Tag Archives: Bill Arnett

“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:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.32.17 AM

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.”

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.