"By improvising you reshape the brain, and when you reshape the brain your consciousness changes, and it changes the way you see the world. And so the way you see the world and the way you interact with everything changes because of the act of doing improvisation. That's why people are addicted to it." - Anthony Atamanuik
Improv is addicting. People fall in love. Hard. For life.
It's addicting for the same reason video games and sports are addicting - the practice of honing the skill over time mirrors the human experience without any of the real serious consequences. Just as in life, progress is inconsistent and variable and frustrating. There are highs and lows of triumph and disappointment. Some concepts are easy to grasp. Others seem completely incomprehensible. There are days where we coast through with ease and then the next will seem impossible to get through. At times it feels pointless. At others it feels like the only thing that matters. But unlike life we can take risks more easily in improv and video games and sports because any potential failure is impermanent. There can always be another scene, another game, another season. We can always try again.
It's addicting because the risks we take are rewarded. It constantly finds ways to surprise us when we thought we had seen it all. It's impossible to perfect, which means we can always find ways to get better. It challenges us and forces us to grow. It teaches us to be decisive, to be active, to listen, to collaborate. It teaches us to be honest, to be fearless, to commit to our choices without judging them or the choices of others. It teaches us empathy. It teaches us trust. These onstage lessons start to seep into our offstage lives and we come to find they work just as well there. "It changes the way you see the world."
Most importantly, it's addicting because it forces us to be fully present. It places us in intensely focused moments where we feel completely connected to ourselves and our scene partners and the audience, and we are so in sync with the energy of the space that we know whatever we do is the right thing to do and whatever happens was supposed to happen. It makes us understand that we're all here together, that none of us have any idea where we're going, that we're fine with that, and we're enjoying the hell out of the ride.
With addiction comes an insatiable hunger for more, and with improv that means wanting to get better as fast as possible. So how do we feed that hunger? How do we get better, faster?
Here's the short answer:
The #1 way to get better is massive amounts of stage time.
Not classes. Not workshops. Not practice groups. The best way to get better is by getting up on stage in front of an audience of 1 to 100 people and improvising without the safety net of a coach or teacher or director to nudge us in the right direction if we panic. Classes, workshops, and practice groups are great ways to train skills and raise our baseline of competence, but nothing accelerates ability more than putting ourselves in front people who expect to be entertained and trying to entertain them.
Do it a lot. Do a lot of indie shows. Do a lot of jams. Do it before you think you're ready. Do it when you're afraid to do it, especially when you're afraid to do it. Put yourself in a position to fail and keep failing until failure stops being a bad thing. The goal is to get to a point where a bad set doesn't touch your confidence, it just makes you frustrated that you didn't quite execute. So instead of "I had a bad show and I suck at this." it's "I had a bad show and I can't believe I have to wait two weeks to try again." And the only way to get to that point is to fail so much you become numb to it.
Do it over and over and over.
And don't just do it with a team or a form you're comfortable with. Try a duo, or a musical, or a monoscene, or a solo character. Find ways to put yourself in uncomfortable positions and then follow through. You don't have to do it forever, you don't even have to like it, but getting in the habit of taking risks and challenging yourself will pay off in courage and confidence. Along the way you'll learn some new skills and tricks and develop your own ideas of what works and what doesn't. You'll develop your own personal style and voice. You'll get better, faster.
Now for the long answer. Although first let's clarify the question.
How do we get better, faster?
Well what does it mean to be better? In video games and sports, quality is quantified. We get more wins or more points or a faster time or higher stats. But there aren't any improv stats*. So what is it we're actually looking to improve upon? What is the actual goal we're shooting for? Is to be funnier? Think faster? A better listener? More supportive? A more convincing actor?
Yes. All the above and so much more. There are a million little improv skills that need to be nurtured and exercised that it seems impossible to keep track of them all. And it is. Because the ultimate goal isn't to keep track of all the skills we have and pull them out under the appropriate circumstances.
The ultimate goal is to be able to access a state of mind where we act honestly without thinking.
It's saying something funny not because we were trying to be but because it was what we wanted to say. It's mirroring our scene partner not because it was a good improv move, but because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It's reacting with a strong emotion not because we were intentionally adding emotional depth to the scene, but because we actually felt strongly about something and couldn't help but express it.
Here's Anthony Atamanuik again, this time in audio form:
"Spacial reference, mental reference, emotional reference - all those things happening at the same time." This is the state of mind we're shooting for. It's being able to access multiple levels of awareness simultaneously and immediately. To get to a point in the practice of improvisation where we completely stop thinking. To get to a point where we act entirely on impulse.
