Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Growth is a product of intent, education, and application.
We decide we want to do something. We learn how. We do it.
We decide we want to do it better. We learn more effective techniques. We do it again.
As time goes on, all three aspects evolve. Intent gets more specific. Education gets more challenging. Application gets more concentrated.
Rinse and repeat.
We get into improvisation for a lot of different reasons. We want to improve our confidence or think faster on our feet. We want expand our social network or meet likeminded creatives. We want to learn how to make comedy or become better performers. Lots of us satisfactorily accomplish those goals and move on. Lots of us (especially those reading this) get addicted and make improv a permanent part of our lives.
For the addicts, it's common for our goals to change throughout the course of our journey. What got us into improv might not be what keeps us there 5 or 10 or 20 years in. But no matter how far along the path we are, we'll be able to navigate it much more efficiently if we have a consistent and firm understanding of our own motivations.
There are two questions we should ask ourselves whenever we find ourselves needing to make a decision about our improv journey:
What do I want? Why do I want it?
Simple questions with complex answers. Finding them requires a level of introspection we don't often force on ourselves. When life is moving quickly and we have a million things going on, it can be easy to take whatever comes along without putting much thought into why we're taking it. This can be useful up to a point. Aimless exploration has value as a means to sample a range of experiences. In many ways, knowing what we don't want is just as useful as knowing what we want. But eventually we'll want to commit to an objective. Eventually we want to orient ourselves toward a goal and put all our efforts toward achieving it. Happiness lies in momentum - in progress in a desired direction. It's why we'll take side streets if highway traffic is bad even if it doesn't save us any time. We want to feel like we're moving. We hate the feeling of stagnation.
Our individual objectives will vary. People want different things out of improv. Some of us want to be involved in a community of funny and interesting people. Some of us are training to end up creating movies and television. Some of us want to become experts so we can teach others. Some goals are short-term, some are long-term. Short or long, our WHAT is driven by our WHY, and we'll navigate our journey much more effectively if we have a solid grasp of both what they are and how they relate to each other.
It's normal for this process to take time. We might not know our WHAT and WHY if we haven't put the effort into looking for them. But once we do, it's important to commit to them wholeheartedly. It's important to not settle. It's especially important to not let anyone else dictate our goals for us. There will be people along the way who will tell us what we want is impossible, impractical, even detrimental. There will be people who say our desires are wrong and we should want what they want instead. There will always be doubters, especially those with similar goals who don't think they can do it themselves. There will always be critics, especially those who benefit from the status quo. These are the people to ignore.
There will also be plenty of distractions. We've previously explored the benefits and pitfalls of embedding ourselves in theater systems. There's always risk in unconditional loyalty to any institution or ideology whose priority is its own survival rather than our individual needs. We should also be wary of being motivated by climbing the rungs of a social or systemic hierarchy. Status is a natural desire but its joys are impermanent. Just like getting a raise or a new phone, breaking through to a new level can feel exciting when fresh but quickly becomes normalized and stale. Such is the nature of external motivators. Not only do they require the approval of others to achieve, but eventually we reach the top rung and realize there's nothing left to do except stay put. If instead our motivation is personal growth - being better than we were yesterday, or last week, or last year - there is suddenly no ceiling. We can always find ways to improve.
Along the journey it's normal for our goals to fluctuate. Our WHATs may change. Our WHYs may evolve. The path is never linear. Growth is never consistent. It's okay to fail as long as we learn from it. It's okay to change direction as long as we maintain our zeal. Our dreams are just as good as anyone else's as long as they're honest; we're going after this objective because we actually want it, not because we think we should. We may be limited by our location and/or our network. What we want may not yet exist. These are simply speed bumps - obstacles we'll have to figure out how to overcome.
The only thing we have to do is keep moving.
Once we have our WHAT and WHY, it's time to figure out HOW to we get where we want to end up. This is where education comes in.
In improv, the initial steps of the journey are guided. We sign up for a Level 1 class, open an instructional book, or join a group with experienced players who introduce us to the basic concepts and techniques of the craft. During this time, everything is new and exciting. We might struggle with certain elements but for the most part progress is rapid. We make some friends along the way and all grow together in unison.
Suddenly the path ends. We graduate. We finish the book. We become our teachers' peers. What now?
This can be a tough transition. There's comfort in institutional structure. The path is laid out for us; we know the next steps and therefore know what to expect. As a result, some of us choose to extend that structure as long as possible. We retake classes or take new electives. We reread books or track down new ones. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning more; the problem is when it hinders active goal-seeking. Are we leaning on institutionalized education because it’s expanding our knowledge and taking us closer to our goals, or are we doing it because it's comfortable and we’re not sure what else to do? Are we making intentional and focused efforts to improve our abilities or are we checking off random boxes and justifying it as padding our resume?
One of the special things about improvisation is that the best performers aren't those who are experts on all the rules and conventions. The best performers are those who have developed their own unique voices, individual styles, and personal philosophies.
So how do we do this?
The truth is in understanding that our education never ends, but it does evolve. The longer our improv journey extends, the more the responsibility for our growth is removed from teachers and placed onto our own shoulders. Even if we're constantly learning from the best teachers, they have a bunch of other students to pay attention to. Even if we work regularly with the best coach, they have an entire team to worry about. The only person capable of witnessing and examining everything we do is ourselves.
Ultimately we're our own best teacher.
Placing ourselves in role as teacher, we simply treat ourselves like any other student. We study our behavior without judgement to determine strengths and weaknesses. We give ourselves challenges to expand our skill-sets and push our boundaries. Simultaneously we act as student. We embrace feedback without taking it personally. We accept mistakes and failure as part of the process, shake them off, and try again. We let ourselves get pushed out of our comfort zone.
