I’m in the midst of a breakthrough in my personal improv growth. I’ve realized that the absolute worst possible thing I can do is to care. I’ve spent most of my years in the artform caring so much about my performance, honoring my scene partner, and pleasing the audience and my coach. It’s handicapped me.
You can’t control any of that. It’s like standing in the ocean and trying to change the tide by swimming against it.
If you don’t care which direction you swim, the tide can help you.
In so many scenes, I’ve had arguments I wanted to win. Who cares? Will the audience go home and remember which improviser made better points in a fictional argument?
It’s paradoxical. You would think that taking great care would make you a better craftsman. John Belushi once said, “You attack a scene like a bull.” For years, I’ve tried to decide whether he meant that you should be the bull… or attack the scene the way a matador attacks a bull. I’m sure it’s the first one.
I don’t mean that you should ever phone in a performance or deliberately try to upset the audience. I don’t mean that you should negate what your partner says. I don’t mean you should become a human roadblock. The basics still matter.
I mean when you start your scene, stop putting so much weight on the first thing you say. Never, in the history of improv, has the perfect opening line triggered a Domino chain of absolutely hysterical lines. Scenes make U-turns and turn on a dime. I started a scene last night by shouting, “Drinking birds! Drinking birds!” I intended to be a guy selling those plastic drinking birds. Instead, my scene partners turned me into the CEO of an unnamed company. When I was younger, I would have pouted and tried to explain myself. Last night, I just went with it. In this dumb world, “drinking birds” is some kind of insult toward employees. Nobody cares.
Often, the best moves in an improvised show come when someone justifies a mistake. But you can’t justify a mistake until you make one. So stop trying to avoid mistakes. Run through the minefield and pray for an explosion. It’s more fun to watch.
Oddly enough, I had this epiphany the same night I asked a stranger for her phone number for the first time in my life. I told myself the outcome didn’t matter. And I got the result I wanted. For roughly the last two decades, such things mattered a whole hell of a lot. This time, I just acted. I spit out the words and dealt with the aftermath. Getting a phone number doesn’t validate me as a person. Had I not gotten it, I would not have been invalidated.
Dating, bowling, flying a kite, folding origami, choosing a wine, getting a haircut and performing improv all say the same thing about you: Nothing. You can bowl 300 and be a wretched human. Or you can throw gutterballs and be the nicest person in the world. We place judgment on ourselves and on our work. A judgment or score does not assign actual value.
As an artist, it is your job to create art, not to judge it. We all judge it. But it’s not our job. I once knew a kid in middle school who’d written ten pages of a fictional story for an assignment. He looked at it with disappointment and ripped it in half. He started over. Maybe it was a masterpiece. Maybe it sucked. We’ll never know. The artist killed his baby before it was born. Placing judgment on yourself and your work does the same thing.
The more I improvise, the more I realize my hit-to-miss ratio is much better in rehearsals. I don’t care in rehearsals. I’m having fun. I’m with my friends. I’m playing. From now on, I endeavor to take that attitude to the stage and beyond. I’m content to swim wherever the tide takes me. And that means I’m always moving forward.
Watch this video of Jazz great Wynton Marsalis describing how Barry Sanders ran. That’s how you should improvise.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com