This state of mind is not unique to improv, but it's very hard to access intentionally and consistently. Here's Bruce Lee talking about the same thing in martial arts:
The method is different but the goal is the same - "honestly expressing yourself". So how do we get there, or at least headed in that direction?
If honest expression is the end goal, it makes sense that the way to get there is by practicing being honest with ourselves; more importantly, practicing being honest with ourselves while being completely free of judgement.
This is not something we are ever taught to do. From the day we are born we are bombarded with societal and cultural ideas about who we are, the type of person we should be, how we should behave, and how we should think about ourselves. As a result we develop masks we wear to fulfill the expectations of various societal roles. We conform to traditional behavior because unorthodoxy is often shunned or punished. These expectations become so ingrained in us that we force them upon ourselves and stop being honest about who we really are. We do things not because we want to do them but because we feel like we should. We judge ourselves for our perceived faults and hide from them, overcompensating with fabricated personas in the hopes that no one will notice who we really are. We hide from ourselves because we fear being judged. We judge ourselves so others won't.
But improv has an amazing ability to force us to confront the things we judge about ourselves whether we want to or not. Whatever we've been hiding from, even if we aren't consciously aware of it, it will eventually find and bring to the surface for us to face. If we want to get better, we will have to acknowledge it, embrace it, and work through it. And it will do this over and over again with everything we've been hiding from until we reach the ultimate goal.
For me, as it is for a lot of people, the first thing I had to face was my lack of confidence. This was something I was well aware of going in. I could fake confidence pretty well, but it was a lie, and I knew it. On the inside I was a terrified ball of anxiety, constantly worried about doing or saying the wrong thing. I would freeze up on stage because I was so worried about making a wrong move. I wouldn't go out in scenes because I was afraid to screw up. But I knew if I wanted to be good I'd have to overcome those fears. So I kept forcing myself to do everything I was scared to do. I would leave scenes feeling embarrassed for making what I felt were stupid choices, but I kept going out and making them, and eventually I stopped judging them. And the odd thing was that when I stopped thinking they were bad choices, they stopped being bad choices. The same weird choices that didn't work before were suddenly working. Confidence was everything, and improv had forced me to find it. But in order to do that I had to first stop hating myself for not having it.
That took 2 years.
Then there was listening. This was the first time I was forced to face a weakness I didn't already know about. It turns out my newfound confidence had turned me into a blabbermouth steamrolling monster. I would go into every scene force-feeding my ideas instead of building them with other people. I would try to "win" the scene. I would try to make a joke where it was more important to respond earnestly. The first few times I got the note "you aren't listening" it didn't stick. "Work on your confidence" - that had made sense to me. I knew that was a weakness. But listening? I thought I listened great. But the longer I ignored the note the slower my progress got. Eventually I couldn't ignore it anymore. I had to admit I was a bad listener, even if I didn't quite know what that meant. So I decided to work on it without knowing exactly what I was doing. I came to find that for me listening meant a lot more eye contact, reading body language, and looking for the meaning behind the words. It meant understanding and responding to the deeper message my scene partner was trying to send instead of responding only to what they were saying. For me, listening meant being able to recognize when my ideas were hurting more than they were helping, and being able to drop them when my scene partner needed other things from me.
That took another year.
What I'm currently confronting is emotion, and it hasn't been easy. I've always had a hard time accessing, understanding, and sharing my emotions, and I am not at all unique in this sense. A lot of it is societal. Men are trained through entertainment and socialization from a young age to hide their emotions - that appearing tough and unflappable is more important than how you feel. I'm sure there are a ton of little moments that added up to get me there, but the big one I remember was when in 7th grade when I cried in math class when I realized I had done the wrong homework assignment. My math teacher pulled me out of my next class to talk to me about it privately, and while I don't remember specifically what he said, I do remember the message - expressing my emotions makes other people uncomfortable. I took the note. At first if I felt anything welling up inside I would isolate myself so others couldn't see. Later I learned that if I started to feel something I could push it back down and ignore it. Eventually I rarely felt anything at all. I had made myself an expert in suppression. I didn't completely stop having emotional moments, but they were unusual, deeply private, and I was enormously embarrassed by them.