We're patient. We understand that the road is long and winding, and know that rushing will only trip us up or tire us out. We're focused. We understand that we can only work effectively on one thing at a time, and try not to overwhelm ourselves by trying to fix everything at once. We understand how improvement works.
How does improvement work? Here's a Ted Talk with a theory:
In improv, the zones of learning and performance can be both literal and metaphorical; both externally and internally imposed. Literally/externally we have a zone for learning (rehearsal) and zone for performance (the show). Metaphorically/internally we can decide to treat a rehearsal as more performative and a show as more educational. Ideally we want to be able to have a balance. Because the impermanent and unique nature of improv means we never do the exact same thing twice, some elements of rehearsal should have the discipline of performance zones and some elements of a show should allow the option for risk-taking.
But like Eduardo Briceño explains, many of us get trapped in performance zones and eventually find that it stifles our growth. For veteran improvisers this tends to be more literal - more externally imposed. We have so much regular stage time that we don't feel we need to rehearse much or very seriously. For novices this tends to be more metaphorical - more internally imposed. We feel that we are so constantly being judged by our directors, coaches, and peers in rehearsal that we are always on edge. Both can and often do lead to burn-out. The problem is, as he says, living mostly in performance zones creates "environments that are unnecessarily high stakes." We have almost exclusively placed ourselves in a realm of stress and therefore are constantly operating from a place of fear. We are always worried about screwing up and making ourselves look bad in front of others. Over time, unless we manage to find a better balance, these feelings only compound and the stress only gets worse.
It's okay to make mistakes as long as we own them and use them as learning opportunities.
The big takeaway here is that we should constantly be looking for ways to find ourselves in learning zones. The easiest way to do this is literally - have rehearsals with a director or coach. But if we are acting as our own teacher, we can do it metaphorically in two ways. The first is what Briceño calls "deliberate practice - breaking down abilities into component skills." We pick one improv skill and work on it in a bunch of rehearsals and shows in a row. For example if we want to get better at listening, we decide going into rehearsal that no matter what the instructor is having us work on, we're additionally focusing on listening. Similarly, in all our shows we're focusing on listening above all else. As a side effect of isolating a focus it's possible that all our other skills suffer a little bit, but that's fine. We're simply in a learning zone. We're allowed to not be perfect. We'll continue focusing on listening for an extended period of time (I like six weeks, but that's an arbitrary length) until we start seeing noticeable results. Then we'll take a break from that focus and spend some time in performance zones to identify which skill we most need to focus on next. Then we repeat the process.
The second way to create a self-imposed learning zone is simply forcing ourselves to take more risks. There's no better way to figure out the right way to do something than by doing it the wrong way. But in order to do it the wrong way, you first have to do it.
Just as being trapped in performance zones hinders growth, being trapped in learning zones is similarly constraining. It's important to learn new skills and sharpen them with deliberate practice, but we don't truly know how good we are at those skills until we have to apply them under pressure. How do we respond when a show starts going poorly and we don't have a coach to point us in the right direction? What are our go-to moves when we panic? We can't truly understand our abilities without putting them to the test.
There is no better method of assessment than autonomous experience.
To put it bluntly - we have to get onstage in front of an audience and we have to do it a lot.
The tricky thing about improv is that rehearsal is often enough to satisfy the fix. But rehearsals are learning zones (at least they're supposed to be) and thus largely risk-free. If we're the type of improviser who rehearses much more often than we perform, we should do a little self-analysis and figure out why that is. For newer improvisers it might be that performing can be a little scary and we're avoiding doing shows out of fear. For more experienced improvisers it might be that it's hard to get onstage where we are and there just aren't enough performance opportunities. Both are examples of restrictive short-term thinking. Novices who want to get better will eventually have to face their fears and make themselves a little vulnerable. Veterans who want more regular stage time will have to put in the work to create new opportunities. Improv has never been more popular than it is right now. It's happening in bars, basements, cafes, hostels, and practice spaces all over the world. If we want to make more of it, there are plenty of bars, basements, cafes, hostels, and practice spaces still available.
The best improvisers are those who have confidence in their instincts and aggressively trust their own abilities, and that's not something you can build solely in the classroom. Even the best school's curriculum is just the beginning of the journey. A lot more people take improv classes than do improv; becoming a skilled improviser is a challenging and lengthy process. A process of doing.
Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn about the process is patience. It takes a lot of reps. It takes a lot of mistakes. It take a lot of years to get good at this. But the end result - the confidence, the community, the passion, the exhilaration of discovering something that surprises yourself and your scene partner and the audience all at the same time - is all truly worth it. The sooner we can understand what we want out of improv and why we want it, the sooner we understand how learning works, the sooner we become our own personal teacher, the more efficiently we'll navigate the path. The faster we'll accomplish our goals.
Here are some additional things I've learned along the way:
- You're where you are for a reason. Ignore what other people are doing and figure out what there is to learn from your current circumstances. Don't half-ass a project because you never know what it might become. If you think a project is truly bad, don't do it. Respect your own time.
- There are always opportunities if you look hard enough. Sometimes you only find them in your imagination and they're just a little more work to get.
- There is always a way to expand your skill-set. There are other performance-related activities that have applicable improv skills.
- Expand your frame of reference. Read history. Study the universe. Consume culture. Follow the news. Your job is to be able to resonate with any audience as quickly as possible. The larger your frame of reference, the easier it is.
- Surround yourself with people of similar goals. It's a lot easier on your mental health when you're not going it alone.
- The key to staying ahead of the curve is adapting faster than everyone else.
- Not everyone will like you and that's their problem.
- The present is all there is. Stop planning ahead. Stop clinging to the past. Be here now.
- Be honest. Be open. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- The best art is philosophical.
- Take what you like and leave the rest.
- Keep going.