Tag Archives: Whether the Weather

“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?”

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.32.17 AM

(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.)

If your whole life is improv, I probably won’t like your improv.

I’ve been taking some classes at Theatre Momentum lately. Our very first class, the teacher opened up with an icebreaker question: What’s something you’ve read or watched lately that had nothing to do with comedy or performance?

Someone had read Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. Someone else was listening to Bossypants by Tina Fey on audiobook. Someone had been watching old Saturday Night Live.

The teacher tried to bring it back to his original question. There was a weird pause, and somebody asked if everyone in the room had read Truth in Comedy.

The teacher said something like:

“Listen, guys. Improv takes time. You take classes one or two places, you play in jams, you see at least three or four shows a week. And it’s true that you get better at improv by doing and seeing a lot of it. But it’s also easy to get ingrown. Pretty soon, you don’t have anything to do improv about, because all you have to draw on is improv you’ve seen.

He encouraged us to go to a museum, read a novel, watch a documentary. And he’s totally right.

If your whole life is improv, your improv will suck.

I think this is one advantage college improv troupes have, at least where I went to school. Yes, they use their analytical brains all day, and they need to learn not to overthink their playing. But even when they’re not thinking too hard, all the information they’ve learned in classes that week is in there.

One of my favorite improv teams to watch in college was Imaginary Friends. They were majoring in things like political science, philosophy, theology, psychology, and media. Even though they were good actors, there wasn’t a theater major in the bunch. The diversity of their interests gave them a huge wealth of material to draw on besides their own feelings and things they’d seen in other shows.

I don’t want to be in a team with people who are all obsessed with improv to the exclusion of all other things in life. That leads to burn out. I want to play with people who care about things.

For me, taking a break from improv for awhile helped me get some perspective. When I dove back in, even though I was rusty, I had more life experience (as well as more information in my brain) to draw from.

Here are two perspectives on burn out, taking a break, and pushing through:

On the hook

I’ve said before that Jet Eveleth is one of my favorite teachers. Here she is, talking about nerves and fear:

There are at least 19 wonderful things in this video, but I want to highlight this comment:

“I purposely do things that scare me all the time to learn how to manage my adrenaline so that I can be more authentic onstage. … Especially because I teach, I think it’s really important for me to constantly be scared so I’m empathetic with my students.”

Sometimes, after a Jet workshop, I’d ask, “I’d never done that exercise before; what is it from? Where can I learn more things like this? How can I get better at this?”

Jet’s answer was usually along the lines of, “I learned it from clowning. Paola Colletto is the best clowning teacher around. Take classes from her if you can.”

So I Googled Paola Colletto and found out that her classes were way out of my budget, in terms of both time and money. And I felt a little relieved. Well, that scary thing isn’t an option for me. I’m off the hook.

Until last week, when I heard through the Facebook grapevine that Paola was offering a class called “Physical Theater for Improvisers.” It’s in my schedule and my budget. That puts me back on the hook. I’ve talked with Paola, sent my registration check, put it on my calendar.

I’m purposely doing a thing that scares me. And now it’s time to panic.*

*My friend Steve asked when the class was, and I told him it doesn’t start for another 3 weeks. “So now is not actually time to panic. You cannot possibly panic for 3 weeks straight.” Watch me.

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.