Human progress is not an uninterrupted march forward. It is a slow and devious movement with haltings and twistings. The pathway of man ascends and descends, wanders off into mazes. At times the trail seems to lose itself in the wilderness of human passion and folly. But inch by inch it goes forward with halting steps.
- Joseph Alexander Leighton, philosopher
Progress is frustrating.
It is evasive. It is erratic. The harder you push for it the more it seems to resist.
Improv progress is full of ups and downs. We'll go through periods where things are really clicking for us and everything seems easy and then, out of nowhere, we'll find ourselves in a slump. Without changing anything about how we've been performing, we'll suddenly feel stuck. We won't feel inspired. We won't feel funny. We'll leave our shows and rehearsals with a tinge of regret. We won't quite live up to our own expectations. We won't be quite as good as we know we can and should be. We'll think we somehow managed to get worse. Then, just as suddenly as we fell in, we'll find our way out. We'll be back to clicking. We'll be back to being inspired. We'll be back to feeling funny. The slump will feel like a distant memory. We'll be performing better than we ever have before.
Why does this happen? How is it possible to go from feeling like we're moving backwards to making seemingly huge leaps forward? How does progression come from regression?
As it turns out, it doesn't. Even though it might feel like it, we aren't actually regressing at all. The chart below explains.
(Replace all references to drawing with improv)
Notice that the "Skill at making art" line is never actually going backwards. At worst, it's plateauing. It's only when our "skill at evaluating art" shoots past our ability that we feel like we've regressed. But this is simply an illusion of perception. It's not that our performance skills are getting worse, it's that our ability to evaluate performance is improving. Our standards are rising.
These "art lows" can suck, especially when they start taking a toll on our confidence. Since we rely on confidence to perform at a high level, it can be enormously frustrating that even the awareness of slumping can exacerbate the condition. But if we recognize that slumps are an unavoidable phase of the growth process, we might manage to curb some of those negative effects.
Accept the fact that slumps will happen. Embrace the knowledge that they are temporary.
It might seem like everyone else is getting better and you're the only one struggling. You aren't. You might feel like you've peaked and can never get better. You haven't. Everyone's progress chart looks different. People improve at different speeds, at different times, at different gradients. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
Another thing to recognize is that the longer we improvise, the longer these up and down phases can last. The waves of your progress chart tend to stretch over time. At some point you'll find yourself in an extended low-grade slump that Rachel Klein calls "The Vast Plateau of Competency":
You move up through the levels and the people who stay are as poised and quick-witted as you. You get cast on your first team and after a few shows of beginner’s luck fueled by adrenaline and all the friends and family you brought to watch your “comedy debut”, the thrill starts to fade and you’re left with just the work ahead. Your “go to”s start to get boring, predictable, even to you. Some days you kill, others you bomb, and you can’t seem to get a handle on the difference. You try to reach deeper for new material, new points-of-view, a fresh perspective, and sometimes they come, but often you feel tapped. Maybe you’re no good at this after all, you think.
This, my friend, is the Vast Plateau of Competency. You’re not doing badly. And a lot of the time you’re actually pretty good, which is what makes The Plateau all the more frustrating. You can see the people below The Plateau not being able to make the moves you can to set up a scene for basic success, to feel a general sense of comfort on the stage, to know how to “find the game,” to “heighten,” to “hit the button.” But ahead of you is a precipitous rock face, and at the top of it stand the people you admire, waving and smiling and doing what looks like effortlessly brilliant work, and you can’t seem to see how you get there from where you are. Will you just be “pretty good” forever?
Her post is worth a full read as she offers some great practical advice, but generally speaking the only thing you can do is ride it out.
Here's Ira Glass with similar thoughts:
Maintaining progress in improv requires a good amount of patience and resilience and non-judgmental self-awareness. It also requires a significant commitment to avoiding complacency.
An important thing the ability chart mentions is "not getting too cocky during art highs". This is a massively common problem for improvisers. It's an artificial sense of mastery of an inherently unmasterable practice. What's really happened is our ability to perform has progressed beyond our ability to evaluate so we think every move we make is genius.
A lot of performers get to this point and relax, especially if they've managed to accomplish a certain goal like getting on a house cast or performing on a specific show. They think they can finally take their foot off the gas because they've finished what they set out to accomplish. They might stop really pushing themselves in rehearsals and onstage. They might only perform in comfortable rooms with comfortable formats with comfortable people. They might feel like they can coast on all their previous hard work.
This is a trap.
At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham City has experienced a long period of prosperity thanks to the heroics of Batman, who has retired his cape and has spent the last eight years in solitude. But when the mercenary Bane appears and starts creating havoc, Batman is forced to return.
He finds Bane in the sewers.
"Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you." This is what Bane says right before he proceeds to kick Batman's ass. Batman's previous success and the resulting comfortable stretch have developed into complacency. He has grown weak. Old reliable tricks like smoke bombs and cutting the lights don't work. He has never encountered an adversary who he couldn't defeat through these methods. He has never been challenged in this way.
It literally breaks him.
This is what happens when we relax during a high. It eventually ends. The double helix of artistic progress flips once more and we suddenly hit a wall. If we're not prepared, if we forget how to handle slumps, it will break us. We won't be able to adapt to new challenges. We will have forgotten how it feels to be seemingly getting worse. "I've hit my limit," we might think. "This is as good as I'll ever get." At that point we might stop trying altogether. We might fall out of love. We might quit.
Don't let success beget complacency.
The more we ignore the pleasure of the high, the easier it will be to bear the storm of the inevitable low. Keep finding ways to challenge yourself. Surround yourself with people who can push you in new ways. Try a form you've never done before. Perform at festivals in other cities for strange crowds. Take a new class. Learn a new skill. Read a new book. Chase what scares you.
Only two things can prevent us from improving - deciding we can't and believing we don't have to. As long as we're aware of that we'll never stop getting better. We'll learn to love slumps for their impermanence and the challenges they present. We'll learn to stay on course during highs and not coast on momentum.
Embrace slumps. Ignore success. Progress.