisers are the best people in the world, but I still don’t want my torso touched by people I just met. Or by anyone, actually. Everybody stop touching my torso.

I’m so excited to get out of town and into the woods for a weekend with lots of other improvisers. Say hi, y’all!

The Very Hungry Dragons

Back in December, I wrote about the improv elective I was going to teach at The Greenhouse, the classical school where I work. I had a blast all semester with the six kids — four girls and two boys — who signed up. They named themselves the Very Hungry Dragons, and I looked forward to them every week.

They had their final performance last weekend at Westside Improv, and they wanted to do a Harold.

I love Harold. Harold is intuitive to me. However, if you learn Harold at iO (and aren’t on indie teams in the mean time), you receive over 144 hours of instruction and practice before your first Harold performance.

Students at iO spend many of those 144 hours, spread out over the better part of a year, developing their instincts for timing and pacing. You learn those things through practicing a lot, seeing a lot of shows, and watching good TV shows, movies, and plays. You develop an intuition for when something feels over, or when it feels like something should be called back.

My kids had more like 14 hours of instruction and practice spread out over the semester. They each were required to see one local improv show, though some saw two. They are home schooled adolescents, which often means that their parents have strict rules about how much TV they watch. My biggest worry for the show was that they wouldn’t have had the time or resources to hone their editing instincts.

So I took that aspect away. I sat in the front row, signaled when they should edit, and occasionally called out things I wanted them to try. (For instance, after an edit, I’d say, “I want to see the pianist again, after his recital is over.”)

I also helped them make connections that they hadn’t had time to develop on their own. (For instance, in one thread, a boy won the lottery. In another thread, two girls were trying to sell a rare and illegal animal. “Girls, who have we met who has enough money to buy your pet?”)

But the scenes were all the kids. They drew out their own themes, relationships, and characters from the suggestion. They were engaged with each other, they reacted in the moment, and were their own goofy selves. I was just there to direct traffic.

Other quirks I enjoyed about teaching this particular group:

  • No matter what the suggestion in 7’s and 6’s, they always said, “I’m hungry!” as one of their 6’s. They are preteens and teenagers. They are always hungry.
  • While they did not have the shared pop culture knowledge that most improv classes have, they were all studying medieval and early Renaissance history together this year. A disproportionate number of scenes had peasants, royalty, and dragons. They especially love dragons and Dragon Queens, and without, bless them, any hint of Game of Thrones.*
  • They were quick to see how improv principles applied to the rest of their lives. They actively worked on being better listeners and sharing focus with one another, and they talked about trying to continue those practices at home with their friends and siblings.

The Greenhouse focuses on a virtue every year, and this year’s virtue was awareness. You can’t learn improv without becoming more aware of yourself and of others in the process. Their homework assignments this year were designed to cultivate awareness in between classes. Two of my favorites were:

  • Pay attention to when you’re tempted to argue this week, and find a way NOT to argue.
  • Spend some time looking closely at your room; what would a stranger guess about you from what they saw here?

The Greenhouse’s continual emphasis on servant leadership ties into improv well, too. The skills you work on in improv — good listening, being honest about your emotions, building others up, bravery, being generous with yourself and others when things don’t go as planned — are the same skills you need to love your neighbor well.

 

 

I’m offering the class again next year for home school students over the age of 12. Click here to learn more about it and here to register.

 

 

 

 

*I have found myself lost in more than one scene lately, because I am not especially interested in reading/watching Game of Thrones, and that’s what adult students these days are drawing from when they play with fantasy.

Craig Uhler’s Scene Work Elective

I just finished up Craig Uhler‘s scene work elective at iO. I took it because I felt like I was in a rut in my scenes, and I’d been unsuccessful at working my own way out of it. And I especially wanted to take another class with Craig Uhler, who taught the awesome No Humans workshop at The Improv Retreat last year and who has more fun than anyone else in the world.

I love Craig’s teaching because he’s more interested in getting players on stage than he is in lecturing on improv theory (which he calls “some ideas we have about how to pretend”). This is awesome for me, because as much as I love improv theory, I am prone to over-thinking and learn more by jumping in and DOING.

Also, Craig is good at getting to the root of where someone is stuck, and his feedback is both no-nonsense and encouraging. Even when his feedback to someone was, “Quit being a jerk,” he managed to say that in a constructive way that helped the player immediately.

This is unrelated to Craig’s teaching, but one of my favorite things was that this class started out with a pretty even split between men and women. As the class went on, a handful of the men flaked (especially around St. Patrick’s Day, because it’s Chicago), which left a mostly-female class. I LOVED this. I have so rarely been in classes or on teams with mostly women, and I got to see and play a broader range of characters than I see/play in troupes of mostly dudes.

