How will your improvisation career end?
Will you get hired on SNL? Will you break through in Hollywood? Will you just give up? Or will something else demand your attention?
Fifteen years after my first improv class, I’m seeing my peers splinter in a million directions. If you’ve just begun your journey, I welcome you into this absurd fraternity. Here’s what life is about to become…
PHASE ONE: THE ROOKIE
You just signed up for improv classes. You’re giddy with excitement. You believe this is your first step to stardom. This is when improv is probably the most fun because you don’t yet know that you totally suck.
Was that harsh?
You totally suck when you start. We all do. (John Lutz says we all suck at improv for at least five years.) But that’s okay. And it’s fine for you because you don’t know that you suck yet. You’re just having fun. And you’ll spend the rest of your improv career trying to get back to this carefree place. Enjoy it!
Of my very first improv class back in 2000, I’m aware of only one other classmate still (tangentially) active in the scene. There were about 30 students in that group. All but four dropped out before the second level of classes.
I can’t say why people drop out this early in their training. I suspect many are impatient. There is a long, long line of performers more experienced than you who have the slots on stages and in touring companies. Despite your Level One brilliance, Lorne Michaels doesn’t know you exist.
But if you love improv this early, you’re probably hooked. Buckle up for a hell of a ride.
PHASE TWO: SUPER STUDENT
This is a crucial part of your growth. As you take more classes, you will develop traits that will probably remain part of your game forever. It’s an odd dilemma – You will be praised for some things that will eventually become your crutches. Being criticized for something else may make you abandon it entirely.
But as a student, this is your time to fail.
Fail big. Fail hard. Fail often. Learn to love it.
Unless your teacher is a world-class dick, s/he will encourage you to take chances here. How else will you learn what kind of performer you want to become? The class should be a safe environment. There are no paying audiences here – just your friends. Learn to let down your guard and be silly. No one likes the cool guy trying to protect his rep by refusing to play a princess or a kitten. Also respect your classmates. Don’t aggressively rape them because you’re so deep in character you forget personal boundaries.
See as many improv shows as you can. Take notes in every class. Write down things you enjoy and take note when something feels wrong. Ask questions.
It’s during the Super Student phase that doubt begins to creep in. You’ll have some scenes that don’t work. You feel like you’ll never match up to the people on stage. You’ll begin to question yourself. This is all normal. Continue to push through.
By the time you graduate a training program, you will be madly in love with some of your classmates. You will want to throw others under a bus. You will remember most of these people the rest of your life. And at this threshold, most of them will fall away.
To get to the next stage, you must risk rejection. Rejection kills the timid. Only the brave may proceed.
PHASE THREE: BEGINNING PERFORMER
Getting to perform at a theater is usually difficult. Auditions suck. Sometimes a theater will pluck you from a training program and assemble you with other classmates to form a team. Maybe you’ve created your own team.
Stage time is precious and theaters don’t want to give it up unless you can bring in a paying crowd. This is where art runs into the buzzsaw of commerce.
I found this phase of my career to be the most terrifying. By being added to a team, I felt I had been declared somehow “equal” to all the performers on more veteran teams. I knew I wasn’t equal at this point, so I felt a constant need to prove myself. What a total mind-F.
At this phase in your career, you’ve lost the bliss of ignorance. You know when you suck. You hear the crickets in the crowd. You watch a veteran team go on after you and destroy the same audience that sat silent through your show. Doubt begins to creep into your play. At many theaters, an “every man for himself” mentality takes hold.
When you hit this stage of your development, remember to breathe. Talk to your coach or other veteran performers about your struggles. Most are happy to help. You have to be brave and continue refining your skills. Unlike your time in class, the onus is now on you to identify those weak spots and find ways to strengthen them.
This phase feels like puberty. You’re no longer a kid and you’re trying to act like an adult, but it doesn’t come naturally.
If you can fight through the doubt and a lot of terrible, terrible shows, there is light at the end of this tunnel.
PHASE FOUR: VETERAN
Ever see one of those war movies where the rookie huddles behind a wall while the grizzled vet struts around the battlefield with bombs exploding everywhere? If you’ve made it this far, that’s you!
