Tag Archives: practice

Plateau: a criminal oversimplification

This summer, I’ve been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.

This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:

You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.

A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.

B is the middle several practices. Let’s call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It’s following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren’t bombing; we just weren’t getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.

C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don’t know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.

D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I’ve played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables — a different space, an audience, logistics — that can throw you. I thought they wouldn’t throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we’d anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.

We have another show in a few weeks, so I’m excited to see what E looks like.

This post was inspired by Bill Arnett’s classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I’ve found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett might say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it’s hard to notice while you’re on it.

That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.

– Bill Arnett

*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to “two-man show,” even though I’m half the troupe and also a girl. 

**No it is not. 

How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun.

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.

I’ve created a handy quiz, like in a magazine, to help you figure out if you are the jerk.

Click the picture to see full size.

If improv isn’t fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You’re judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd.

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you’re making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody’s having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up — physically and emotionally — and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it’s easy if you’re having fun?

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about you being a jerk. It really is everybody else’s fault.

It does. not. matter. Have fun.

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you’re having fun, your shortcomings won’t matter as much, and you’ll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you’re not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if your coach is asking you to exercise muscles you didn’t even know you had, have fun. Be sore later, but have fun now.

Even if you think your director is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own maniacal ego, have fun. And maybe consider firing him later, but don’t think about that during practice.

I know that middle column of the chart well because I’ve spent some time in all those white boxes leading to JERK. I know that 90% of that was my own fault. The other 10% was the fault of my coaches for not calling me out.

As for that lower left hand quadrant, I’ve written here about playing with depression and here about finding a troupe with a common goal. Do whatever it takes to have fun anyway until it’s time to walk away.

And there is a time to walk away. The good folks over at People and Chairs have an excellent post called On Coaches, Chemistry, and Finding Your Dream Team that talks about this. I recommend reading the full post, but the ending especially is gold (emphasis mine):

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Yes, there is time to walk away. Figure that out with your coaches, your teammates, and your journal outside of practice. During practice, have fun anyway.

Depression and the discipline of just showing up

I have said before that improv is not therapy*, but it can be therapeutic.

I got hit hard by depression and anxiety about a year into practicing improv. My playing wasn’t stellar during that time, because I was so full of self-judgment that it was hard to have fun. I thought about quitting.

My counselor suggested I show up and pretend to have fun, just for a few minutes at a time. Did it fix everything? No, but it got me through practice that night.

As I healed up, pretending to have fun turned into really having fun. I’m not sure which came first, really.

Doing this in improv helped me to do it at church. While I was depressed, it was pretty hard for me to connect with other people, much less with God. I couldn’t focus to read the Bible. But I could show up at church, and I could be present while other people read Scripture, and sometimes I could join in the prayers or the Creed with my mouth if not with my heart. I don’t remember exactly when pretending to say the Lord’s Prayer turned into praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Just showing up at improv practice overflowed into just showing up at church. I couldn’t muster the emotional energy to sincerely pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I could still recite it. Somewhere along the way, pretending to pray in church turned into praying in church.

Even if you’re dealing with something emotionally crippling, the discipline of showing up is hugely helpful.

For me, it was also helpful to practice focusing on other people, just for a few minutes, just for this scene. And then just for another few minutes, just for one more scene. My scenes were probably not awesome. That’s ok.

My troupe and my church both had grace for me, which encouraged me to have some for myself.**

*OH MY GOSH IMPROV IS NOT THERAPY. 

**If you’re depressed and are in a church or friend group that is less gracious than mine was, I highly recommend the book Darkness Is My Only Companion, as well as the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Always Have To Experience Joy.”