Here are some stray notes from the class:

  • Keep your initiations simple. We should have a pretty good idea of who/what/where by the time the scene has gone on for a minute, but we don’t need it all in the first line.
  • Bring yourself into your characters. How would you play your parent in a scene? How would you play your best friend? Most people, if they’re being themselves, act like a combination of their parent and best friend.
  • In a group scene, if you notice an odd man out, try to bring them in. Putting people down may get you ahead in life, but it hurts your improv.
  • Be at least as smart as you are in real life. Play the nice version of yourself who cares about things. If you choose to play a character who is a jerk or is perpetually confused, it can come across as fear or not supporting your partner. Jerks and stupid people aren’t off limits to play, but they shouldn’t be your default.
  • Specificity reads as confidence. Vagueness can look like panic.
  • Play with your scene partners, not next to them or in spite of them.
  • When you start a scene, assume well-meaning friendship with your scene partner. If something else develops, that’s awesome, but don’t force conflict or a complicated relationship at the top.
  • If you’re tired or half-sick but need to do a show anyway, do not sit down. Inertia will kill you if you sit. You can play calm characters that you like, but they can’t spend lots of time sitting.
  • Protect yourself by having lots of fun. If you’re having fun, you’re rarely going to ruin a show.

If you’re stuck:

  • Say what you want. You will never hurt a scene by saying what your character wants and going after it.
  • Start sentences with “you” or “I” statements. (“You know … ” and “I think … ” don’t count.) That way, we learn about the characters.
  • Mirror your scene partner’s emotions. Care about what they care about.
  • Touch your scene partner. (But don’t be creepy or violent, or nobody will want to play with you.)
  • Repeat something your scene partner said.
  • Change up the stage picture.
  • Say something small talk-y you would say in real life or give a mini-monologue from your life. Just a line or two. A good scene partner will treat that as important.

Again, none of this came out in lectures, but as notes immediately after or during an exercise. Everyone got lots of stage time.

Craig is already planning to offer the class again. Here’s a link to the iO electives page for details. If you want to get out of a scene rut, you should definitely take it!

Why your kids (and you!) should learn improv

I wrote a letter to parents of kids who would enjoy taking my improv class later this winter. Most families just know me as a Latin teacher, and they may or may not know what improv is or how it could benefit their kids.

Here’s what I wrote to them.

Improvisation — creating unscripted theater on the spot — helps students develop their performance and leadership skills. It’s also a laboratory for learning to love their neighbor in the moment, and it’s an enormous amount of fun!

Your student might want to take improv if:
  • They love creative writing once they’ve thought of something to write about, but they wish coming up with new ideas didn’t feel so hard.
  • Their biggest complaint about the annual school play is that their character is in only a portion of it, and they want to be in the whole thing. They would live onstage if they could.
  • They would have auditioned for a bigger part in the play if it weren’t for all that memorizing.
  • They want a chance to perform at an actual improv theater at the end of the semester.
As a parent, you might want your kids to take improv if:
  • You want them to listen well rather than just waiting for their turn to talk.
  • You want them to grow in confidence and learn to take the lead sometimes.
  • You want them to share focus with others rather than always needing the spotlight on themselves.
  • You want them to understand that they can be a leader without being the sole person in charge.
  • You want them to cultivate awareness and generosity in their daily lives and have a lot of fun doing it.

If you or someone you know home schools a kid age 12-18 who might like this class, there is more information here.
If you’re thinking, “Never mind about home school kids ages 12-18 — I am an adult and I want to get good at that stuff, too!” then check out the free class I teach at Westside Improv.

Westside’s Soft Open

Westside Improv had a soft open this weekend, and my team, Circus Police, got to be the first group ever to perform on the new shiny* stage.

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The view from the tech booth: Dignan’s first Westside show! Click the picture to see when they’re scheduled to play again.

In college, my teams played for Extremely Full houses, because we were the only show in town for a student body that mostly doesn’t have cars or money. And it was an absolute blast! The venue, however, was a science lecture hall. It seated around 200, and while it was lovely that we regularly packed it out, I know the people in the back couldn’t see our faces. Subtlety didn’t carry to the back of the house, so we couldn’t play subtly.

Too big.

Since college, my team Circus Police has played in — well, in some odd places. We’ve done plenty of shows for audiences made mostly of our spouses and other groups of improvisers waiting for their turn on stage. We’ve also played for lots of empty chairs. And that’s totally fine; every time we play, we get a little tighter or a little braver. It was time well spent, but it can be disheartening to see 40 chairs and 5 audience members.

Too small.

But playing for a full house was a totally different experience. Westside seats around 60, and this weekend, it was full of the friends and family who had supported the launch of the theater in some way. The room itself isn’t huge, so that the back row and the players can see one another.

My husband said, “I hate to use this word, because it’s vague and I don’t know what it means, but the room had so much energy!” That’s the energy from the venue being small enough that the audience can see, and a big enough audience that the performers feel like all the practice is worth it.

Just right.

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The view from the tech booth of our Goldilocks venue and beautiful audience.

I’m looking forward to many more shows at Westside in the coming months. At the moment, Circus Police is scheduled for Friday evenings. We open to the public this Friday (12/12), and we’d love to see you there!

 

*It is not in the least bit shiny. It shows every footprint. I think this is awesome.

“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:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.54.04 AM

“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.”