Tag Archives: Jimmy Carrane

“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.”

Who and Who and Who and Who

There’s an exercise I’ll call “Heat and Weight. I am stealing it from T.J. Jagadowski:

Stand facing a partner, and think of an impossibly specific relationship and situation. Not, “We’re sisters,” but, “We’re sisters, and I’m 15 and you’re 18, and I need your advice because I might be in trouble, but I’m also afraid you’re going to tell mom and dad and get me in MORE trouble.” Then, for about one minute, stare at your partner and try to communicate this information with your eyes. Don’t talk or pantomime. Just stare. Then ask your partner if she got it.

Your partner probably won’t get it verbatim. But she might get, “We’re coworkers, and you’ve messed something up on a report, and you need me to cover for you, but you’re also afraid I might rat her out to our boss.” But can you see how that’s basically the same relationship (heat) and the same stakes (weight)?

Switch partners and try again. Then try it where both of you are giving and receiving at the same time. Then try it again, but go straight into a scene after the minute of silence. Shrink that minute to thirty seconds, and do it again. Shrink that thirty seconds to fifteen, and do it again. Shrink that moment of silence, but don’t skip it.

Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s barely even an exercise. It’s just how you start scenes. The what and where and why will come if it needs to, but eye contact will help you establish who you are to each other without all of that expository nonsense in the first few lines.

If you’ve seen T.J. and Dave, a moment of quiet eye contact is how they begin their shows. In Jimmy Carrane’s interview with T.J., T.J. says:

You can’t really talk yourself to clarity, you usually have to quiet yourself to clarity. When you try to talk yourself to the next thing you know about each other, it sounds like you’re searching for that thing.

They talk about who, what, where … Give me who, give me a little more who, start to solidify your who some more, give me some more who on this. Maybe we’ll find out where where is, I don’t know what a what is. I still don’t know what the what is, so. Now you’re there. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

[The who] is how those two people are in that moment, in that time with each other. … Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.”

Listen to that episode of Improv Nerd here. The whole hour is interesting, but the last 10 minutes or so are gold.

We’re improvisers, not journalists. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

Students scaring teachers

Last night, I played again with my friend Brendon at Open Source Improv. It was our second show. We were all warmed up, the logistics were taken care of, I was feeling relaxed and ready …

Until 3 of my students walked in the door.

Then I got anxious.  

Every week or two, Jimmy Carrane posts a talk show podcast called Improv Nerd, which I highly recommend. His guests are talented improvisers who have some connection to Chicago’s improv scene. In the dozen or so episodes I’ve listened to I’ve noticed a trend:

It doesn’t matter how many Second City Mainstage shows they’ve done, how many i.O. classes they’ve taught, even how many seasons they performed on Saturday Night Live. They say that they’re afraid of being found out as frauds.

This seems especially true of improv teachers. When I took classes at i.O, a few of my teachers would encourage students to come to their shows, then quickly admit that having students in the audience freaked them out. If they just taught a 3-hour class on environment, then their show better have a rich environment. If it doesn’t, their students might call them on it. Or worse, their students might lose respect for them.

I think that’s where my anxiety was coming from last night. It helped that I’d heard so many players I admire come on Improv Nerd and name that feeling. Naming the fear drained some of its power. That gave me enough distance harness that fear as energy instead of letting anxiety win the day.

I felt better about this show than about the last show, partly because the students were there to scare me.* I think I play better when I’m scared but don’t let the fear win.

*I do not think they were there for the purpose of scaring me. That was just a side effect.