"Emote" was the improv note I fought the hardest for the longest amount of time. I had been able to deflect emotional moments with jokes for years, didn't it make sense to keep doing it if I was making comedy? But coaches kept saying it was my biggest weakness. They kept trying to get me to confront it and I kept refusing or faking it. I'm not sure what the tipping point was, maybe I just had some sense of slowing progress and realized I couldn't hide from it anymore. If I wanted to get better, I needed to confront it and work through it whether I wanted to or not.
If you've seen me perform at all in the last year, I've been actively using that time to slowly undo my avoidance tendencies so I can emote more honestly on stage. Some attempts are more successful than others. In fact most attempts are unsuccessful because it still, mostly, feels inauthentic. I still intellectualize too much. I still often think "is it useful to feel this way?" before expressing myself. But since deciding to get better at it I've been doing this less and less, opting instead to embrace whatever pops up and follow it. I'm still not a very emotional player, but I'm working my way toward it. As a result my characters have felt much more like real people and less like cartoons. I've started following the emotional path in scenes instead of trying to think of the funniest thing to do or say. It's still a struggle. Progress ebbs and flows. But I recognize that I'm attempting to reform a habit built up over many years, so it's going to take a long time to get there.
Positive change requires honesty, commitment, and patience.
It's important to note that everyone's path is different. Not everyone has the same strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone jumps the same artistic hurdles in the same order or the same timeframe. Maybe your current hurdle is taking charge. Maybe it's letting go of control. Maybe it's fully committing to scenes. Maybe it's simply finding enough stage time. As much as improv is a team activity, the journey is ultimately an individual one. What takes you one year might take me five. As difficult as it is, try not to compare your path to anyone else's. It may be hard to look up and see that our peers are getting more or "better" opportunities, but all that means is their path took them that way and ours didn't. Ultimately we're all working toward the same goal, and with enough time and effort and as little judgment as possible, we'll get there. Embrace your personal journey and you'll get better, faster.
Because improv is such a mental art form, one of the best ways to improve our skills is by expanding our frame of reference. There are infinite scenarios in which we can find ourselves onstage, and the more these scenarios resonate with us, the easier it will be to respond to them honestly.
The best way to do this is by pursuing activities that would normally be outside of our comfort zones. What is a white water rafting trip really like? What actually happens at a reality tv show audition? What is the actual layout of a sailboat? These are all things we are perfectly capable of finding out first-hand. Seek out unusual adventures, or at the very least say yes to opportunities you'd normally turn down. Even if you have a terrible time on your white water rafting trip, at least you know what that feels like. If it ever comes up in a scene, you'll have a better frame of reference for the process, terminology, and general horrible feeling of being wet and cold while trying not to crash into rocks. Supplement real life adventures with media that portray things we can't experience ourselves like life in medieval monarchies or deep space exploration. Feed your brain as much information as it can handle - it's surprising how often a seemingly obscure reference will suddenly become relevant in a scene.
Just as important as a wide experiential reference is a wide cultural reference. Keep an eye on what shows people are watching, what events are happening in the news, what new app is popular. I have a general rule that if three people independently recommend something to me I'll give it a shot. That's what got me watching Stranger Things and why I'm still playing Pokemon Go. Improv as an art form is unique in its ability to respond to culture immediately as it happens. I've seen shows that referenced news events that happened just hours before. Stay in touch with what's going on around you to keep your frame of reference up to date.
Expand your character reference by talking to people, or more importantly, by listening to people. Go on blind dates. See if your Lyft driver will tell you a story. Eavesdrop on the group at the next table over. Indulge the chatty old woman at the laundromat longer than you normally would. What has she been dealing with recently? How does she see the world? The more people we interact with and the more world views we encounter, the easier it will be for us to play characters with points of view that differ from ours. What is important to real people? What are they passionate about? What worries them? How do they spend their time? Take real details from real people and infuse them into your characters to make them seem more real, more grounded. Get to know a wide variety of people and you'll be able to play a wide variety of characters.
Finally, expand your performance reference. See other theater. See live music. Traditional theater often uses space and sound in interesting ways. What elements might we be able to borrow to make our improv more theatrical or unique? What scene editing tools did this play use that we might want to bring back to our indie team? How does the lead singer of our favorite band interact with the crowd to create the energy they want? How did that burlesque dancer use timing and suspense to make their act more compelling?
Try new things.
Yes, the easiest way to get better at improv is by doing it a lot, but we don't have to limit learning to the stage. By practicing being honest with ourselves, by pushing our own limits, and by expanding our frame of reference we can get better, faster.
*yet. There weren't grades a few years ago.