You’ve become a veteran when you’ve had so many bad shows, you no longer fear failure. You’re willing to sit in an uncomfortable scene just to experience it. You perform with confidence.
No one is entirely bulletproof at this stage, but you will feel like it at times. Elite athletes talk about seeing the game “slow down.” And when an improv show is clicking for a veteran, they see moves and callbacks faster than the audience can. They make interesting connections. They’re not afraid to derail a show because a fascinating new idea sprang forth.
I remember telling Rebecca Sohn that I struggled with being in scenes where things started going arbitrarily haywire all of a sudden. She told me the way to cope with sudden chaos is to tell yourself, “That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen right now.” When you’re so confident on stage that you remain cool even when totally confused, you’ve reached this most excellent level.
Reflexes take over when you’re a veteran. You stop thinking and start doing. It’s a great feeling.
This can also become a point in our careers where we begin coasting. The most dangerous performer of this type is the GLGWS – Goofy-Looking Guy Who Screams. He’s characterized by having crazy hair (facial or otherwise) and/or being extremely over/underweight. He got to this point in his career by relying on being goofy-looking and screaming. He reliably gets laughs by doing this. He’s afraid not to get laughs so he does it all the time. When you see the GLGWS, watch the faces of his fellow performers – they often seem incredibly fatigued with him.
Being a veteran doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything. It just means you’re comfortable. Your ability to transcend this level is dependent on your willingness to allow yourself to be uncomfortable again, to try new things and to leave some successful impulses aside, knowing you can return to them later if necessary.
PHASE FIVE: THE NEXT ADVENTURE
At some point, every performer must decide where to go once they’ve conquered the mountain in their particular city. If you’re in a smaller city, you may pack your bags for Chicago, L.A. or New York.
Most Chicago vets also bolt for a coast, trying to turn their improv skills into a paying career.
Others decide to stay in their cities and teach, becoming an integral part of the next generation.
Some get married and have kids, leaving improv behind to become real grown-ups.
Some transition to writing or other careers where improv is an asset, but not the product.
This stage is where I find myself, and it’s pretty heartbreaking. Friends I’ve known for years are leaving my city in search of fame and fortune. I wish them the best, but I miss them all the time. In our time on stage, we became family. But the end comes suddenly and the road beckons.
At Phase Five, you look around and everyone in your city seems younger than you. They have the energy to go to class and spend the whole night watching shows and drinking. I just want to do my show and go home to my girlfriend. The difference is, improvisation used to be my girlfriend.
Even if you choose to soldier on, teaming up with other remaining veterans or younger players, it won’t quite feel the same. By this point in your life, you’ve put improv in perspective. It’s a wonderful activity, but it’s on par with hitting a great restaurant or catching a ballgame with friends.
With that in mind, I offer the following advice to anyone starting out…
1. Enjoy the ride. However long this lasts, it will be a unique, indelible experience. I can remember scenes I did 15 years ago. I can remember specific things I said or did that made my castmates break on stage. I remember seeing scenes a decade ago that still make me laugh. This art form attracts some of the most wonderful weirdos on earth. Count yourself blessed, even when you’re struggling.
2. Don’t give up. You had a bad show. You didn’t get a callback. The audience didn’t show up. You stopped having fun. You have to change something up and push through those moments. There is joy on the other side. You can always take a break. And if that break is more enjoyable than improv, maybe your ride is done. But never shut that door entirely. You may find yourself drawn to it again.
3. Be nice and keep in touch. This is a tight-knit community and we are all just two degrees of separation away from someone really important. Your next job (or even your spouse) could be waiting on the other end of an improv relationship you began years ago.
4. Prepare yourself to let go. Every project ends. Every project. When it’s time to go, bow and leave the stage with your head held high. The end of a team is not the end of your life.
5. Live in the moment. The best lesson improv can teach you is presence in the present. Whether you’re on stage or in a random life moment, take a minute to soak everything up. Slow your thoughts. Use your senses. Absorb what’s happening. Let that inform your next action. When the moment is gone, it’s never coming back. That is the beauty and the sadness of improv, and of life.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com