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: