A couple weeks ago I passed the seventh anniversary of my very first improv class.
On Sunday March 25, 2012 I was 22 and nine months out of college determined to make it in an industry I knew absolutely nothing about. I wanted to write for television - a goal I’d had for years - and in hundreds of hours of podcast interviews my comedy heroes all pointed to the same two doors: standup or improv. I had attempted the more familiar route first; I consumed a ton of standup and assumed as a writer I’d be much more comfortable with pre-written material. Several miserable open mics later I closed the standup door and signed up for improv classes.
I sold it to myself as a career choice. I would learn some skills, make some connections, and in a year or two I’d move to New York or LA. I didn’t realize that the universe had other plans.
I had lots of work to do in Boston.
One of the things I’ve come to value the most about improv are the personal growth aspects. Improv lessons are life lessons. But it’s not just that what helps a scene be successful can be beneficial if applied offstage, it’s that improv somehow finds ways to make us confront things about ourselves that we need to acknowledge and work on in order to improve.
There’s a phase I like to call “The Terrible Twos” that happens about 1.5-2.5 years into the improv journey. It’s the first real big wall and it happens right around the time students complete a training program. Graduation is a major fork in the road because it’s the first time the path isn’t prescribed for us. Unless we’re provided the rare opportunity to be cast on a theater’s house team straight out of classes, if we want to continue with improv we suddenly have to become a lot more self-sufficient. This is where a lot us decide to move on. Either we don’t know how to continue independently or we don’t want to, and we decide to drop improv to focus on other interests. Those of us that choose to continue, however, are in for some real hurdles.
The indie scene is a hustle. Getting regular stage time requires a lot of active seeking and a lot more awareness of the available opportunities. Getting better requires committing to regular rehearsal and holding ourselves accountable to the commitment and/or hiring a coach who will. It’s in this potentially long hustle where the Terrible Twos do their damage. By now a lot of the novelty of improv has worn off. We’ve learned all the rules and tools and now it’s just about reps. This is when creative growth can start to slow and we can feel like we’re not progressing as fast as we’d like, or that we’re stagnating, or even getting worse. By now we’ve also likely spent a lot of our time outside of classes and rehearsal consuming a lot of improv. Maybe we’ve explored the full extent of our local scene and the limits of what’s available to us. Maybe we’re disappointed with the options and/or the scene is so crowded we can’t get as much stage time as we’d prefer. Maybe all the work it takes to continue doing improv independently isn’t worth it. Partnered with an unsuccessful audition or two (or six), it’s a perfect recipe for despair.
This is a phase where frustration sets in and we start assigning blame. We blame the system for not making room for us and rewarding the wrong people. We blame veteran performers for hogging all the good opportunities and being cliquey. We blame our teammates for not being as dedicated as we are and holding us back. We blame ourselves for not working as hard as we should and just plain not being good enough.
This is a phase where a lot of people burn out. This is a phase where a lot of people quit.
And that’s okay.
As an optional practice, improv is meant to be a life enhancement. Yes there can be ups and downs but on average it should be a net positive. If we find ourselves in a place where most of our improv-related experiences make us angry or frustrated or stressed or upset, it makes complete sense not to continue. It’s a perfectly healthy choice.
On the other hand, plenty of us are compelled to continue despite long stretches of adversity. Plenty of us have experiences with improv that make us angry or frustrated or stressed or upset and yet we still keep going. Plenty of us keep working even when we aren’t seeing the results we want.
Are we crazy for sticking with it?
I was initially attracted to improv because I thought it was a means to an end. I wasn’t self-aware enough at the time to recognize what I was actually seeking.
The truth is on Sunday March 25, 2012 I entered my very first improv class already playing a character. I wore a mask of coolness and confidence to hide from the world the fact that I was frequently unhappy and afraid. I hated my day job but was too scared to leave because previous failures and a recovering economy had me convinced I wouldn’t be able to get another one. I clung to an already-dead relationship, convinced I had blown it with my soulmate and alternating between trying to force it back to life and dating people I refused to let myself care about. The mask came prescribed with a set of false goals and inauthentic values - things to achieve and obtain and worship that I thought would make me happy. Things that if I could just collect enough of would finally fix me.
I walked into class that day determined to never be vulnerable. Determined to never appear weak. Feeling worthless and lying about it. Feeling afraid and lying about it. Not loving myself and lying about it.
And then improv tricked me.
It tricked me by giving me all the things I thought I wanted - the validation of being funny, the social status of being cast, career advancement opportunities - all the things that were supposed to make me permanently happy. But none of them did. Each time I got something I thought I wanted, the novelty quickly wore off. The high of each achievement was temporary. I always came back down. Improv let me feed the mask to show me how pointless the mask really was.
At the same time, improv tricked me into doing the work I actually needing to be doing to get what I actually wanted. Because what I was actually seeking was self-love. I wanted to trust myself, to believe in myself, and let myself make mistakes without beating myself up. I wanted to feel like I deserved to like my life. It did this by putting me in positions on and off stage that forced me to confront the things about myself I struggled with in order to learn how to overcome or manage them. Specifically that meant frequently confronting fear, judgement, and impatience.
Early in my training my big fear was the unknown. Despite knowing improv was an option, I delayed getting started for years because the idea of not knowing exactly what would happen was too scary for me. Related was fear of failure. In early class levels I did as few scenes as possible because I didn’t want them to be bad. I went even longer avoiding initiating unless I absolutely had to. I stuck around because I made some friends and I enjoyed watching improv, but fear was getting in the way of my growth. Ultimately it was a desire to be better and a recognition that fear was holding me back that led to accelerated improvement. I started noticing when fear was stopping me and intentionally pushing through it. I was afraid of being bad in front of my peers and performers I admired so I went to the jam every week. I was afraid of having nowhere to hide in shows so I started performing in a duo. I was afraid to sing so I did a musical show. I was afraid to have no one to lean on so I did solo stuff. I was afraid of rejection so I auditioned for nearly everything.
Get out of your own way.
So many times in my life I’ve let the potential for failure predetermine it. I’ve decided not to pursue something because I thought I might not get it or decided not to do something because I thought I might not be good at it. I had to learn to let myself try even if failure was an option. What I learned is sometimes I actually got what I wanted and I was almost always never as bad at it as I expected. I also learned that even if failure does happen, the lessons are innumerable. Each failure can and will be painful, but the volume eventually becomes valuable in itself because it puts each individual failure in perspective. Each additional failure stings less than the one before and in time it gets easier to learn from each one and let it go. Try to notice where fear is getting in the way and push right through it. The scarier and more stressful an outlier experience is, the more comfortable and confident we’ll be in our regular ones. By forcing ourselves to step beyond the limits of our comfort zone, we compel our comfort zone to expand.
Judgement was much harder to work on directly because it was entirely internal and for a long time I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Initially it was tied to fear and presented itself as self-judgement - I didn’t think my ideas were very good so I wouldn’t act on them, or I didn’t like the choices I was making so I wouldn’t commit to them. As I gained more experience and my confidence and taste developed, I was applying judgement much more frequently to other people. Offstage I would roll my eyes at moves I thought were bad or in scenes where someone made a “bad move” I would either ignore it or try to force it to fit my “better” idea. I would leave shows frustrated with my teammates for ruining scenes. It was a bad attitude, and it wasn’t until I was placed on a team with someone I absolutely did not vibe with that I was forced to confront it.
I thought this person was not funny at all. I found almost all of their moves to be annoying and unhelpful. I felt that their presence was hurting the team. Eventually there was a show where we did a scene together and they made an initiation that I hated. My response was thinly veiled legitimate frustration. I immediately felt like garbage and tried to change direction to fix my own error but it was already too late. The scene never recovered. That was the moment I realized what I had always justified as good taste was actually just plain old judgement. My teammate didn’t ruin the scene by making a bad choice, I ruined the scene because I had a grudge and refused to figure out how to make it work.
That moment forced me to recognize that I had a tendency to assign value to choices before they even played out. Just like with fear, in deciding that certain things wouldn’t work before I even tried, I never gave them a chance to succeed in the first place. Judging any choices – my teammates’ or my own - was all ego. It was thinking I deserved better than what I actually had. Improv put me in a position to confront this aspect of myself and actively work on it in order to become a better performer. I started working on my judgement by first just trying to notice it – noticing when judging my own ideas prevented me from making them and noticing when judging my teammates’ choices prevented me from trusting them. I started going out of my way to do scenes with people I had a hard time doing scenes with, a practice I still do whenever I find myself regularly struggling to vibe with someone onstage. Learning how to play with different performers’ approaches to scenes is constantly making me a more rounded performer. As a more experienced player this is also why I like jams. Rookies often make unexpected and sometimes difficult-to-handle choices that force me to be flexible and work my justification muscles. Where I previously would have been annoyed because of judgement I now value the challenge.
We’re all just figuring things out.
Very rarely is someone intentionally trying to hurt our chances of success, especially if that person is our teammate. Notice when judgment is pre-determining failure and override it. Appreciate the lessons that come from challenges. Stop being so precious about everything. There can always be another scene. There can always be another show.
Of my three personal obstacles, impatience was hardest to overcome because there was literally nothing I could do about it. Fear I could attack. Judgement I could override. Impatience I could only acknowledge and then do my best to ignore.
By definition, impatience and improv are incompatible. Improv is about savoring the present. Impatience is the desire to be done with it. Over the course of my improv career I’ve almost always been looking ahead. I wanted to take the next class. I wanted to get better. I wanted to get cast. I wanted to move up the hierarchy. I wanted to perform with people who were better than me. Eventually I got them all, and almost immediately after I got them they stopped being what I wanted. I created new things to want. I invented other goals to chase. As I write this I’m still chasing something I’ve been chasing for two years. There have been stretches I’ve been certain I was close only to find out I’ve been much further than I thought. Failures have been both in and out of my control. Progress has been frustratingly irregular. The chase continues. I know I’ll eventually get it, but even then there will only be more to accomplish.
There’s a scene from the first season of Westworld that really sticks with me when thinking of things like this. I’ve previously used it in relation to building immersive characters, but I think it’s relevant here too:
Initially I found the message of the story depressing - the moment of achievement is gruesome and its joys are impermanent. But whenever I go back to it I always I find myself focusing more on the middle part of the story: “I never saw a thing as beautiful as that old dog running.” In that I found another message.
The chase is the whole thing.
Want is the whole thing. Desire is the whole thing. To have more. Do more. Be better.
Novelty. Uncertainty. Growth.
It doesn’t matter what it is we’re trying to get; there will always be the act of getting. It doesn’t matter where we’re trying to go; there will always be the act of going. It doesn’t matter what we want; there will always be the act of wanting. Every single time I’ve achieved the thing I set out to achieve it only created more things to achieve. Taking the next class only meant more skills to hone. Getting better only meant feeling like I still wasn’t as good as I could be. Getting cast only meant keeping my spot. Moving up the hierarchy only meant looking for new levels to ascend. Performing with people who were better than me only meant looking for more people to compare myself to.
I recognize now that I’ll probably never be satisfied. It took me a long time to realize that no one moment or accomplishment will ever be “the thing” that fixes me or makes me permanently happy. I’ll always have my strengths that I can continue to sharpen. I’ll always have my weaknesses that I can continue to manage. I’ll always be unique in some ways and conventional in others. I’ll never be perfect. What I can do is surround myself with people whose strengths compensate for my weaknesses. What I can do is combine my uniqueness with others to create something special.
This thing we do can be so hard.
It can be ridiculous. It can be confusing.
It can be meaningless. It can be boring.
It can be alienating. It can be painful.
But despite the hurdles and the lows and the harsh realities, I love it.
Because at the same time it can be so good.
It can be delightful. It can be simple.
It can be thoughtful. It can be exciting.
It can be welcoming. It can be joyful.
I love it because it’s become more than a hobby. I love it because it’s become more than a career. I love it because it’s become a teacher. It’s become an accelerated education in myself. Everything improv has made me face is something I needed to learn from. Every experience, good and bad, has revealed something about who and where I am. It’s not a special craft in this regard - in an alternate universe I’m learning these same lessons from scuba diving or competitive cup stacking - but for whatever reason, on Sunday March 25, 2012 it was the one I found.
The latest lesson is that I’ll never actually get where I’m going; I’ll only ever be where I’m at.
And that’s okay, because that’s presence.